Artists Unite: Demanding an end to Gaza genocide and a legacy of creative activism

Artists in Australia have signed an open letter calling for an immediate stop to Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

The Western media and political leadership have framed the current war against Palestinians as a response to a terrorist attack. This simplified framing is decontextualised from 75 years of Israeli apartheid and undermines the impact of the 16-year siege of Gaza. It makes invisible the settler-colonial practices of dispossession across all of Palestine since 1948. Such tactics dehumanise the Palestinian people and allow a desensitised reception of genocide in the making. 

In response to these atrocities, artists in Australia have signed an open letter calling for an immediate stop to the genocide in Gaza. First published in Overland, the letter represents a diverse cohort of more than 1,000 signatories. NAVA is republishing the letter following this article. The letter reflects international actions at this time. Artists worldwide expressed parallel sentiments, signing an open letter in the US-based magazine Artforum. 

Palestinians and their allies are all too familiar with the systemic manipulation of facts, characteristic of settler-colonial encounters between the coloniser and the colonised. When the Al-Ahli Baptist hospital in Gaza was bombed on 17 October 2023, resulting in 500 deaths, the Israeli military rushed to frame the attack as enacted by Hamas, and later an Islamic-jihadist group. Analysis of the blast has cast that narrative into serious doubt. Indeed, the Israeli military has a history of denying its war crimes and murderous acts. For example, last year  journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh was killed while covering an Israeli raid on the refugee camp in Jenin. In 2022, the UK-based Forensic Architecture organisation analysed footages before and after her killing. The footage showed evidence of the intended shooting by an Israeli soldier.[1] The role of artists in investigating claims is not to be underestimated. In the video Rubber Coated Steel (2016), Palestinian artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan analyses the acoustics in the shooting of two Palestinians in the Westbank in 2014. By visualising sound frequencies, Abu Hamdan’s work shows that “the (Israeli) soldiers tried to disguise the fatal shots to sound like rubber bullets.” Today with the proliferation of fake news, our role is to amplify the voices of artists that interrogate settler state propaganda. 

These state tactics are familiar to First Nations peoples who continue to resist institutional violence and systemic racism in this country. This letter comes just a week after a 16-year-old First Nations boy died in custody at Casuarina Prison in Western Australia and a week after the disappointing “No” result to the referendum for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament. Many artists have been loudly supportive of First Nations people's recognition. The Palestinian and First Nations resistance movements have a history of solidarity. One recent culmination of this shared struggle was the 2019 Black-Palestinian Solidarity Conference, organised by the inimitable Gumbaynggirr activist Gary Foley and Suzannah Henty.[2] The conference’s success hinged upon including not only political analysts and critical theorists but also creative writers and artists from Aboriginal and Palestinian backgrounds like Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee and the Karrabing Collective, as well as Shatha Safi from Riwaq, Sary Zananiri and Adania Shibli. 

Censoring Palestinian voices to accommodate Israeli propaganda is on the rise. Adania Shibli’s novel Minor Detail set around the Nakba received the German LiBeraturpreis 2023. Due to the events in Gaza, LitProm cancelled the award ceremony which prompted more than 350 writers to sign a letter to the organiser against silencing Palestinian voices. In 2022, the Indonesian collective ruangrupa was invited to curate the quinquennial international exhibition Documenta 15. ruangrupa were the second-ever Global South curators and the first ever collective to direct the exhibition. Their vision, “to explore how artists might advance collective liberation,” was deemed controversial. Even a forum facilitated by ruangrupa to address accusations of anti-semitism was suspended; though they rigorously rejected the accusation.[3] In a review of Documenta 15, Nadine Khalil concludes of this scandal, “South and West Asian art practices, and bodies, can be romanticised and policed when placed in different contexts: welcomed, to an extent, but not on their own terms.” 

Across the 1948 and Occupied Palestinian territories, bodies, plants and animals are policed and controlled by Israel. With the continued annexation and building of Israeli settlements, illegal at international law, the Palestinian territories are increasingly fragmented.[4] For 16 years Gaza has been under siege, and for more than a decade has been rightly described as the world’s largest open-air prison. Inside Israel, there are more than 65 laws discriminating against Arab citizens. In a lyrical documentary, Foragers (2022), Palestinian artist Jumana Manna portrays how Israeli law polices and prosecutes Palestinians from foraging herbs on ostensibly common lands. Through playful narrative, the film shows Palestinians' resistance to being alienated from their land, their agricultural/ culinary practices, and their memories. 

Memory is fragile and yet its weight is heavy. Shattered bodies or glass haunts many Palestinian artists’ practice. Mona Hatoum creates a map of the world from 3,300 pounds of clear glass marbles (2015). Walking close to the map destabilises and disorients the viewer, beyond the constructed borders of nation-states. In contrast, the iconoclasm of Larissa Sansour’s gigantic black marble in her installation Heirloom at the Venice Biennale (2019) and her sci-fi film In-Vitro, explore the themes of nostalgia in a futuristic narrative, emphasising the burden of loss and the loss of childhood. In Kalares’ Mill (2013-2014), Sary Zananiri’s glass mouldings cast from the “palimpsest of bullets that did not find their target”, but rather lodged in the walls of an abandoned mill during the First Intifada, offer “a corporeal meaning to the abstraction of firepower”. In one image of this work (pictured), Zananiri cradles his own glass casting, “a physical rejoinder to negation”.[5]

From the #Rhodesmusfall campaign to the destruction of Confederate monuments following George Floyds’ murder, protests calling for the falls of monuments linked to settler colonies and persistent colonial discriminatory structures have occupied the news. Since Black Lives Matter, the conversation around Palestine has gained momentum as activists have pointed to the contradictions in supporting First Nations people without supporting Palestinians.[6] Though a tempered comfort to a population currently under brutal attack, Palestinians have many friends to count on in the artist community here and around the world. 

[1] Forensic Architecture is an organisation founded by Eyal Weizman,a professor of spatial and visual cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. Their mission is to use architectural tools and digital imagery to analyse contested spaces.

[2] Foley recounts that this solidarity started when he met Ali Kazak in 1970, a Palestinian activist. They both shared their activism against settler nation-states. Ali Kazak curated the first Palestinian exhibition at RMIT in 1981. Gary Foley and Suzannah Henty, 'Black-Palestinian Solidarity conference: Contesting settler nationalisms', Radical Philosophy 207, Spring 2020, pp. 126–129.

[3] Read ruangrupa, “Anti-Semitism Accusations against documenta: A Scandal about a Rumor”, e-flux Notes, May 2022.

[4] See this website which documents Apartheid practice by Israel

[5] Micaela Sahhar, “From Palestine to Country: transcultural exchange beyond the settler-colony”, Artlink 42(3), 2022.

[6] Micaela Sahhar, “How Black Lives Matter is changing the conversation on Palestine”, The Conversation, May 31, 2021.

Image credit

Sary Zananiri, Kalares' Mill, 2013-2014. Photo: Kerry Leonard.

ID: A photo of an open hand cradling a glass casting of a bullet hole from a wall. 

Artists Unite: Demanding an end to Gaza genocide and a legacy of creative activism