Exclusive: Emily Jacir Talks about Wael Zuaiter, Bushwick, and Her Hopes for Obama


“Two amazing things happened to me while working on this project,” explains Hugo Boss Prize winning-artist Emily Jacir, whose deeply political installations Material for a film (performance) and In Material for a film — both inspired by the assassination of Palestinian intellectual Wael Zuaiter — will be on view at the Guggenheim Museum starting this Friday. “The first thing was that Wael introduced me to Alberto Moravia and I have since read many of his writings including The Woman of Rome, The Conformist, The Conjugal Love, and Boredom. The second was that Wael introduced me to the music of Gustav Mahler whom he was obsessed with. I was in Ramallah when I heard Symphony No. 9 which was Wael’s favorite, for the first time and I will never forget that experience. There are no words to describe the profound impact that symphony has on me.”

Read on for more of our conversation with the controversy-causing artist after the jump.

Flavorwire: What is the biggest misconception people have about you as an artist or your work?

Emily Jacir: That it’s all about exile.

FW: So if there was suddenly a rule that art couldn’t be political, would you still want to be an artist?

EJ: Absolutely!

FW: You’re based in New York and Ramallah. How did you end up living in Bushwick?

EJ: I was living with eight people in a really great loft in Williamsburg a few years back. I loved that place, but we were thrown out along with the rest of the building’s tenants because they wanted to build “artists lofts.” The only place I could afford to live in was the place I am in now.

FW: Do you feel more at home when you’re in Ramallah?

EJ: Well my real home is Palestine for sure, but I feel really at home in Ramallah and New York and in Rome.

FW: Where do most of your friends live?

EJ: Ramallah and New York and Beirut and Amman and Rome.

FW: What can we expect from your exhibition at the Guggenheim?

EJ: I am really excited about the Guggenheim show! All the work I have made since mid-2005 until now has been showing in the Arab world and in Europe, but hasn’t been shown in the US. I am really looking forward to exhibiting some of that work here. I will be showing two installations, both are entitled Material for a film. One is the remnants of a performance I did at the Sydney Biennale in 2006 where I shot 1,000 blank books, the other is a film in the form of an installation which I presented at the Venice Biennale in 2007. Though both works are about Wael Zuaiter and related to the same research, I have never shown them together. I hope it works!

FW: How did you first come to learn of his assassination?

EJ: I grew up haunted by the Mossad assassinations of Palestinian intellectuals, poets and politicians like Kamal Nasser, Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Hamshari and Wael.

FW: Do you feel a certain kinship with him as someone who is constantly challenged in your attempts to bring international attention to the Palestinian cause?

EJ: I feel that Wael Zuaiter was a great pioneer in trying to tell our story to the outside world.

FW: Who is the most talented Arab-American who we haven’t heard of yet?

EJ: There is a Arab-American writer here in New York who I am really excited about right now. Her name is Maymanah Farhat.

FW: What’s the first thing you hope Barack Obama does regarding the Middle East?

EJ: The Arab community was really devastated at Obama’s deafening silence during the Israeli attacks in Gaza. The death toll reached more then 1,300 human beings and no matter what ‘side’ of the conflict you are on I think we can all agree that the killing of human beings should be condemned. When 173 people were killed in Mumbai last November, Obama quickly issued a public statement condemning the attacks and saying that his thoughts and prayers are with the victims but he said nothing about Gaza.The first thing I hope he does is end the longstanding blockade on Gaza and allow humanitarian aid to reach them. I also hope that he will demand that Israel adhere to International Law, that would be a would be a great step forward for an American president.