x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Graphic depictions

Oreet Ashery and Larissa Sansour offer a playful take on current affairs in their -comic-book novel set in the occupied -Palestinian territories.

The occupation of the Palestinian territories is one of the most widely covered and emotive issues in the global news media. What then can artists offer to an already saturated landscape of commentary and imagery?

Inspired by Joe Sacco, the American graphic novelist, Oreet Ashery and Larissa Sansour - who are Israeli and Palestinian, respectively - have produced a comic book entitled The Novel of Nonel and Vovel that offers a playful take on the matter.

Its plot involves Ashery and Sansour, who is best known for A Space Exodus, the 2009 film in which she starred as the first Palestinian to land on the Moon, taking on the guises of two superheroes who eventually save Palestine.

The story, which also references the illustrative style of Marvel and DC Comics, has the female protagonists beating up Israeli Defence Force soldiers and kicking down the West Bank wall.

The pair developed the project over a three-year period and the final product is intended to satirise the media, academics and official Zionist spokesmen.

At present, Ashery and Sansour are bringing another of their collaborative projects to Istanbul's DEPO Cultural Centre. A series of talks and lectures discussing the co-option of Palestinian culture by Israel, Falafel Road has already been held in Middle Eastern restaurants across London. The main focus of the event is on the widespread attempt to claim falafel as an Israeli national dish.

Despite being able to draw obvious comparisons with other contemporary cultural treatments of the Palestinian territories, Sansour and Ashery are keen to distance their own work from West Bank Story, Ari Sandel's 2005 Oscar-winning (Best Live Action Short Film) musical comedy, which follows two competing falafel stands - one owned by a Palestinian family, the other by a Jewish family - and the unlikely romance that develops between an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian cashier.

"We are not into the two-perspectives dialogue model [of story-telling] because this normalises the situation of the occupation," Ashery explains. "It makes it look like there are two equal perspectives to the conflict - that there are two equal stories - but in reality Israel is the militant occupier, so the perspective and stories cannot be seen as equal. We support a mode of united resistance to the occupation, [rather than] two perspectives."

During the novel's development period, Ashery said, she and Sansour formulated a generalised picture of the social hierarchy of Israel.

"If you were to draw a pyramid of Israeli society you would have white [Jewish] men at the top, Arab Jewish Israeli women somewhere towards the bottom, Palestinian women at the bottom, and foreign workers right at the bottom. A lot has been done in Jewish Israel to try to redress the balance... but the hierarchy remains [etched] in people's psyches."

Indeed, Ashery was dismayed to discover in her period of personal research that indigenous Arab Jews had been sprayed with the pesticide DDT during the first wave of Israeli settlement.

Ashery has also recently exhibited Semitic Score, a project involving two dancers improvising movements from Muslim and Jewish traditional performances. As the dancers perform, Ashery appears overhead on a projected screen as a character named Marcus Fisher.

Fisher, a caricature of an orthodox Jewish man, has been Ashery's most consistent alter-ego. The character represents part of Ashery's general concern with using roleplay to subvert race and gender issues. Ashery also believes that appearing as Fisher allows her to explore her roots.

"I wanted to see how this Semitic DNA manifests itself in the diaspora, in gesture and aesthetic. I believe we are influenced as artists by the smells and landscapes we were exposed to in our childhood."

For another future project she has been examining the military training routines of Hamas and intends to appropriate one of their military drills to use as the basis of a dance-routine.

She is developing a new character based on the controversial 17th-century false messiah Shabbtai Zvi, who converted from Judaism to Islam. She is also investigating Sarmad, the Sufi Saint - a Jew who later converted to Islam, and was then beheaded for writing heretical poetry and the sin of apostasy - and Maimonides, a Jewish scholar and doctor who wrote his most famous work, The Guide for the Perplexed, in Arabic.

"I have been interested in the story of Arab Jews for a long time," Ashery explains. "My dad's family lived for generations in the old city in the Muslim quarter, they had a shoe shop. My dad speaks Arabic and his mum nearly married a Palestinian neighbour.

"I feel that Arabs or Muslims are the new Jews. While Jews suffered hatred for centuries, Muslims are now much of the focus of this hatred and xenophobia."

Hamja Ahsan is  an artist and curator based in London. He directs the Other Asias collective.