A Palestinian artist who pulled out of a local joint multimedia project with Israeli and American artists in 2014 is now featured in a new Mattress Factory exhibit which runs through 2017.
Mohammed Musallam, who lives in Gaza and is a lecturer at the College of Arts at Al Aqsa University, is currently showing an installation work called “The Great Illusion” at the gallery on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Musallam’s work is one of four new “Factory Installed” exhibits that opened late last month at the contemporary art museum.
“The Great Illusion” fills one room on the museum’s fourth floor with olive leaves and barbed wire ensnaring pages from Gazan passports. The installation, Musallam told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, shows the struggle of living in crowded Gaza, “a very small piece (of land), just a 360-kilometer square” where residents face many hardships, including traveling.
“The Oslo peace agreement is supposed to give us the freedom to travel, but the truth is completely different,” Musallam told The Tribune. “This passport is worth nothing and (does) not give us the most basic rights to travel just like any other human beings.”
Musallam explained the strict conditions of traveling from Gaza, including the requirement of registering for travel with the Interior Ministry of Hamas, and then having to wait a minimum of one year “because the crossing opens every three or four months for a few days only.”
In the label accompanying “Grand Illusions,” it is explained that, in his installation, Musallam “deals with the symbolist nature of his Palestinian passport to remind the world of the Palestinian people who are under siege and are still under occupation and calls upon the right of his people for an independent state that gives them the basic human rights of free mobility.”
Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and the terrorist organization Hamas has been in control of the territory since 2007. While Israel controls its borders with Gaza, the border with Egypt is controlled by Egypt.
Two years ago, Musallam was one of three Palestinian artists who had agreed to participate in a joint multimedia project with three Israelis and five Americans called “Sites of Passage: Borders, Walls & Citizenship,” scheduled to run at the Mattress Factory from June 1 to July 27, 2014, with a corresponding exhibit scheduled to run at Filmmakers Galleries in Oakland from June 6 to Aug. 1 of that year.
The show was canceled on May 29, 2014, after the Palestinian artists withdrew from participation, having been threatened and accused on an Arabic-language Facebook page of “normalizing relations with Israel,” Tavia La Follette, the curator of the exhibit, told The Chronicle at the time.
The Israeli artists withdrew from the project first in order to protect the Palestinian artists, La Follette said, but the Palestinian artists nevertheless withdrew the following day, and the Mattress Factory cancelled the exhibit.
The trigger for the threats against the Palestinian artist, said La Follete, was the use of the words “collaboration” and “dialogue” within the exhibition’s announcements on the websites of the Mattress Factory and Filmmakers Galleries. But those words were never approved by La Follette or the artists in the exhibition, she said.
“There’s language that was put up on the websites that are words used in the land of art all the time,” she said. “In the art world, ‘collaboration’ and ‘dialogue’ are used all the time. But ‘collaboration’ means something completely different politically. That’s where the problem started.”
Following the cancellation of the exhibition, both the Mattress Factory and Filmmakers posted an apology to “all Palestinians everywhere for the misunderstanding of this exhibition” on their websites.
No apology to the Israeli artists or to the American artists was posted.
Musallam was chosen to install his current Mattress Factory exhibit out of about 700 artists that applied for the artist residency program when the museum did a worldwide call for artists last year, according to Michael Olijnyk, co-director of the Mattress Factory.
Musallam’s work, Olijnyk said, is compelling to visitors to the museum because it is a reflection of life.
“We find that art is not about art, it’s about life,” Olijnyk wrote in an email. “To share a variety of experience and perspectives, we provide a voice to artists from around the world.”
Musallam did not respond to a request for comment from The Chronicle.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.