On a hot day in the Arizona desert, Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar created a setting akin to an office workspace. Dressed in a blue tuxedo, he sat in a black leather chair, a coffee and donut casually placed on a table next to his AR-15 rifle—so beloved in the USA that it is known as “America’s rifle.” It isn’t your usual setting for an exhibition, but this is what Jarrar, a former soldier and bodyguard of Yasser Arafat, does best—evoke the Palestinian experience through discomforting situations.
He did so most poignantly in his latest exhibition, I’m Good At Shooting, Bad At Painting with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson, where a group of people was taken to an unknown location to view him shoot paint vials. Jarrar spent two months before the performance doing physical and mental training, contemplating the message he wanted people to leave with. “Just the idea of driving 50 people midday on a Saturday to an unrevealed place in the Arizona desert to watch an artist from Palestine shoot was an achievement,” says Jarrar. “It encouraged them to think beyond the stereotypical image of Arabs—one that Hollywood has instilled in them. I broke some of these notions by showing that I am a shooter, but not one who was sent to Iraq to kill children and civilians like in the film, American Sniper. This kind of image-making hurts more than a gun.”
Jarrar cuts a piece of clothing to mount onto his canvas
At the exhibition, Jarrar began with choice words: “Shooting is not fun, having a bullet in your body is not fun, and making art is not fun—it is a responsibility for me,” he shares. “I continued, ‘If you allow me to cut a piece of your clothes from around your stomach, I will give you a piece of my art.’” Jarrar saw this area of the body to be the most vulnerable. The request was met with mixed reactions. “Some of the audience members were excited and wanted a piece of my art, and some felt uncomfortable to walk around with an unprotected belly,” he explains. For him, these pieces of clothing carry great weight. Jarrar views them like pieces of skin, and the paint as bloodshed. “I cut the first piece from my own t-shirt that left my vulnerable belly without ‘artificial’ skin. I attempted to bring people’s thoughts inside the battleground of chaos.”
Jarrar gave the pieces of clothing to the owners after turning them into abstract pieces of art, all marked and signed, referencing an idea that surfaced eight years ago in an article in The Independent, which alleged that modern art was used as a weapon by the CIA. This evidently hit close to home for him. “The way the CIA directed abstraction was that they helped promote American art against the Soviets during the Cold War, while also pushing forth white male artists,” explains Jarrar, who greatly focuses on themes of patriarchy in addition to warfare.
The 42-year-old also expresses his thoughts on the CIA by way of Abstract Expressionism, specifically, with his use of colourways appropriated from Jackson Pollock’s 1952 painting Convergence, among the works of art used as a weapon by the CIA during the Cold War. Beige, blue, orange, yellow, black and white splattered onto canvases as Jarrar hit the bull’s-eye, creating abstract, dripping, allegorical paintings. “The CIA used art as a weapon, and I use a weapon to create art,” he says. “For the CIA, it was not about the art itself because they did not consider Abstract Expressionism as art, since it did not align with the artistic taste of policy leaders in the US.”
The Right Side Canvas. 2018. Acrylic, glass, high velocity effect on canvas. 196x276cm.
Jarrar has channelled his two acquired skills of shooting and camouflage, learnt during his time as a soldier in the Palestinian Presidential Guards during the Second Intifada, into his practice. “I learned to shoot, not to paint. I studied the physics of explosions, how colours will react after being hit by a speeding bullet. I did so many experiments—vials filled with fluid acrylic and shot them with high-velocity bullets for this performance,” he shares. “I saw that each bullet type leaves a different effect and that the speed of the bullet infiltrates the vials, which leads to an explosion, scattering the colours over the raw canvas like stains of blood—creating chaos, violence and destruction.”
He anchors the show in his personal experiences, focused on the ongoing Palestinian conflict, drawing parallels between his own use of an AR-15 to create artworks, and the recent killing of more than 60 Palestinians in Gaza, with over 2,700 injured. “Mohamed Abusal is an artist and a friend. He told me that we are living like laboratory mice, and the media goes on to use headlines such as ‘Dozens of Palestinians killed in Gaza’.” He asserts his disgust: “No numbers, no names—just dozens of Palestinians.” Jarrar’s drive originates from childhood experiences.
The Piece of Clothing #001. 2018. Acrylic, glass, high velocity effect on fabric. 15x17cm.
“At the time of the first Intifada (1987), I was 11-years-old and decided to follow my fascination with the sky by building my first kite,” he says. But his happiness was short-lived—it was chased by bullets. “The speed of my kite seemed like no match for that of the bullets and the chaos of the surrounding gunfire. But then, I was no longer able to catch sight of my kite. I painted it using colours of the Palestinian flag and my kite made it clear that we just want to be free. Art is my kite now.” His practice has always pushed boundaries—literally, he organised his first solo show at the fence of the Hawara Checkpoint, one of the four main exits of Nablus. “I used the checkpoint as my own gallery in a space designed to spread discomfort, fear and humiliation. I showcased 41 pictures in At the Checkpoint,” he says.
The artist, who also works with photography and video, is moving onto his next project, a film titled Displaced in Heaven, for which he has collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning performance artist Du Yun. The film features a live orchestra with video installation. “The film is about a journey across the Balkan route with Nadira, an elderly Palestinian woman from Damascus who fled with her family to Germany, toward a utopian freedom with forged papers, and with whom I lived for 31 days.”
Jarrar continues to persevere, creating visuals exploring the impact of modern-day power struggles and their impact on ordinary citizens. “My memory keeps taking me back to the kite story and that keeps me motivated,” he says. “My kite was more powerful than their guns. They shot it down but will never ever shoot down the voice. Art is my voice.”
Khaled Jarrar’s ‘I am Good at Shooting, Bad at Painting’ with the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson took place on May 12. Moca-tucson.org