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Many artists attempt to rewrite history, but it’s safe to say that few have done so as successfully as Khalil Rabah: not simply rewriting, but writing from scratch, a history of a nation and culture, filling in the pages the books left blank (or scribbled hastily in pencil). The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind, currently in residence at e-flux, is an institution created as an artwork. A museum arranged “to create knowledge and inspire discovery…to provoke curiosity and deepen our understanding of natural and cultural worlds.” This is a comprehensive attempt to write the remaining chapters of Palestinian history in the languages of Western Europe, in the style of a Western European museum. The last complete chapter is dated 1948, when the state of Israel was created and the Palestinian narrative was disrupted.

A bit of history on this museum of history: Rabah was born in 1961 in Jerusalem, and is based in Ramallah, Palestine. Often bending institutional frameworks and established systems, he’s shaped organizations like Al Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, the Riwaq Biennial, and the Home Workspace Program, which provides interesting alternatives to educational programming in Lebanon. A previous artwork, United States of Palestine Airlines, London Office, was a storefront installation of a fictitious airline office, its airplanes covered in the logos of other airlines, its travel routes scrawled erratically over a map, with clocks frozen at different times, all set up in an empty office. The artist’s background in architecture is evident here, engineering experiences that leave visitors confused by the activity (or lack of it) in familiar situations.

The current iteration of the exhibition is titled “Pages 7, 8, 9,” bringing to life the 24 pages of the Museum’s newsletter. Each page is a large oil painting individually fitted in a large rack, and visitors are welcome to pull out each frame and examine the paintings, much like posters on display at a frame shop. Pages 7–9 are extracted and on display as a “painting show” in an adjacent room. Rabah has said that these pages are an important summary and point of reflection on the Museum’s ten-year history: an allegorical report on botany, and the case of five olive trees granted Swiss citizenship, as they’ve fulfilled the naturalization process by “residing” in Switzerland for the past twelve years. The complete newsletter is also printed, copies of which are stacked in boxes in the gallery and are free for guests to take.
Previously installed as part of the 2005 Istanbul Biennale, the Museum was situated apart from most other pavilions and set up inside a small structure that everyone was excluded from entering, and displaying a show curated from wares from its permanent collection titled “Palestine before Palestine.” With museum as medium, these fragments of Palestine are inherently framed as historical facts, weaved together as evidence of objective history, regardless of where and how many of these threads have been cut short. The collection of antiquities and curiosities delicately proposes that we question the inevitable politics of representation and citizenship, the tangible presence of absence in these gaps; in this way, the museum is at once object and concept.

A symposium with the artist about the exhibition will take place at e-flux in the Lower East Side this Saturday. You can read more about it here.

“Khalil Rbah: Pages 7, 8, 9” is on view until April 20th at e-flux 311 East Broadway New York, NY. A symposium, “Some Thoughts Regarding the Erection of the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind” with Khalil Rabah, Suad Amiry, Reem Fadda, Rasha Salti, Anton Vidokle and Brian Kuan Wood is tomorrow (February 16th) at 3pm.


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