By Terry Pitt-Brooke and Elizabeth Labiner
Most graduate students beginning their work at the University of Arizona haven’t already established their credentials and credibility as a scholar, researcher, or artist. Not Khaled Jarrar. With internationally acclaimed art projects stretching back a decade, Jarrar is already an established, lauded, and highly visible artist. That visibility is due in large part to his commitment to using art to question authority and the status quo. In his native Palestine, he chipped off pieces of the Israeli separation wall and refashioned them into everyday objects. When in Europe, he stamped people’s passports with a “State of Palestine” seal, thus allowing his willing volunteers to experience a small portion of the hassles faced by Palestinians trying to travel outside the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Jarrar explains, “So with this I was again questioning state power and who decides that this is an official stamp and that is a fake stamp. Who creates these boundaries between nations and people?”
In January 2016, during a residency with an independent artists’ organization called CultuRunners, Jarrar tore a piece from the border wall in Juarez and, in collaboration with students at the State University of New Mexico, refashioned it into a ladder, which was installed within sight of the border wall. The project is documented in the film Khaled’s Ladder (to see the film, click here). To Jarrar, the parallel between the US-Mexico border wall and the separation wall in Palestine is evident. “Differences are the languages only,” he writes, “and the rest are the similarities between the two walls here and there” (LA Times 6 Apr. 2016).
In addition to his focus on global themes, Jarrar is very interested in interacting with local communities while he is in America:
During my stay here, I would like to do some work on the diversity of Americans. I will start collecting photos and materials from successful people in American society who have different ethnicities and backgrounds. I will collect these stories and try to make a clothesline of the project, hopefully [to display] in front of the White House, to show that America was built by diversity, and without diversity America would not be the great country it is.
Born in 1976 in Jenin, Khaled Jarrar was, for a time, a member of the Palestinian Presidential Guard. After being shot in the 2002 raid on Yasser Arafat’s headquarters, Jarrar spent his convalescence re-evaluating his future. When he acquired a camera to replace one that was seized in the raid, he was set on the road to a career in art; much of his work has been in photography and film, which he has used in elaborate installations and events. His work first attracted international attention in 2007 when he staged his At the Checkpoint exhibition of photographs of Palestinians crossing the checkpoint on the fence of the Israeli checkpoint itself. This decision, Jarrar says, drew more attention and fostered more critical engagement with the issues illustrated therein.
Training first in Interior Design, he graduated from the International Academy of Art Palestine in 2011 with a Bachelor of Visual Arts. The next year, his documentary The Infiltrators was shown at the Dubai International Film Festival, cementing his status as an emerging figure in global cinema.
This past summer, Jarrar was a speaker at the British Museum’s Survival of the Artist event, a one day symposium of talks and performance which asked how art and artists in the Arab world can survive and respond in times of conflict and censorship. This event resonated strongly with Jarrar, as his work engages with refugees and his own “inherited trauma of displacement” in his family’s past. During a recent project, Jarrar traveled with refugees for thirty-two days. Even though his grandmother was displaced, however, he recognized that among current refugees he had a special privilege: an exit. Unlike the individuals with whom he traveled, Jarrar explains, he could walk back out of the refugee life and go home.
Home, for now, is Tucson. How did Jarrar decide to attend the University of Arizona?
I wanted to go outside Palestine, meet new people, do more experiments outside Palestine. [...] I thought that this was my chance because here I would have a studio, a space to think, to read, to write, to take scope of where I go next, because now everything is looking bigger and bigger.
When asked about being a University Fellow, Jarrar speaks of his childhood in the first Intifada. Schools were closed more often than not, and even with classes held informally in homes, he considers his basic education to be very incomplete. The University of Arizona, however, is helping mend that gap. “In a way, the Fellows program is making up for those lost years of school.”
Jarrar’s current projects are closely entwined with the university campus and its community. One project focuses on the olive trees -- or, more specifically, their oft neglected fruit -- around campus. Walking past the olives on the ground upset Jarrar; he decided to counteract the waste by harvesting the olives and curing them according to a family recipe handed down to him by his mother. The history of the olive trees here in Tucson combines with Jarrar’s history in a new form of creative energy. “This is edible art,” Jarrar explains, adding that he sells the cured olives in order to raise money for refugees here in Tucson.
Another work in progress focuses on gun laws. While the end goal is an event in which Jarrar will shoot paint-filled glasses in order to spatter paint on a canvas, he says that the real project is the process. While he likes the idea of using the gun as a paintbrush, the act of obtaining the gun is equally important to Jarrar’s work. “There are so many loopholes,” he says, “and no tests for safety or skill. I want people to think about that -- to think about the laws and rules for purchasing a gun.”
As we look forward to his art installation, Jarrar certainly has us thinking.