Mohammad Abou Chair | WARP #09
The story of an olive tree in a whirlpool, Mohammad Abou Chair, 2023
Opening 13.05., 7 – 9 pm
Mohammad Abou Chair
This exhibition is part of
art and sustainability program
in fold #07 on Solidarity
Mohammad Abou Chair (1994) is a Palestinian/Dutch artist, filmmaker and designer based in Tilburg. As part of the SEA Foundation’s program WARP, which relates to the currently researched fold #07 on Solidarity, he presents an excerpt from his debut feature film The story of an olive tree in a whirlpool (2023). With the adaptation of this work, he shows an entry to his feature film and welcomes passers-by to enter the exhibition room and learn about the Palestinian diaspora, and in solidarity with those who dare to rise from nothing.
From Nothing to Something
The artistic research of Abou Chair sprouted from a simple question How can one make a film from nothing? This nothing does not refer to the lack of resources or a filmmaking experience only, but an identity mainly. Abou Chair was born in Syria to a Lebanese mother and a Palestinian father. Without being assigned any of these nationalities, he was raised in a refugee camp and travelled through multiple places in search of home/identity and only recently, at the age of 28, received a Dutch passport.
With the deepest desire to share the untold narratives of many Palestinians who found themselves in a state of occupation or refuge, they can not control on their own, he started conversations and interviews with family members, friends and strangers. This urgency gave him the power to escape a tunnel of nothingness and challenge the situation by making something out of it. This something – the film – does not tell a story of the struggle of refugees’ displacement in Europe but instead, it portrays a shared story of longing for a homeland.
Handala | حنظلة
Within the sequences of the film, we see a man with his hands connected behind his back standing next to the potted olive tree and looking at the vastness of the horizons. But it is not a typical Rückenfigur as one might think. It is not a man standing in front of a foggy but open plain with endless possibilities to choose from, with countless adventures awaiting ahead. Instead, it is a human longing for a return to the place where his foundation was uprooted.
This human who represents all men, women and children of Palestine and whose face we never see is a reference to Handala – a symbol of Palestinian people which was created in 1969 by cartoonist Naji al-Ali depicting a boy poorly dressed with hands behind his back never revealing his face. The word Handala also relates to an Arabic name for the perennial plant Citrullus colocynthis. The plant is local to the region of Palestine, it is deeply rooted and grows back when cut. Naji al-Ali, who was himself a refugee, imagined that the boy’s character would continue growing when he returns to Palestine. However, a cartoonist was assassinated in 1987 and buried in London, never reaching his dream. Since then Handala became a symbol of all Palestinian refugees who stare towards their distant home while growing roots of defiance.
From soil we come, to the soil we return
While building up his documentary, Mohammad Abou Chair takes inspiration from documentarist Werner Herzog and his use of the poetic language portrayed through wide-angled shots, the mysticism of a landscape and spirituality. This is particularly reflected in the symbolism of the olive tree which, along with the man, is another protagonist of the film. The tree is potted and learns to adapt to the Dutch weather conditions. It can thrive, but it will never spread its roots in the confined pot. The tree as well as the man needs the soil, the place to grow and bear fruits.
This connection between a human and the soil is a part of many religious and cultural thoughts. On one hand, it provides us with the security of belonging to the area and a community, thus being a basic condition of feeling at home. On the other hand, it affirms our material destiny, a physical place where our body decomposes and becomes a part of the cycle for others to live from. As Mohammad Abou Chair seeks to deconstruct his identity, the search can not be completed without the soil he belongs to. Those, like me, who have never experienced the paradox of not belonging to the land, not being able to visit, or not being allowed to be buried in their home country, will never be able to understand. But someone’s understanding is not a necessary condition in order to express solidarity.
Solidarity in the Whirlpool
In its definition, the whirlpool describes the phenomenon of meeting two currents. But the spinning forces in occupied Palestine are not equally powerful. Abou Chair found himself, among the other Palestinians and with the olive tree, in the intergenerational struggle. At a young age, he fled Syria and Lebanon. His father had fled Palestine with his mother. His grandmother had sought refuge in Gaza with her parents – in 1948 – when the British, whose mandate over the Palestinian region ended, created “a state of Israel”. Since then it means, for Palestinian people, a life of displacement, living without human rights, as a refugee in their homeland and diaspora.
Mohammad Abou Chair made his film from the position of a stateless refugee to provide a blueprint of thoughts and encourage other refugees to shoot the films from their perspective. He is driven ‘to learn from the resilience [of those who are unheard] and to show that we can create a difference in this state of refuge through support (Abou Chair, 2022, p. 36). Solidarity is not pity for somebody but standing beside them so they feel empowered to speak up. Solidarity is to hold the net so they are not worried about making a jump. As long as the power roulette is spinning, the solidarity acts must spin against it in the whirlpool.
The film would not come along without the involvement of many journalists and video makers in the Netherlands or abroad. They too acted in solidarity with interviewees, and last but not least, with a filmmaker himself.
Mohammad Abou Chair website
The exhibition is part of WARP, a series of vitrine exhibitions which were activated in 2020. These exhibitions now also follow the SEA Foundation’s folds on art and sustainability, currently researching fold #07 on Solidarity. The WARP series aims to stimulate artistic research and present the adaptations of the works made by regional artists or artists with regional connections.