Encountering Palestinian Displacement & Diaspora through “A Contested Home”

Portrait of Sonja Kuftinec
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

How might art address the wounds of Palestinian displacement?

Professor Sonja Kuftinec of the theatre arts and dance department partnered with CLA alumna and adjunct art professor Avigail Manneberg to address this issue through visual art and theatrical storytelling. Their project, “A Contested Home: Memory, Commemoration and Rights around Forced Migration of Palestinians in the Galilee,” aims to confront the historical amnesia, displacement, and diaspora resulting from the forced migration of Palestinians within Israel. Their project involves creative workshops with Jewish Israeli artists from the village of Ya’ad and Palestinian artists with connections to Mi’ar, a village on the same territory that preexisted Ya’ad.

Manneberg, who is from Ya’ad, approached Kuftinec about this project because of Kuftinec’s experience working with Palestinian and Israeli youth, conflict transformation and facilitation, and Theatre of the Oppressed techniques—a type of theatre that promotes social and political change. They received funding from the University of Minnesota’s 2018 Human Rights Initiative, and began working on the project in January 2018.

Context & Framework

In connecting with Jewish Israeli and Mi’ari artists willing to engage with the project, Kuftinec and Manneberg first addressed the contextual framework of the relationship between these two groups. They considered many factors, including President Trump’s January 2018 announcement of intent to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and future site of the US embassy, ongoing violence in Gaza, and the new demographic law declaring that Israel is a Jewish nation-state. For several months the project focused solely on developing conversations, building relationships, and gaining trust in preparation for addressing this complicated and emotional history.

Kuftinec’s long-time colleague Chen Alon, a Jewish Israeli activist and actor, also consulted on the project. Alon is a co-founder of “Combatants for Peace,” a group of Palestinians and Israelis who once served as soldiers and combatants but have since denounced violence and now work to make social change through nonviolent methods. Kuftinec recalled seeing Alon’s community-based theatre work involving African asylum seekers in the southern Israeli detention center of Holot. “They learned and developed tools of theatre to do what they needed to do as refugees, which is to tell their story in ways that the majority of Israelis can come to recognize and be moved to make changes in the law,” Kuftinec recalls. “It’s a healing process, but it’s also a political process.”

Process & Approach

After convening a group of Jewish Israeli artists from Ya’ad, the group embarked on a deeply investigative workshop in July. It included Palestinians affected by the dispossession of 1948 and their memories of the home they knew as Mi’ar. One Mi’ar descendant, Kamle Gamal, recalled a moment as a young girl when she and her family ran from the invasion, thinking they might return back home in a few days.

Kuftinec explains how theatre and visual arts enable this reflective work: “Artistic processes work on multiple levels simultaneously, particularly with storytelling, which taps into something that charges a space in ways that facts don't. If you want to make it a political project, you have to do more than just move people. You have to move people emotionally, and then you have to move them politically.” Creating a space that expands empathy, processes of theatre and visual arts build bonds, illustrate stories, and operate symbolically. In doing so, these art forms aid the audience in understanding complex power relations and political phenomenons.

At the end of July’s visual arts workshop, each artist developed a project for installation in December. The exhibition will include a carefully structured facilitation event for Palestinian Mi’aris affected by this diaspora and the larger community of Ya’ad, who are encouraged to go through the installations separately to have their own space to experience the works. 

The future of the project is uncertain, and the encounters with the exhibition in December may serve as closure. Regardless, Kuftinec and Manneberg hope it provides a model for a process. The ultimate goal is that the Mi’ari artists invited to see the exhibition will form a parallel group and complete their own process of creation. The following spring or summer there would be another workshop to bring both groups together to illustrate how the arts can be a space to facilitate contested memory in a way that leads to recognition of human rights and human rights violations.

Co-Resisting & Coexisting

Kuftinec hopes that visitors see how long-term theatre and art projects can build trust and make a change.

“It’s about living ‘as if,’” Kuftinec explains. “When Palestinian and Jewish Israelis can show that they’re not just imagining a utopia for a theatre piece and that theatre helps us to imagine a utopia and then we live it out every day, it’s not something in the future that we’re aiming for. It’s something that structures our relationship in the present.”

In addition to the exhibition in December, Chen Alon, who has served as a consultant throughout “A Contested Home,” will arrive on campus early next year to facilitate workshops with UMN students.

“We are co-resisting together, and we’re coexisting together,” Kuftinec says. “We feel bigger and more human. It’s something that gives me back my life.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLA.

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