Guided missiles raining down on a distant cityscape. Armed men in face masks shouting slogans and waving green flags. Anguished mothers gesturing to the remains of their dead children. These are the kind of images Westerners tend to associate with Gaza, a twenty-five-mile-long territory on the Levantine coast whose 1.8 million denizens endure dire economic hardship and a simmering military conflict with Israel that boils over with almost yearly regularity. In Rosalind Nashashibi’s eighteen-minute video Electrical Gaza (2015), which was commissioned and originally exhibited by the UK’s Imperial War Museums and served as the centerpiece of her recent show at Murray Guy, the English-born, half-Palestinian artist seems intent on contesting dominant representations of the region.
Scenes of a man and his two friends casually drifting into song as they relax together in the intimate confines of a living room and of a group of boys washing horses in the frothy Mediterranean waves provide a sense of the rhythms of everyday life in Gaza that is rarely gleaned from news reports. Although the quiet symphony of simple pleasures and mundanities is several times disrupted by harsher notes—a border-crossing gate forcefully slamming shut, or the sudden appearance of a group of Palestinian youths marching to the orders of a Hamas drill sergeant—these do not define the fragmentary work so much as suffuse it with an underlying sense of unease. Through interior shots of women caring for children and panoramas of a city that looks like it could almost double for Beirut, if not Haifa, our attention is drawn away from reductive narratives of catastrophe and trauma and toward the frustrations, boredom, fatigue, and enjoyment that characterize what literary and cultural theorist Lauren Berlant refers to as the “crisis ordinary.”
At the same time, Nashashibi remains acutely aware of the difficulties involved in any attempt to penetrate the experiences of her subjects. A series of animation sequences modeled on the video’s unsensational live footage remind us that cinema verité is itself a fiction, that the camera is always a filter, its field of vision fraught with lacunae. That much of the footage we see throughout was captured from the interior of taxicabs navigating Gaza’s narrow back alleys and labyrinthine streets seems to further emphasize the incompleteness of the vision presented. When, over the work’s concluding montage, we hear a singer performing Benjamin Britten’s Illuminations proclaim, “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” (“I alone hold the key to this savage parade”), the affirmation of artistic mastery that the English composer apparently found in this line from Rimbaud is inflected with poignant irony.
Also on view at Murray Guy was a series of paintings (some oil, some gouache) of predominantly abstract forms that occasionally tend toward the figurative. Although the works’ relationship to Nashashibi’s portrayal of Gaza is far from self-evident, their lush colors serve as a suitable aesthetic complement, and certain titles imbue the compositions with a sense of peril that is also present in the video. In Officer No (2016), a dark body looms threateningly against a background of vibrant red. In Love and Violence (2016), two elongated shapes in a sea of violet resemble a pair of swimmers or knives. The work suggests a synchronicity between extremes of human experience—one that must be all the more palpable for those whose daily cadences are disrupted by besieging powers.