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Visual Arts, and Images of Nationhood, Legacy, and Memory

Session XI-18, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Art/Art History
  • This paper considers the work of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to strategically plant forests over the ruins of Palestinian villages to cover over the traces of prior Palestinian inhabitation, and to hold and control land for exclusive Jewish use. The JNF is best known for its campaigns to rehabilitate “degraded” forests and plant new ones, and has planted over 250 million trees since its founding. While its stated goals are ecological, the JNF’s deeper motivations are cultural and colonial. Planting trees is “practically a Zionist commandment,” said Jay Shofet, of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. In the Israeli national narrative, the arid land of Palestine is imagined as a “dead area” which became a wasteland when Jews were exiled and now must be “revived.” The subtext of this narrative is that Palestinians lack the skill and technology to properly cultivate the land, and form the ecological basis for an ethnonationalist state. More than merely cultural, the planting of trees has become a strategy for expropriating and holding land for exclusive Jewish use. Prior to the declaration of Israeli statehood, the leaders of JNF saw afforestation as “a biological declaration of Jewish sovereignty” that could be used to set up “geopolitical facts.” The driving force behind that effort was Yosef Weitz, who led the forestry department for nearly half a century. Not coincidentally, he was also the originator of Israel’s Transfer Committee, which in 2948 expelled Palestinians from newly occupied land and prevented their return. This paper interrogates the JNF’s afforestation project, as seen through a visual studies-based analysis of its archive of over 50,000 images, to lay out an argument that afforestation has become a means towards an ethnonationalist project of colonization and control by the State of Israel. The paper details the author’s digital humanities project to scrape the 50,000 photographs from the JNF’s website and re-categorize images using machine learning recognition algorithms for image classification, which allows images to be tagged by their content using computer vision algorithms. In this way, the images can be searched via their visual basis instead of through their captions (which are described via a linguistic framework of Zionism). An image-based analysis of the JNF’s afforestation campaign is analyzed and presented in this paper to exhibit how not only trees--but indeed the images of tree plantings -- are used as tools of colonization and control in Israel-Palestine.
  • Towards the end of the 19th century, the political climate in Iran began to change significantly, which ultimately led to the Constitutional Revolution in 1907. The events surrounding this momentous shift were recorded in photographs extensively, showcasing the importance of the camera in social and political movements. For many Iranians, the call for political and social change meant combining forces among sectors of society which had previously been kept separate, including the modern bourgeoise middle class, powerful merchants, clerics, artisans, and workers of lower classes. Photographic portraits of the leaders of the revolution, which were circulated throughout Iran have now become iconic images of resistance and national pride. Such images are some of the first in which the idea of nation is expanded to those beyond the Nasseri court and the royal household and can be investigated as an important source of nationalism within the larger population. I propose to explore the circulation of the images of the Constitutional Revolution leaders and their impact on promoting revolutionary and nationalistic values in this paper. Scholarship on the role of photographs within the movement is relatively slim. The reception of these photographs within Iranian society and the fervor with which the images were promoted and distributed among the public will serve as the context for an exploration into how such images became icons of nationhood, encouraging many people to visit commercial studios to have their pictures taken in soldier uniforms. What prompted this emulation of revolutionaries, and what was the role of photographs in moving the political movement forward?
  • Reconstructing Van Leo’s life a posteriori to answer the question of who he was might sound like a formidable task. However, his work, especially that of his early days, is indeed worth rethinking. Cairo was Van Leo’s home and is the natural location for a vast collection of his portraits of mid-twentieth-century cosmopolitan Cairene society. In 1998 Van Leo had donated to AUC’s Rare Books and Special Collections Library the negatives and prints from his studio's archives produced between 1941 to 1998, his work tools, photographic equipment, and library as well as his personal photographs and correspondence between members of his family. Although these photographs have been viewed as a bit too narcissistic, they are nevertheless iconic images, initially inspired by Hollywood’s style of photography. Van Leo depicted a section of Cairo’s cosmopolitan society, photographing an abundance of personalities from the entertainment world, from fashion models to authors and Egyptian celebrities of the so-called Golden Age of Egyptian cinema, between the 1940s and the 1960s. In the three-volume book " Becoming Van Leo" (2021) by Karl Bassil in collaboration with Negar Azimi, both members of the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut, we see, for example, the portrait of a young Omar Sharif first photographed by Van Leo in 1950. We also see a picture of Farid Al-Atrash, the composer, singer, and actor of Syrian origin, whose portrait is a rare case in which Van Leo placed his signature in Arabic. Several of his self-portraits are surrealist-tinged. The essays and images featured in the catalog of the exhibition " Van-Leo: The Reluctant Surrealist" curated by Ola Seif and Salah Hassan, and hosted in 2018 at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, question the artist’s connection to the Egyptian Surrealist movement, “Art et Liberté'' group (active from 1938 to 1948), which was affiliated with the international movement. The World War II had just begun. Van Leo elaborated some of the aesthetic positions characteristic of his grotesque photomontages and complex studio sets which display a superb use of light: particularly the self-portraits realized in the 1940s, which echo Man Ray and Maurice Tabard.
  • One of several popular televised entertainment programs in the Arab world over the last two decades, Arab Idol is an offshoot of the global Idols franchise that launched in the early 2000s. Conceived as a regional program, the pan-Arab offshoot was the first of the Idols franchise to involve contestants from across a range of countries. What first distinguished Arab Idol from its global counterparts was a unity around a socio-linguistic and regional Arab--rather than a national—identity. Judges and the program’s emcees make ample references to kull al-‘alam al-‘arabi (the entire Arab world) or al-watan al-‘arabi (the Arab homeland). At the same time, the show has the task of representing an immense diversity across this region of North Africa and the Arabic-speaking Middle East. In this paper, I explore some of the ways that the performances by contestants on live episodes of Arab Idol, coupled with the surrounding on-stage banter by judges and em-cees, also hailing from a range of Arab countries, serve to define the frame of an “Arab” Idol within a transnational cultural and political context. I examine how this revolving, transnational cast of actors constructs Arabness on Arab Idol, whether by performing musical styles or numbers representing specific nation-states, regions, or even particular cities throughout the Arab world, or through the recirculation of popular songs of a canonical pan-Arab stature.