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Photos: Elad Sarig; Irit Ben Jacob Tal/ The Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery and Michel Kikoïne Foundation, Tel Aviv University

A Moon In Ramallah Is  A Star In Hebron


The remains of 17 flour and fulling mills along Wadi Amud in northern Israel are reminders and markers of a long history of migration by both Jews and Muslims, at the margins of the Ottoman Empire’s industrial and agricultural system. Their geographic location along the riverbed, surrounded by canals, diversion dams and bridges, tells the story of the wool industry that flourished in the area in the 16th century, with the arrival of Jews who had been deported from Spain in 1492. Using those structures that take advantage of the river’s topography, the power of the water flowing downstream was used to process wool and grind flour, in mills owned by Arab families, most of which operated until their deportation in 1948. They all attest to traditional agriculture and industry developed by the inhabitants of the Safed area in the Galilee, including Jews, semi-nomad Bedouins and other Arabs, migrants of various ethnic groups, who settled the Galilee mainly in the 19th century, mirroring the migratory movements in the Ottoman Empire of that time. 

Litwitz’s installation Itchy Sharqiya (2016-17) is made up of 17 embroidered maps based on plans of the mill structures reconstructed by the Israel Antiquities Authority for the purpose of preservation and development. On the embroidery cloths, Litwitz charts the architectural outlines, the floor plans of the grinding level, the space measurement lines (length, width and diagonal), the openings and the chimney and the canals flowing into the structure. She does not follow the architectural plan with precision, and even expands it into an abstract composition of line systems. At the same time, however, in the midst of this abstraction, she reassembles the lines to create architectural structures. Every line in this architectural deployment becomes a line embroidered with a colored thread, in a formal pattern borrowed from the embroidery idiom. Sometimes, it turns into a plant shape, sometimes including flowers, shoots and buds – as well as trees, birds, decorative shapes and national flags – all embroidered within and between the spaces demarcated by the line. This creates interrelations and meticulous interlacing between the architectural line and the decorative figure, albeit without allowing the ornamental embroidery idiom to blur the architectural form. 

Thus, the installation is based on relations of translation. The “source” – the stone ruins in geographic space – is translated into the codes of architectural language, in turn translated into the idiom of plastic art, in turn retranslated into the ornamental idiom of embroidery art. Every layer of interpretation or translation transforms the source material in a way that disrupts standards of faithfulness, equivalence or mimetic precision. Therefore, the entire installation is read in different ways in direct relation to the changes that occur in the sign, which therefore becomes unstable and is not fully transferred across languages. 

Litwitz handed the abstract notation to Palestinian embroiderers, so that they would translate them into the traditional Palestinian embroidery idiom. The embroiderers – members of Afnan al-Galil (Galilee Crafts) Association in the town of Arraba near Wadi Amud – translated the geometrical lines into decorative shapes, added to and enriched them with patterns of flora and fauna and national flags. Each interpreted the source as she saw fit, in keeping with her national and ideological affiliations, and transformed it while preserving the core architectural structure. Consequently, their intervention left a stable structural element at the heart of the new translation – one without which no interpretive action is possible, and no degrees of freedom remain. It is this restriction that prevents and at the same time enables the plurality of the semantic game. 

The symbiotic alliance between the stable and singular structural element and an instability and plurality of the act of translation is central to Jacques Derrida’s thought and the deconstructionist approach to translation. This revolutionary approach to the mechanisms of language and meaning has transformed the traditional view of translation as no more than a transfer of meaning from one linguistic vessel to another, by challenging the assumed preexistence of full, complete, closed and total meaning outside, before or beyond language. Meaning is not present in language, as it is an endless movement in the chain of signifiers that comprise it, the result of relations of différance (as opposed to difference, or différence) between signs that in themselves lack any meaning or presence, signs that are always the byproduct of historical randomness. In this situation, devoid of semantic stability as signifying a preexisting presence, the sign is no more than a trace, that “has no previous origin […] it is the origin in itself, and thus an origin-less origin”. When in endless motion, interlaced in the fissures, meaning does not inhere in the origin nor in its translation, and the very hierarchy between them is undermined. It may even be that “the original text owes its very existence to translations”, since “in them, the life of the originals attains its latest, continually renewed, and most complete unfolding, its eternal afterlife, its transformation and renewal as something living”, as wrote Walter Benjamin in his essay on translation that formed the basis of Derrida’s approach. 

In the task of reconstructing the flourmills, the lines of the architectural plan replace the missing, unknown walls and facilities. Conventional language signs translate the stone ruins into a structure that signifies what they were meant to be, what their meaning was. This meaning is none other than their translation into a sign that has the power to substitute them. Through the sign of the architectural language, and out of its relations with the entire system of linguistic signs, the “origin” will be translated and interpreted, exposing what disappeared behind the stone left on the ground. The architectural sign will replace the missing object, and reveal what lies beyond the initial trace – but only as a plan consisting of nothing but outlines. Litwitz, however, seeks to also expose what is hidden beneath it, what is missing in the architectural translation. Indeed, the coded sign of the plan provides access to the architectural interpretation – but does not exhaust other semantic contexts, such as historical, national or cultural ones. 

Litwitz decodes the abstract architectural mapping as a structure overlaid on a domestic map, and this in turn is decoded using the language of embroidery and its sign system. In the process, the architectural sign is interpreted through the embroidered sign, both based on geometrical abstraction. The architectural lines and hatches are thus organized in the basic geometric pattern of crisscrossing lines, + and ×, which, in their accumulation and mutual relations generate the ornamental and symbolic shapes. These shapes are taken from the traditional craft, culture and history of the indigenous population, whose life is bound up with the local conditions. Thus, the task of translation is performed not only by Litwitz, but also by the local Palestinian women, not only as performers, but also as translators in their own right. 

The forms that take shape on the fabrics carry with them not only the Palestinian embroidery idiom, patterned after traditional styles that have grown organically out of the local land and are unique to it. They also consist of foreign motifs, mainly from European embroidery traditions, which, together with elements from Palestinian embroidery art, have also influenced the Israeli embroidery idiom. Interlaced within each other, these different and yet similar traditions create a hybrid space, a mixture of traditional popular and national languages on the one hand, and modern, abstract and technological ones on the other. Such a hybridization process is defined by Homi Bhabha as “cultural translation” typical of postcolonial societies. Since every culture creates meaning using means of representation and signification, every culture is a “différancial” linguistic whole that is not full and complete in itself and cannot argue for originality, let alone “essence”. Translation, Bhabha explains, is an act of copying, in the sense of displacement, the imitation of a source while transferring it from place to place and transforming it, so that its origin lies only in the very fact that it is always open to translation. Therefore, cultures are constituted only in reference to the otherness inherent to the signification action that is immanent to them. Accordingly, they are always decentralized spaces open to différance. This is the Bhabhaian Third Space – a hybrid space that displaces the histories that constitute it and sets up possibilities for new situations, new structures of authority, new political initiatives.

The Palestinian embroiderers operate freely in a bidirectional movement of translation, with the modern-architectural-technological lines of abstraction translated into embroidery patterns and traditional motifs, which in turn are translated into embroidery stitches – in the process, they internalize new forms from the Western tradition, that make up a national symbol in the flag colors of the Arab nations. They therefore display a liberatory capability to discontinue the constancies of the national tradition, and translate their cultural identity into modern Western forms in an act that signifies a rift between established cultural patterns and the need for new cultural and political articulation as a practice of resistance and bottom-up control.

The act of cultural translation constitutes a political site as “a process of identifying with […] an object of otherness”, such that “the agency of identification – the subject – is itself always ambivalent, because of the intervention of that otherness”. Identity in the Third Space is thus constituted through the other, through which the subject realizes his desire to be differentiated while at the same time confirming his identity. Both parties are involved in this process: ruler and ruled, colonizer and colonized. The Palestinian embroiderers place signs of otherness at the heart of the hegemonic language, thereby undermining the binary relations that in the process become ambivalent. The Third Space, as an arena of instability, is imbued with differences of culture and identity, past and present, hegemons and subaltern, and therefore has the potential of giving rise to something new and unrecognizable, and act as an area of negotiation of meaning and representation, a liberatory site of struggle against the mechanisms of power and control.

All this leads to the conclusion that what we have here is not a system of symmetrical relations. Therefore, Litwitz chooses to empower the weak party in the interpretive translation space. To it, she entrusts the traces of history, the absent source, which it will subsequently flesh out in identity construction processes. She imprints the shadow of the repressed absentee on one of the milestones of the Israel National Trail – the sign of the hegemon – Like a Shadow of a Great Rock in a Weary Land (2017). As prophesied by Isaiah, “Behold, a king will reign righteously. And princes will rule justly. Each will be like a refuge from the wind and a shelter from the storm. Like streams of water in a dry country. Like the shade of a great rock in a weary land” (32, 1-2). The artists quotes these verses not directly from the Bible, but from Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress, documenting his visit to the Holy Land. In doing so, she attests to what has been excluded from the pilgrimage literature: the country’s real socioeconomic conditions. 

The transformation of the milestone, of the quote, the embroidery patterns and the architectural line, which are translated and transformed in the various spaces of signification, all subvert the linear homogeneity of the national narrative, any national narrative. In the process, this narrative is constituted as an in-between space, in which society is understood in terms of cultural difference as a hybrid of othernesses, as a multidimensional and conflictual cultural and political identity. 

Irit Ben Jacob Tal, from Migration catalogue

The Genia Schreiber University Art Gallery and Michel Kikoïne Foundation, Tel Aviv University

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