When performance artist and curator Noel Maghathe reached out to Layan B. to collaborate in curating a new group exhibit, they only had the seed of an idea, pitching the show as one “centered on the connection and transfer of knowledge, traditions and culture through generations,” Layan B. said via Zoom from Montreal, Canada, in late December.
The exhibit that sprouted from these early discussions, dubbed “تنقيل Transfer – Moving” and open through Jan. 26 at Gazala Projects in Gettysburg, Ohio, began to take shape as the two solicited submissions, focus their efforts on Indigenous artists and artists of color, a number of whom have Palestinian roots. “I’m Palestinian-Kuwaiti and Noel is Palestinian-American, so they don’t speak Arabic. But I was born in Kuwait, and I do. And that’s how together we found the title of the show, because the word تنقيل in Arabic translates to both transfer and moving,” Layan B. said. “It can be something transferred from one thing to another, or from one generation to another. But then it can also literally mean moving from one place to another.”
Both ideas are reflected throughout the diverse exhibit, from the generational lessons offered in “1991,” a short film by Saif Alsaegh in which the filmmaker's mother recounts the story of his birth from more than 5,000 miles away, to “Requisite Corpse,” a relief print by artist Nadine Hajjaj that explores the connection between strawberries and thyme. “Thyme, with its ability to deter pests, offers protection and guidance to strawberry plants,” Hajjaj writes in her artist statement. “This mirrors how the wisdom of the past serves as a shield, helping the next generation navigate challenges and adversities.”
Layan B. said curating the exhibit reiterated the importance of storytelling, and of the knowledge early generations can glean from those that came before, particularly as they grow more geographically distant from their roots. “I moved to North America in ’98, at which point I was 10 [years old], so there was the transition of leaving Kuwait, leaving family,” they said. “There’s a lot of grappling with losing culture through time and then working back toward it.”
“Transfer – Moving” debuted in Cincinnati in Sept. 2023 and opened in December at Gazala Projects – the exhibit’s third and final stop. In between, Israel launched an offensive on Palestinian territory in response to the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, killing more than 20,000 Palestinians and displacing more than 90 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million people, according to the United Nations. These actions mirror the genocidal language being deployed by those in power within Israel, including lawmaker Moshe Saada, who called for Gazans to be destroyed, and Israeli Minister Ben Gvir, who posted to X (formerly Twitter) advocating for the forced migration of “hundreds of thousands” of Gazans.
But while Layan B. and Mona Gazala – an artist and the founder of Gazala Projects – allowed that recent events have amplified conversations related to Palestine, both said that Palestinians have been calling attention to the damages rendered by the Israeli occupation for decades.
Gazala, for one, has explored issues of expulsion, Palestinian identity and the “violence of omission” in numerous exhibitions stretching the entirety of her career, including “Willfully Neglected,” which displayed at Urban Arts Space in 2021. “Growing up, I never wanted to tell people my family was Palestinian because they were so vilified in the States, and all I ever heard was that they were terrorists,” Gazala said at the time.
“As a Palestinian … this is something we’ve been dealing with for 75 years. This is not a sudden awakening. Maybe it is for the world, and I think it’s fantastic some people are finally opening their eyes,” Layan B. said.
Gazala echoed this idea during a mid-December interview at her Gettysburg gallery, which rests in a former hardware store deep in rural Ohio, 90 minutes from a trio of metropolitan areas, including Columbus, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
“I feel like I have no right to be stressed, because most of my family emigrated here or to different parts of the United States [from Palestine] between the late ’50s and the early ’70s, but it still hits you in the gut, where it almost makes you physically ill,” Gazala said of the relentless stream of headlines that have emerged from Gaza in recent months. “But Palestinian artists have been commenting on this the whole time. And sometimes it feels pointless, because look what’s happening anyway. But it’s something you have to do. And it’s not something you’re going to stop doing because things look bleak now.
“But, like I said, I don’t think the work becomes more important. It’s always been important. But I do think it’s important to not back down from what I’m doing. When I was doing community-based artwork in Columbus, I had no boundaries, and it was an open door where anyone could be involved. But I feel like this [gallery] is a space that needs to be protected. This needs to be a safe space where people feel like they can come in, they can talk, they can express themselves and visit without Western ideologies interfering. It’s a sanctuary, I guess.”
Layan B. described “Transfer” in similar terms, calling the exhibit “a safe space for the artists to do whatever feels right,” which made the opening ideally suited to Gazala Projects. While touring the space, Gazala said that artist Ali El-Chaer, whose “pinkwashing” is one exhibit highlight, shared with her that his piece finally felt at home in her gallery – one of the few museums in the U.S. dedicated to presenting the work of Palestinian artists.
“I know many Palestinian artists, but not necessarily ones who have their own space like Mona,” said Layan B., who first learned of Gazala Projects via social media and Gazala’s presence as an artist within Palestinian circles online. “I’m gutted that [the gallery] is not closer to me to be able to visit and utilize the space more, to be honest. I truly believe we need a lot more spaces like Mona’s. … It’s so rare, and it’s such a needed safe haven.”
Gazala said she has welcomed the slower pace that life in Gettysburg has afforded her, though she was still unsure how it might impact her work moving forward, sharing only that she had begun to explore a connection between her Palestinian family history and artifacts she discovered at the Garst Museum in Darke County.
“I think all artists just have that compulsion. You’re reacting, and you have to express yourself,” Gazala said. “And in a lot of ways, it’s not just expressing you. You’re doing it for your ancestors. And you’re doing it for everybody who is still there. And everybody in the diaspora. You’re creating some sense of visibility for Palestinian people. It’s very easy to dehumanize people when you don’t think they’re around, when they’re kind of nonexistent. But to physically put visual work out, it makes us undeniably there.”