Exploring the Shades of Grey in Jaffa's Historical Identity

Temporary Jaffa exhibition features the striking work of Dor Guez, the Israeli-born descendent of both a Holocaust survivor as well as a prominent Palestinian Christian family; exhibit runs through end of November.

A small crowd gathered in an industrial warehouse in a quiet corner of the Jaffa port last week, to raise their plastic wine glasses to the Jewish New Year and in honor of Dor Guez, an up and coming artist whose newest exhibition, SABIR, is now open at the Jaffa branch of the Dvir Gallery.

The Jerusalem-born photographer and video artist has been turning heads both in Israel and abroad for his poignant and political work and its subtle criticism of contemporary Israeli society. His art grapples with the ways that labels, nationalities, and stereotypes obscure and oversimplify a social reality in an Israel that is far more nuanced.

It is the way in which Guez, 29, reveals these cracks in the fault lines of identity that makes his work particularly striking, and SABIR is his latest attempt to expose the shades of grey of a national historical narrative overwhelmingly seen in black and white.

In his art, Guez challenges not only Israel's identity, but his own as well. Born in Israel, Guez's paternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor while his mother hails a prominent Palestinian Christian family.

Guez exists at the crossroads of these divergent identities – Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, Christian, Arab – but he refuses to pigeonhole himself in any alone. “I do not renounce this or that identity, but merely state that I refuse to play the identity-tagging game, and worse – the identity- regime game of hierarchy,” Guez explained to Ha’aretz. “I will not be reduced to one category. Like many, I have parallel identities, their place varies with context.”

This question of context is ever-present in Guez’s new exhibition, and its location in Jaffa is no coincidence. SABIR is the first part in his ongoing project about the city, the second of which will be shown in December at Dvir Gallery’s Nahum street space.

Guez looks at Jaffa through personal narrative and testimony, and he uses SABIR to introduce the subject of his piece, Samira, a Palestinian Christian whose family once lived on Jaffa’s port edge, 200 meters from where the exhibition is on display.

In a mélange of her native Arabic and her later-acquired Hebrew, Samira speaks of her upbringing in pre-1948 Jaffa, and the departure of most of the city’s Christian population in the wake of the war and the creation of the Jewish state.

With nostalgia, Samira recounts her happy childhood in Jaffa, but when the narrative turns to the events of 1948, the viewer soon realizes that Samira’s sentimental reminiscence is more than that of old age: It is also one born from displacement.

When the war hit Jaffa, “we scattered,” Samira says. Friends left for Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and beyond, but Samira and most of her family remained. Expecting a temporary stay, they moved to Lod; her family has lived there ever since.

But who is Samira? Absent from the screen, she is invisible to the spectator: Samira is merely a voice. Guez records her narrative over a rolling video of sunset on Jaffa beach. Silhouettes of joggers, surfers, and dog-walkers dot the screen as Samira speaks, creating an unsettling juxtaposition between her Jaffa and, 63 years later, ours.

Guez’s game of masterful juxtaposition does not simply end once the 20-minute film screening is over. “Now, turn around," he told viewers at the opening on Tuesday. "Do you see the contrast?”

On the opposite wall of the warehouse was the rest of the exhibition: three backlit photographs, taken with different shutter speeds and ascending in brightness, displays a site on Jaffa’s beach that used to be the neighborhood garbage dump, until 2008 when it was leveled and converted into a public park.

The entire project cost about NIS 60 million, money that critics say the city municipality could have used on projects to improve life within Jaffa, which today is plagued by overcrowding, poor education, inadequate policing, crime and poverty. The fact that the Jaffa shoreline was cut short during construction of the park has also sparked criticism, as it technically moved the town's pre-1948 houses away from the sea.

Guez uses SABIR to offer a visual narrative of history resurfacing itself, and the post-1948 attempt to – literally – push it away. SABIR is not the only of Guez’s works currently on display that seeks to expose Palestinian history, nor is it the most political. Now showing at thr Istanbul Biennial is “Scanograms #2, September 2011” Guez’s most overtly political work to date, which deals directly with the Palestinian bid for recognition of statehoood at the United Nations.

The Scanograms #2 installation presents what Guez calls “a visual disorder in the Zionist-Israeli narrative” and consists of written testimonies in Arabic and nine black wooden objects, each containing passport pages of Palestinians from the British Mandate, before the establishment of Israel.

“From the visa stamps (of Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan etc.) and the testimonies, one can grasp how the entire Middle East was open and all communities moved freely before the 1948 war," he says. "The phenomenon of Israel had a great influence on the Palestinian people, externally and internally: The different communities were separated from each other, changing the entire region and the identity of each section.”

How Scanograms #2 will be received among Israelis remains to be seen. “Because of the tension with Turkey, I was among the few with an Israeli passport who was able to come to Istanbul for the show,” Guez says, with the irony of an artist confronted by the very reality that his art seeks to deconstruct.

SABIR will be on view until November 26, 2011 at Dvir Gallery's Hangar 2 locaion, to the left of the entrance to Jaffa Port.

For more information on Dvir Gallery and the exhibition visit their website.

An image from Dor Guez's current exhibition, "SABIR."