Giedre Steikunaite
Last updated: 9 December, 2012

Visualising Palestine: decolonising the mind

Is it possible to be innovative about the water crisis in Gaza or displacement in East Jerusalem? As shown by a collective of designers and activists from Paris to Ramallah, creative thinking is sometimes the only way to get people's attention.

There is no metro in Gaza. But there could be. Using a bright red “M” sign, Palestinian artist Mohamed Abusal speculates how this siege-ravaged landscape would look like if it had a metro line or two. His photography project, A Metro in Gaza, borders between pure imagination and real physical possibility: after all, Gaza’s underground tunnels are already used to transport people and goods.

Similarly, Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar is making an alternative reality, a reality. His circular State of Palestine stamps with blossoming jasmines and whistling Palestinian Sunbirds now decorate foreign passports; even the Deutsche Post AG got involved by issuing Jarrar’s State of Palestine postage stamps for use in regular mail. “The stereotype here is conflict, conflict, conflict and I want to show something beyond this, I want to show life,” Jarrar said in an interview with ISM.

It’s exactly this sentiment of resisting conventional routes of describing Palestine that brought the graphic design project Visualizing Palestine (VP) to life. Decolonisation of the mind is the hardest of them all, but it’s also the most important, especially given the often very limited narrative regarding Palestine in the mainstream western media. “People are getting an inaccurate, incomplete view of what’s going on,” says Joumana al Jabri, co-founder of VP and co-curator of last year’s TEDxRamallah. “Our ultimate goal is a shift in perception, and our main target is the larger public’s opinion and influence on the powers that are affecting injustices on the ground.”

VP is a network of researchers, designers, and activists based in Ramallah, Amman, Beirut, London and Paris. Their principle is to use visual media as a tool to spread information from the ground to the public who don’t have the time or willingness to read long reports. Constantly attacked by information in our hectic 21st century, we’ve shortened our attention spans and developed a much deeper relationship with the image. That’s why VP’s infographics summarise the most pressing issues visually – from theft of water and home demolitions to political prisoners and road segregation. They are, as al Jabri says, fact-reporting that taps into emotions.

The facts come from widely recognised reputable sources such as international human rights organisations; the challenge is to visualise data and turn it into a story on its own, making it relevant to the people who are not otherwise bothered about Palestine’s realities. “It’s essential to have articles and documentaries and news items, but add to the mix the visual aspect of it, and you start to appeal to a new target audience, a new demographic – people interested in design, for example,” says Tamara Ben-Halim, VP’s team member and organiser of Cycling4Gaza. “It’s the idea of immediate communication through aesthetically pleasing graphics that is so important.”

By default, visuals have the ability to overcome language barriers, thus their message is easier understood (although that also depends on the accompanying text). To some, visuals are definitely much more memorable. But does that mean they would also prompt action? Al Jabri is not certain. “Sometimes it’s just one image or one documentary or one article that changes people’s mindsets entirely,” she says. “But for us it’s not about taking place of something else, it’s about making sure that all the senses are addressed. Currently, there’s very little that speaks to the eyes in terms of documenting data from Palestine, so it’s about completing the map of the different tools that can collectively make that mental shift.”

In essence, VP is an innovative medium that offers a different lens through which to look at Palestine. Such creative acts diversify the mental images we have about Palestine and how we understand it. “It’s been going on for so long… A lot of people are tired. They contribute in ways that make sense to them, but I think there’s a sense of fatigue,” Ben-Halim says. “That’s why such initiatives are necessary: they energise people.” Have there been any negative responses? No, al Jabri says, except for someone pointing out the use of the word “Israel” on the map, and someone else rejecting the use of the word “Apartheid” – because they say what’s happening in Palestine is worse than that. Generally, reactions have been very positive. The Home Demolition infographic had 136,000 views in a very short time – but al Jabri is careful in assessing how many of those people were already familiar with the issue rather than reaching out to new audiences.

VP is a team of design and IT professionals concerned not only about justice, but also the professional dimension. “We’d like to position our work as raising the standard of design and visual communication in the region, becoming part of a dialogue and conversation about design here and beyond,” al Jabri says. She believes it’s crucial for a community to have professionals in certain fields who don’t necessarily have to talk about Palestine, but be Palestinians, reaching excellence in whatever field they’re in. “That’s what TEDxRamallah tried to highlight: there is excellence in the Palestinian community, whether in Palestine or in the Diaspora. Not everything Palestinian needs to be about the oppression, sometimes it needs to be about the positive and innovation. Maybe taking that route will solve certain issues too.”

One of VP’s strengths is its ability to appeal to geographically and socially diverse audiences: from university professors in Brazil to student groups in the US and solidarity campaigners in South Korea, VP infographics are being used in a variety of settings. Just recently, university students in the West Bank asked if VP could assist them in creating their own infographics. “That’s one of the things we really want add value to,” Ben-Halim says. “So that people can join in this work themselves.”

With her Visualizing Occupation (Occupation 101) series of infographics, the Tel Aviv-based typographer and activist Mixal Vexler adds to this creative pool of visuals that are highly factual and political, yet extremely beautiful at the same time. As VP’s, Vexler’s work is grounded in facts – it has to be – and freely available under a Creative Commons licence. “If we want to start shifting the narrative on Israel/Palestine and reflect on social injustices, these fully researched tools have to be made available to the public,” Ben-Halim says. “We’re developing them for people to strengthen their arguments, their work, their advocacy. Without doing that, our work is pointless.”

Over in Palestine, The Freedom Bus, coordinated by The Freedom Theatre based in Jenin Refugee Camp, has just completed its nine-day tour of interactive theatre performances. It’s yet another powerful example of creative non-violent resistance to the occupation, and yet another addition to the widening scope of how Palestine is communicated… and communicating.

Hunger Strikes VP Infographic.png