The Ethical Reclaimation of Zionist Propaganda with Palestinian Artist, Aya Ghanameh
Panoramic’s Maddie talks with Aya Ghanameh, the young Palestininan artist behind the artwork Reclamation (2021), to discuss the process of reclaiming Zionist propaganda.
In 1936, the Tourist Development Association of Palestine commissioned the iconic Visit Palestine poster to encourage Jewish immigration. The artist, Franz Kruasz, having fled Germany for Palestine in the wake of the rise of Hitler, designed graphics for Zionist organisations in Palestine throughout the 1930s, and continued this work in the state of Israel from 1948 onwards.
In 2021, Aya Ghanameh produces Visit Israel. The trunk of the olive tree is now in the desperate embrace of an elderly Palestinian woman. The Dome of the Rock - the Islamic shrine clearly visible among the buildings of Jerusalem in the original poster - is replaced with the West Bank wall and a watchtower which separate Palestinians from Israelis. Gone is the soft glow and red soil, now there is a muted transparency. Red text reads: “You could not see out the window, not even across the street. When the war planes came the shelling and bombing did not stop until they took everything from us. It was a one-sided war, we always had nothing. We tried to run. We barely even made it out of the neighbourhood, not being able to see a thing, before we had to run back to the house in fear. The sounds of the bombs were deafening.”
Where Zionist slogans have misrepresented the Palestinian experience, Aya holds her family’s truth up to it as a looking glass and finds it lacking.
“The text is from my grandmother, who was ethnically cleansed from her home village and to this day cannot visit,” Aya explains. “In this piece, I decided to follow a decades-long Palestinian tradition and appropriate Zionist propaganda to reflect its material consequences for my family’s lives and the Palestinian experience.” This tradition of artistic reappropriation is a rich one; in fact Aya is not the first to re-interpret the Visit Palestine poster. In 1995, the Israeli artist, David Tartakover, known for his opposition to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza by the Israeli state, obtained permission to reprint the poster. For Tartakover, it was a gesture of hope for a future of coexistence following the signature by the Israeli state and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation of the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1995 respectively. As these peace talks rapidly disintegrated, however, and the countdown began for the 2000 Palestinian uprising against Israel, the Visit Palestine poster began to appear in Palestinian Authority offices, homes, and souvenir shops. It quickly took on a new purpose, as a symbol of resisitance and a proclamation of Palestinian existance, countering Israel’s rejection of this. As Amer Shomali, one of many artists who has reworked this particular piece of propaganda, says: “The Palestinians, in effect, are taking advantage of the ironies embodied in the provenance of Visit Palestine to thumb their noses at the Israeli government that for decades claimed there had never been such a place.”
Aya’s second poster employs the same irony to resist, playing on the Zionist belief “used to justify ethnic cleansing, that Palestine was empty prior to Zionist settlement and needed to be cultivated. Everything outside of Europe at the time was not seen as literally empty, but as empty of civilization, empty of nations that colonists deemed worthy of being nations.” This can be best encapsulated in the slogan: “A land without people for a people without a land” which entered popular usage among Jewish Zionists in the early 20th Century. In symphony with this ringing slogan, the original propaganda poster which Aya appropriates, titled The Rebirth of Our Land Through Hebrew Labour, was published in 1917 in Russia, promoting Jewish settlement in an expectant Palestine.
But Aya knows this land was not empty. The remains of her mother’s village, Miska, depopulated and destroyed by a socialist underground Jewish militia in 1948, replace the people in the first image. The text, stark against a sky of absent-blue, reads: “My parents, along with Miska’s other inhabitants, were forcibly expelled on the order of the Haganah, the primary Zionist force prior to the establishment of the state of Israel. The village, with the exception of an elementary school and a mosque, was destroyed. Today it’s covered with citrus groves, past the apartheid wall. We’ll never be allowed to return.”
In the appropriation of propaganda - a medium which, by definition, must twist or slant reality to promote a position - Aya finds truth: “Art-making is a form of truth-telling, and telling our truth is revolutionary.” Where propaganda intends to impart information to alter values, Aya wishes to provoke a reflexive ethical response to human suffering at unjust hands. Where Zionist slogans have misrepresented the Palestinian experience, Aya holds her family’s truth up to it as a looking glass and finds it lacking. The subversion of the propaganda’s intended cause is a denial of one set of values, and the demand of a more intimate - or ethical - alternative.
The third poster is the depiction of the last generation: Aya’s experience as the subject of Zionist propaganda. The original poster, titled MAKI - Map, is an illustrated map of Isreali territory published in 1969 by the Israeli Communist Party, one which leaves the West Bank empty and silent. Aya’s subversion employs the same illustrative style, filling in the gaps “to show the reality of settlements, checkpoints, the apartheid wall, and the restrictions on Palestinian freedom and movement.”
...Maki-map legitimises the process of prioritising the life of those mapped and visible to those who have never and still do not exist in the mind of the propagandised Zionist.
The text is raw and sharp, stretching down on another blank, clear base: “In 2006, a group of Israeli soldiers dressed in civilian clothing woke [my cousin’s immediate] family up in the middle of the night trying to break in. That night, my cousin was sleeping over at his uncle’s house. His father called him and asked him to bring help, thinking the Isreali soldiers were neighbourhood robbers and wanting to drive them off. [Wafa, my cousin] was a few feet away from his mother outside their house when a bullet pierced his lung from the back and came out the front. The soldiers at the checkpoint they needed to pass to get to the hospital did not let them through for a long time despite Wafa dying in the backseat, under the pretence that priority goes to Israeli patients. He died before reaching the emergency room.”
Aya’s recollection of her young cousin’s murder is a reminder that “the colonizer literally claims our bodies… This history of the violation of Palestinian bodies, both living and dead, has always made it clear to the Palestinians that we are not entitled to bodily integrity. We are also, by extension, not entitled to our own experiences.” Through the elimination of life within the West Bank, MAKI - map legitimises the process of prioritising the life of those mapped and visible to those who have never and still do not exist in the mind of the propagandized Zionist. By sharing her experience, Aya opposes the erasure of her identity through a process of reclamation.
At each stage of the process, Aya builds on a long history of Palestinian struggle. “The array of experimentation, diversity and creativity of Palestinian posters is bewildering. It has remained unprecedented in the Arab word, and remarkable on a worldwide scale,” the researcher and curator, Rashi Salti remarks. The earliest surviving posters made for Palestine come from the late nineteenth century, promoting Christian tourism or Zionism. However, the most prolific period came in the 1960s, with the emergence of liberation movements across the Palestian diaspora. The ease of dissemination, absence of a price, and lack of copyright all popularised the usage of poster art in resistance and allowed all sectors of society to participate. Consequently, artists’ work could be found everywhere - on building walls, in offices, and in refugee camps. Aya capitalises on this tradition of dissemination; with postage stamp sized originals at the base of her work, she encourages her audience to “take a piece of the mass-produced poster with them and see it differently after experiencing the first-hand accounts depicted in the acetate posters of the propaganda’s material consequences.”
She also builds on the ethics embedded in the history of Palestinian poster-making. Salti describes artists flocking to this movement in the 1960s because “the Palestinian revolution was perceived and experienced as a profoundly transformative project that sought to restore justice, dignity, equality and sovereignty in the Arab world.” When Aya demands a human response, this is the response she expects. One that does not primarily “debate the ethics of our resistance according to how they would affect our oppressors” but emphasises that “there is nothing ethical about the occupation.” This is about the reclamation of the deeply personal, an assertion of her existence in the face of generational pain. Yet her affinity for familiar symbols and slogans suggests she is acutely aware that her work responds to a long history, and voices a collective Palestinian past. By redrawing symbols and upending slogans, the intended effect of Zionist propaganda is redefined, and in doing so, Aya requests of her audience an evaluation of the Zionist cause and the values which legitimise it.