Ascend recently interviewed Jumana, an inspiring Palestinian artist known for her shop Watan Palestine. Jumana spoke of her experience in exile and how she views resistance and art.
How is your experience in the diaspora shaped by exile?
I’ll be honest, I’m still not quite sure how I approach this and don’t feel especially comfortable on saying things that I’ll very likely look back at and think “oh my god, I was so naive, magically idealistic, condescending in ignorance, etc.)."
How does exile and diaspora influence your art?
I think diaspora, for one, influences the entire main motive behind Watan and my art: that these pieces serve as a sort of totem (à la Inception) that reminds you of and connects you back to home, no matter where in the world you may be.
Do you view art as a form of resistance? Why or why not?
I’m still conflicted by this, I think. On one hand, art can definitely be an affirmation of existence, a preservation of culture, a form of resistance, and more; it can be used as a tool, like science and organizing can be for others. But on the other, art is something many of us can create because we are at a certain level of privilege. Here I reference the idea of Maslow’s "Hierarchy of Needs”, or the idea that humans have certain prerequisite needs they need to reach before they are “fulfilled” enough to reach higher levels of self-actualization. Simply, we need to be feel safe before we can be able to create and innovate.
So I suppose it comes down to context and intention, to put it generally.
On the about page on Watan, you say that your aim with creating this shop is to reconnect Palestinians with their culture, how do you go about this? What does that look like, exactly?
I wouldn’t say that Watan is a way of reconnecting Palestinians with their culture; that comes off as assuming they aren’t connected to begin with – but how can a person be entirely disconnected with a culture? Instead, Watan operates at a few levels: 1) it aims to create a visual archive of bits of Palestinian heritage (think an Instagram-version of Wikipedia), 2) it encourages individuals to go beyond the surface of images and icons and really research on their own history, and 3) compiles resources for something easily accessible (both on and offline). From what I’ve seen, just presuming to “reconnect Palestinians with their culture” in the scope of a shop tends to be manipulative (i.e. “buy our [insert item] because it’s in honor of Mahmoud Darwish!”) and I want to do my best to ensure Watan stays far away from becoming anything like that.
Watan means homeland in Arabic, do you consider Palestine home? If so, how does that shape your experience in the diaspora?
When I think of home, I inevitably think of “community”. For me, to say that Palestine is home automatically subsumes everyone I’m lucky enough to count as part of my community. Do I dream that one day I can go back and live in Palestine? Of course! It’s a beautiful place (and I dream of building a public library surrounded by olive and orange trees in Akka) and a place I plan to one day live in inshallah. But when I dream of that day, I always envision my friends and family living around me as well.
What is your al-Nakba story?
My grandparents on both sides of my family were born in Palestine. My mother’s side came from Yaffa. My grandfather’s family left Palestine for economic reasons and moved to Kuwait; he later came back to Palestine, married my grandmother, and went back to Kuwait. As consequence, my mother was born in Kuwait and later moved to Jordan in 8th grade. My father’s side lived in Barkusia in Al-Khalil when the Nakba happened (though my family is originally from the main city in Al-Khalil). My grandfather fled on July 9th, 1948, which was the first day of Ramadan that year, if I remember correctly. When they fled, they couldn’t take anything with them so my grandfather actually ended up starving to the point of temporary blindness. It wasn’t until my great-grandfather got his hands on a bit of animal fat a few days later that my grandfather got his sight back. Both sides of my family still live in Jordan.
Does Watan seek to preserve Palestinian culture through art or is it also a new form of expression for a new generation of diasporic Palestinians?
Why not both? :) Watan is definitely interested in archiving Palestinian history in our own way. So, in a sense, we’re hoping to preserve Palestinian heritage in a kind of online catalog. At the same time, it’s done so with an intention of serving the diaspora. But for us to really get to that point, we have to get through a lot of old first. Imagine a paper you have to write. You can’t possibly get to the new, your arguments, without going through the old, yes? You can’t possibly synthesize a vision of the new without knowing the old.
Tell us about your library project. (What it is and the purpose)
So we just opened our first studio storefront a couple weeks ago (finally!). We aim to use this space as a studio space for our work, a storefront for people to be able to visit and buy things in person, and as a community space to hold events, workshops and more. In essence, what we’re trying to explore is the possibility of building a Palestinian institution here in the Chicagoland area. Though this community here is the second-largest community of Palestinians in the US, there really isn’t much in the way of Palestinian/Arab institutions here (though this isn’t to detract from the wonderful work already happening, of course)! The library, then, is a part of the effort to build something for the community. The idea for the library actually came from SJP UCLA and their Alex Odeh library! Watan’s library, the Palestinian Women’s Library, aims to collect any and all books on Palestine. I hope one day that it numbers in the thousands of books; we can dream, right? This library is free to the public and builds on our hope to create something permanent for our community.
What is your favorite piece from the collection and why?
Oh gosh, this is always so hard to answer. I think, at the moment, it has to be either the Qabbeh tatreez crewneck sweatshirt or our Kuffiyeh phonecases. Suffice to say, I’ve always got a bit of Watan on me at all times.
I loved these questions and they’ve definitely been taking me some time to grapple with and continue to grapple with.