A conversation with Firas Shehadeh

We met Firas Shehadeh and ask him some questions about his work at La Capella. Soon we realised that it was not only about asking some questions to an artist, but about talking with a person on the search for his personal and political identity. His personal situation as a Palestinian refugee, his questions and attitude of resistance are at the core of his life and his work.

“Where are you from?” the project you present now at la Capella and also your position as an artist relates the political with the biographical. Do you think this can contribute to be more differentiated from the official/historical narration and also from the media narration?

I don’t consider myself an activist. I am trying to raise this question to understand it. I didn’t care about politics, but about the circumstances that me and the people like me are living as a refugee, as a Palestinian refugees. This means that we have to defend our existence, our living and make it in this confrontation with the power. During the Arabic spring I was trying to understand what does it mean, what is to be an activist. In the end, is a choice, you can be an activist or you can make a project about it for the University. In my case, I don’t have a choice. It is my life. The project “Where are you from”, explains my very deep feelings and the psychological war i am in, the situation I am living here. The project is an answer to that question, “where are you from?”. As a Palestinian refugee, living in camps, it follows me the whole life. We know our homeland, but it is pushed forward, so we live always in a temporary situation. It is a post-catastrophic situation that defines our identity. And I am not sure it will end with the liberation of Palestine. We are all the time waiting for the thing that is going to happen, but there is no progress and there is no way back. We just have one choice, Struggle. “The exploited man sees that his liberation implies the use of all means, and that of force first and foremost. The colonized man finds his freedom in and through violence. Violence enlightens, because it indicates to the means and the end. At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex. It makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” Frantz Fanon

When I was a kid, the answer to the question “where are you from?” was always naive, because I didn’t know I was a refugee. Now I can think what is to live in a ghetto, in Jordania. We had nationality for geopolitical aims and the collaboration between Jordan and the Colonial-settler state Israel. I could say “I come from Amman”. Once I am in Europe, the question comes again with more complexities. Here the question develops in regard to the place, to avoid the drama. It is harder to answer with the need to explain the whole situation.

 

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The fact that in the cub space in La Capella there is a sentence in Arabic makes that one part of the audience experiences the estrangement of a situation, the incapability of recognising some codes, of reading and knowing the meaning. I would like that you explain a little bit about this aspect of estrangement and displacement also in relation to other works by you. Do you think to experience this situation and the intensity (given by the sound, darkness  and also the instability) are a way to transmit these complex personal/political experiences?

The audience has this confrontation with the work and this is a way to open more possibilities, to feel the estrangement, physically. The situation I want to communicate is this temporality, this waiting for something that never happens. This situation is not normal. We are not talking about a normal work or an exhibition about something that doesn’t touch me. It is not about exchanging the normal information about an artwork but about me. I am not using the cub as a regular exhibition space. The cub shakes, is unstable, it becomes a part of the work itself. With my first solo show in Barcelona, I had the chance to say what I wanted to say in my mother tongue. I have the opportunity to explain what I am going through, to materialize it and to get a response.

The comments I received about the exhibition vary between racism and pity. I point at the reality, the brutality I am living. I came to Europe, hoping I could start a life here, but after one month you feel you don’t exist, your voice doesn’t count, especially because you don’t speak the language. I don’t want to be integrated but to be part of the community, but after a while you recognise that you are again out of the place.

To live waiting, hoping and then, nothing happens, then you are in a deeper depressive wave. When I meet refugees here, I don’t give them fake hope. I tell them what they can do: to confront or to obey. When you think about the land you left, it is a catastrophe, and then you have to try to live normally. I meet refugees here and we support each other psychologically, we talk the same language, we cook, we explain stories in order to keep the memory. This is a way to confirm that we exist.

Firas copia

Your work at la Capella is clearly performative in the sense that creates an intense experience for the spectator. In the work you are showing these days at the exhibition “Body Politics” at Angels Barcelona is you who delete your fingerprints. Which role plays performativity in your work?

The performativity comes from the need to prove the existence of my body, to materialize myself, and to which class i belong,  to win the time that the capitalist power tries to push us away, to turn us from humans to statues. I am trying to prove that I am someone who has a situation and tries to resist what the power denied all the time. In an interview with Golda Meir the Prime Minister of the colonial settler state of Israel, she said “There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”1 All the colonial powers do the same, they deny the very existence of the native people in order to legitimize discrimination, oppression and killing them.

In the work “Unidentified”, that I show at Angels Barcelona, I am here, doing the strategy like many refugees, deleting the fingerprints as a way to avoid technology, to avoid control. In another work I presented at the Academy of Fine Arts, I register my trip from Barcelona to Wien. I was smuggling because I have no passport, I only have a document that says “This Document is not valid for cross border”, so with my card I cannot go through the borders where there are officers controlling. I recorded my trip, avoiding the police operations. This knowledge, the ways to go through, came from other refugees that did that before and with the work I do, I contribute to spread this knowledge that can be useful to other people. It is funny because the constitution of the European Union assumes the free movement of people through Europe but this is not true. So I play this game with the power, I bring it to the ground, to a resistance and to show how is this struggle takes place in my daily life.

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1- Sunday Times (15 June 1969), also in The Washington Post (16 June 1969)

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