When Layla Muchnik-Benali toured “Text Me When You Get Home,” a multifaceted exhibit spearheaded by artist Mona Gazala and staged earlier this summer at Ohio State’s Hopkins Hall, she was struck by the complex portrait presented within by a number of Palestinian artists with deep ties to Ohio.
“It was a really inventive and effective way to build this community within the diaspora and place it within the context of the Midwest,” Muchnik-Benali, film/video curatorial assistant at the Wexner Center for the Arts, said by phone in early September. “I grew up on the East Coast, and I feel like there’s this perception of the Midwest as being this white, Christian area. And I think it’s important to highlight all the people here who are not necessarily white, Christian people. … I think [Gazala] really sees where she is and sinks into it rather than fights it.”
In the short film Closeness to the Land, Gazala more explicitly explored this sense of connection to her surroundings, the concept taking root shortly after the artist purchased an acre in rural Ohio in 2020, intent on experiencing a sense of kinship and connection with the land that she said lacked in her life at the time.
“A lot of the film deals with the paradox of trying to create a proxy homeland for myself on land that was stolen from other people indigenous to the Ohio Valley,” said Gazala, who operates the art gallery Gazala Projects on the property, located 90 minutes west of Columbus in Gettysburg, Ohio. “So, this short film was my narration of the artistic response I had to the whole experience.”
For the film, Gazala created signs printed with English synonyms for the Arabic word “Al Ard” (the earth), including land, ground, soil and site. The artist then “performatively walked those words through the many spaces in the Ohio Valley that once belonged to Indigenous people,” she said. “So, it was making visible something that has been largely erased from the Ohio landscape and drawing a relationship between the erasure of First Nations and that of Palestinians.”
For Muchnik-Benali, Gazala’s film also brought closer to home an issue that can often feel distant living in the Midwest. “It’s easy to fall into the trap of, oh, this is something that’s happening far away. And Palestine is far away and it’s not an issue that is relevant to us in America,” she said. “And I think Mona’s work challenges viewers to question that, and to draw connections between where we are and what is happening in Palestine.”
Gazala’s film will screen as part of “the eye has no iris,” curated by Muchnik-Benali and taking place at the Wexner Center on Wednesday, Sept. 6. The program features shorts from seven Palestinian filmmakers, including Gazala, Zaina Bseiso (When Light Is Displaced), Razan AlSalah (Canada Park), Nada El-Omari (from where to where), Jumana Manna (A Sketch of Manners), Rosalind Nashashibi (Dahiet al Bareed) and Basma Alsharif (Deep Sleep).
The evening will also feature a reading from poet Sara Abou Rashed, who appeared as part of “Text Me When You Get Home” and whose work has evolved from exploring the idea of wanting to be part of a community to more deeply interrogating her place within it. “Now that I am here and do see myself as part of this country, I’m asking, what is my responsibility?” Rashed said in early June. “How do I work in this society? How do I reach my potential?”
Muchnik-Benali said the seven shorts are linked in part by “a dreamlike quality,” as well as an approach that draws a line between the past and the present. “I had this 'a-ha' moment watching some of the films, such as Canada Park by Razan AlSalah, where I was like, I think dreaming, or ideas of astral projection, are these ways to weave connective tissue between ancestors and the present, but then also are ways to completely ignore borders,” she said. “Canada Park used Google Maps to enter into territory a Palestinian person might not legally be allowed to enter by the Israeli state. And through this use of Google Maps, through this dreaming, you can evade these borders, you can trick them and slide by.”
While each of the films stands artistically on its own, Muchnik-Benali said that screening the shorts in a block teases out unexpected dimensions in each, the pairings drawing out hidden nuances and enhancing existing richness. Manna’s A Sketch of Manners, for instance, plays more straightforward on its own, Muchnik-Benali said, the multidisciplinary artist utilizing actors to recreate a historical photograph. But taken in alongside other more obviously experimental films, the short’s surrealist qualities are burnished.
Gazala, for her part, appreciated the “dreamlike” quality Muchnik-Benali viewed both in her film and the other shorts being screened alongside it, saying it reflects the spirit in which the work was created. “That idea feels right for me, because when I went into this experience in 2020, it was kind of like building a whole other reality,” Gazala said. “I think for people living under any kind of oppression ... building your own version of reality, your own narrative, is essential.”