Tarzan and Arab spent the first 24 years of their lives without art.
The twin brothers were born in the Gaza Strip in 1988; there, public performance and exhibition of art is considered haram, impure. The brothers have never trained formally, (or, until two years ago, ever stepped inside a real cinema or gallery), yet found themselves irrevocably drawn to create. And they have: Tarzan and Arab (their real names are Ahmed and Mohamed Abu Nasser) have presented works internationally, both films and visual works. And so the collection of their works arriving this week at Latitude 53, titled This Is Our Land, seeks to offer a different, inside interpretation of the pair’s homeland, a place we usually hear about exclusively through a conflict-focused news cycle.
The brothers’ creativity has come at a cost: the pair are no longer in Gaza—having escaped under death threats, they’re living in exile in Jordan, and it’s not apparent if they’ll ever be able to return. Still, corresponding from Jordan over email via a translator, Tarzan and Arab, answered questions with a unified, singular response to each, and seemed unfaltering in the devotion to making art about their home. Here are excerpts from the exchange.
VUE WEEKLY: What would you say your first artistic experience was? What made you want to start creating works, despite never having gone to a gallery?
TARZAN AND ARAB: The first and most important experience in our lives was discovering who we were at a young age, and having an idea even then that we were going to be what we are now. There hasn’t been one specific important experience in our lives because all of our experiences are important to us.
Gaza is a simple place in which there are now at least four art galleries, but they cannot be compared to international galleries because of their size and because censorship in Gaza suffocates everything. But we hope that these galleries will develop to one day match international galleries.
VW: In Gaza, was it difficult to find materials with which to create your art?
T/A: Yes, because of the political situation. Gaza only has one border, with Egypt, and only a specific number agreed upon by both sides can leave the Strip. Priority is given to the sick or students over artists. Another problem is that you are always scrutinized by the authorities, on the Gaza side—there are a lot of questions, they can arbitrarily decide whether they allow you to travel or send you back home …
But practically speaking, it isn’t the materials that create art, as we consider that a real artist is one who creates something from nothing and doesn’t give up due to lack of tools—but thinks of way of replacing them with what is available to him. I don’t deny there is a lack of these materials and tools because of the priority in importing food, beverages and fuel over arts materials—even though I personally believe those materials and tools are as important as food and drink. But there are still minds in Gaza trying to overcome the lack of materials and who create work that still reaches all corners of the world—not, as some might say, because it is from Gaza and the product of miserable circumstances, but because it is work worthy of respect. Artists, directors and others in Gaza are constantly seeking to develop themselves in very difficult circumstances. In the end, yes, it is very important to have materials and tools with which to make art, but if they’re not available, we’re not going to sit around waiting for them.
VW: Your work was, during that time, being shown in group shows [internationally]—was there any difficulty in getting the paintings/films out of the Gaza Strip?
T/A: Yes, it’s very difficult to send works of art abroad—or receive them from abroad. Often artists miss opportunities which may be great for them because he is unable to send his work abroad. I would like to mention and thank the French Cultural Center in Gaza, which was, and still is, the only outlet helping artists get their work from Gaza to the West Bank and beyond. This is because they are protected by being a foreign body—officially residents in Gaza can only use the post office for printed papers and documents and nothing else, due to tight Israeli controls.
VW: Is there a theme to the collection of works in This Is Our Land?
T/A: It is the idea we always talk about, whether in our films or our art: the idea of seeking a life of love and safety, far away from the ideology or politics that dominate all of the work that comes out not just from Gaza, but from Palestine in general. The outside viewer has become accustomed to these images and they have made the Palestinian cause a purely political issue empty of all life or love, which we see as much more important to export and promote, much more important than politics the world already knows by heart. I don’t mean to say that all Palestinian artists produce only political work but I, as a Palestinian artist, prefer to go to a gallery where a Palestinian is talking about life, love and human relationships above all else because we have ignored those things to such a large extent I fear we have forgotten them. I’m not calling for abandoning the Palestinian cause either, but there is no contradiction in approaching the political cause by focusing on ideas related not to politics but to life, love and hope.
VW: Now that you’re no longer in Gaza—and, from the sounds of it, might have a difficult time ever going back—do you think the focus and content of your art will change?
T/A: There is no thing, big or small, that can divert or change our thoughts. As long as we have the courage to defend and put forward our thoughts the focus of our art will be the same, and if we cannot defend them anymore we will not change them but will instead completely give up art because we will no longer deserve to carry the name of “artists.” Gaza is a simple and all too beautiful place that deserves all the credit for who we are. If we cannot return today, we nurture a great hope of returning tomorrow.
Until Sat, Feb 15
This Land Is Ours
Works by Tarzan and Arab