JTF (just the facts): A total of 130 black and white photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against light grey walls in the two room gallery space. All of the works from the Independence|Nakba project are pigment prints, made in 2013/2016. Each image is sized roughly 11×9 and is available in an edition of 7+1AP, plus 2 full sets of the entire project reserved for museums.
5 additional black and white works are on view in the side viewing room. These works are pigment prints mounted to board, made in 2012/2016. The prints from the Memory Trace project are sized either roughly 36×28 or 20×19, and are also available in editions of 7+1AP. A larger selection of works from this series is on view at the Storefront for Art and Architecture (here).
A monograph of this body of work, entitled Erasure, and encompassing three separate series, was published in 2015 by Steidl (here). Two newspaper publications accompany the exhibits and are free.
(Installation shots below, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery.)
Comments/Context: Fazal Sheikh’s newest works are a broad-based, multi-layered investigation of the forces and consequences of displacement and dispossession. Using the 1948 Arab-Israeli War as his historical starting point, he has built up a series of interrelated photographic projects that interrogate the deliberate erasure of memory, documenting destroyed Arab villages, crumbling ruins, forgotten landscapes, and systematic aerial evidence of encroachment on Bedouin homesteads, trying to piece together what remains. His images resonate with silence and elemental grace, his vistas of broken rubble and vanished history seeming to echo in the empty wind.
This gallery show focuses on a single part of Sheikh’s larger project, using portraiture to think about the people on both sides of the conflict. The title of the series, Independence|Nakba, is an embodiment of the duality that exists – for the victorious Israelis, the end of the war meant the reconfiguring of borders and the establishment of the State of Israel, and for the defeated Palestinians, it meant the expulsion/evacuation of some 700000 refugees to neighboring countries, and a traumatic social catastrophe that is still unresolved. Using these two names, both groups continue to wrestle with the violence of history, finding devastation and mourning in equal measure, divided against each other but bound together by the geographic circumstances, with the political narrative and its evidence seemingly always in flux.
Sheikh’s headshots are a meticulously organized meta-portrait of the situation. For each year since 1948 (a total of 65 years as of 2013), Sheikh has found a pair of sitters born in that year, one from Israel and one from Palestine. His subjects are men and women, toddlers and elders, liberals and conservatives, the rich and the poor, the innocent and the experienced, in short, a vibrant cross section of real people, each looking into the camera with the knowing eyes of those raised amid constant conflict. There is rich history to be found in every single penetrating face, and plenty of parallels and echoes jump across the divide. Sheikh’s portraits center on their eyes with consistently exacting precision, tactile intensity seething from virtually every subject.
The exhibit opens with a large slice of wall as its buttressing announcement, and the portraits are double hung in two parallel lines, as if separated by that very same physical divider. With these aesthetic reminders, we can’t help but see the durable divisions across generations and peoples, but the larger universal humanity of the whole group is equally resonant – steely hardness and weary resolve are visible on both sides. The extending horizontal of time emphasizes how the conflict continues to influence those now two full generations removed from the original events – the ongoing separation making the divisions that much more intractable.
At a time when political candidate Donald Trump has boldly advocated building a wall between the United States and Mexico, the long standing implications of Sheikh’s work are even more resonant – we can see first hand the subtle societal consequences of such acts. We see in these eyes from the Arab-Israeli conflict suspicion not tolerance, distance not cohesion and cooperation, learned distrust rather than openness and engagement, a broken situation where no one wins, deeply rooted in the soil of generations. Sheikh’s portraits have the power to create active dialogue and common empathy around these human issues – in both the affected region and in those places nearer to home that threaten to walk down similarly divisive paths.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The prints from the Independence|Nakba series are priced at $4000 each or $7000 per matched diptych. The entire set of 130 prints is POR. The prints from the Memory Trace series in the side room are priced at $6000 or $8000 based on size. Very few examples of Sheikh’s work have reached the secondary markets in recent years, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.