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Desire in Diaspora: Emily Jacir

by , March 2017

“If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” This question was recently posed to Palestinian exiles by Palestinian American artist Emily Jacir. Taking advantage of her ability to move about relatively freely in Israel with an American passport, Jacir promised to realize the desires of those forbidden entry into their homeland. A series of texts, black lettering on white panels, describes the various requests. Color photographs, presented by their side, document Jacir’s actualization of them. The project is titled Where We Come From. “Go to my mother’s grave in Jerusalem on her birthday and put flowers and pray,” reads one plea in Arabic and English. The text tells us that the man who made it, Munir, lives a few kilometers away in Bethlehem but was denied access to Jerusalem by the Israeli authorities. Consequently, he could not visit his mother’s grave on the anniversary of her death. Jacir could. A photograph shows her shadow floating over the tombstone as she carries out the task. It is a fleeting presence that is rather a painful absence. If it fulfills a desire, it remains phantasmatic, vicarious.

Emily Jacir, Where We Come From, 2001–3; installation detail, A Slow Succession with Many Interruptions, SFMOMA, 2016–17; photo: Don Ross

As with the work of Ayreen Anastas, Mona Hatoum, and Rashid Masharawi, other artists who deal with the Palestinian diaspora, it is perhaps the complexity of exile that drives Jacir to neo-Conceptual strategies: the photo-text presentation, the linguistic dimension, the task-based performance, the statistical survey of responses, the use of the newspaper advertisement, the artist as service provider. Through such models, the condition of exile that is her subject emerges within her work, drifting between mediums, producing material dislocations, necessitating physical travel, leading to collaborations with diasporic communities. More, Jacir takes up recent reconfigurations of site specificity, in which the once-grounded art object, moored to its geographical site (as in post-Minimalist sculpture), has given way to deterritorialization in artistic practices of the 1990s. The stress now falls on “discursive” redefinitions of site, on recognitions of the impossibility of geographical delimitation due to institutional or capitalist pressures that throw the object—or its uprooted reproductions—into a circulating marketplace, or again, alternately, change the context of the site-specific work.1 Jacir’s project, similarly, is thoroughly defined by the experiential crisis of displacement, far from the self-assuring phenomenology of site specificity and the access to location that it took for granted. But this turn away from site specificity is due not only to the discursive, legalistic, economic, and national conditions of the framework she investigates—the Palestinian diaspora—which obviously resists any reductive geographical delimitation. And it arises not only from the fragmented status of her objects and performances—which stretch across a variety of mediums (sculpture, text, photography, video, and so on), distribution mechanisms (galleries, newspapers, commercial outlets), and geographical sites (Israel/Palestine, Texas, New York City). It is also because, in one sense, there is no such thing as site specificity for exiles.

The impossibility of sitedness explains why exile is such a ravaging experience, resulting even in a form of mutilation, as those who have experienced it testify: exile represents “the unhealable rift between a human being and a native place, between self and its true home,” a rift that separates one from “the nourishment of tradition, family, and geography.”2 Were the exile to latch on to any site, it appears, the attachment would too easily be exposed as compensatory or nostalgic, reactionary or escapist. Consequently, Where We Come From, like much of Jacir’s work, concerns the (im)possibility of movement, rather than the plausibility of sitedness. Its locus—Where We Come From—can only be imagined, not physically occupied. It is the forbidden center around which exiles perpetually revolve. Yet, movement too—whether in terms of migration, exchange, travel, or translation—is profoundly troubled in this work, even while often desired. Viewers face a project that is first of all divided between text panels and photographs. But how to get from one to the other? The visual transition from language to image seems simple enough. A mere shift of the eyes will do. And the descriptions involve things we often take for granted: visiting one’s mother, eating food in a restaurant, playing soccer. Yet it is just this translation, written out in clear language and then realized photographically, that for many is insurmountable. Getting from written description to photographic actualization can be easy enough for some, like Jacir, who have American passports. But for other unfortunates caught up in the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been raging since 1948, when so many were exiled from their land, the terrain between text and photograph, description and realization, represents an unbridgeable chasm, an impossibility on which a complex of desire is built.

Emily Jacir, Where We Come From (Mahmoud), 2001–3; Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Emily Jacir

The piece operates, it would seem, by fulfilling desire. But whose desire? We learn, first of all, about the desires of exiles from their own requests: they yearn for family (seeing one’s mother, visiting a parent’s grave), they pine over homesickness (visiting the family home, recalling the old land), they wish to participate in simple everyday activities (playing soccer, walking in Nazareth), they even hold banal pragmatic concerns (paying bills, watering a tree). The requests can also be intimate. Rami asks: “Go on a date with a Palestinian girl from East Jerusalem that I have only spoken to on the phone. As a West Banker, I am forbidden entry into Jerusalem.” The photograph shows the date that took place at a restaurant. Across the table sits the woman, clearly not thrilled. The sometimes bureaucratic tone of the descriptions reveals the fact that even diasporic desires can become routine after so long, which is yet another tragic element: the banality of exile.

Emily Jacir, Where We Come From (Munir) (detail), 2001–3; Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Emily Jacir

We also learn about the artist’s desires: to somehow provide connections through an artistic mediation that would draw together a diasporic community, that would shed light on the absurdity of displacement, that would show the privations exiles suffer over things that most of us take for granted. Jacir’s wish, it seems, is to reassemble the splinters of diaspora into a single place, into some form of narrative continuity, into an interconnected history. Yet often Jacir’s performance, informed by the notes she appends to the bottom of the texts, only ends in bathos, or still more confrontations with the degraded status of Palestinian suffering, as when she fulfilled Munir’s request: “When I reached the grave of his mother, I was surprised to see a circle of tourists surrounding a grave nearby. It was the grave of Oskar Schindler. . . buried next to a woman whose son living a few kilometers away is forbidden [from] paying his respects without a permit.” The artist’s own identification with the subjects is clear, as she acts out their gestures, becomes an extension of their will, becomes them, which points to the mobility of exile itself as a shifting form of identification. Polymorphous, it drifts from geographical displacements to psychic splits to ethical contradictions, and it is inhabited by the exiled and the empathic, even while the two are far from equal.

Emily Jacir, Where We Come From (Jihad), 2001–3; Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Emily Jacir

“Diaspora”: from the Greek dia-, apart or through, + speirein, to scatter: can its tears be repaired, its pieces re-collected? This question informs the viewer’s desire too, which soon wells up when looking at the piece. We read the text on the left and then look at the task’s completion on the right (normally a one-to-one correspondence, but sometimes there are several photographs). The resolution from description to realization that we see over and over again (the series has some twenty pieces) repeats the habitual procedure of the act of reading, of narrative denouement, of the pictorial connectedness of the diptych structure. We not only see these connections repeated over and over; we come to desire them. Identifying with the position of exile, we come to pronounce the texts ourselves, repeating the first-person accounts that slip from the words of others to those of ourselves: I desire to be able to visit my mother, to enjoy everyday life in my native land, to see my friends, and so on. We want to see these things carried out for others, for ourselves. The photographs further suture the identification, as Jacir’s lens becomes the viewer’s eye. That is my shadow falling across the grave.

Emily Jacir, Where We Come From (Hana) (detail), 2001–3; Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Emily Jacir

But it is precisely the seeming ease of making this transition for the viewer—from textual description to photographic realization—that dramatizes the tragic impossibility for the exiled to realize their desires themselves. Unlike the fantasy of the genie who emerges from the bottle to grant three wishes (an Orientalist cliché the piece self-consciously plays off of), there is no happy ending here: Jacir’s “service” is to show the pathos of desire and its unlikely resolution the artistic sphere. This division—between desire and impossibility—is inscribed into the piece’s very formal logic. The more we look, the more we become aware of the gaping disjunction between the two panels, between the representational conditions of writing and those of photography, between the artist’s camera and exile’s eye. Ultimately, in any given combination, there are two very different pieces: one, an exile’s wish; the other, an artist’s performance. The wish is further split into Arabic and English, designating two separate audiences: one, the exile; the other, the viewer of art—or both together, the bilingually split subject of displacement. More, the enactment is reduced to a glossy photographic finish, which sparkles like the fetishistic cover-up that defines the photograph’s compensatory relation to loss.3 In other words, there is little salve in Jacir’s service, little benefit that can be gained from her proxy performance, little life or warmth in the photograph. As a stand-in for the realization of a yearned-for desire, the photograph is a cold and unsatisfying substitute. But, cruelly, it is the only one to be had.

It is not surprising that exchange frequently turns into a kind of compulsion for Jacir, one that reenacts in disguised form the movement that in other arenas is foreclosed. In Change/Exchange (3 Days) of 1998, Jacir took $100 and exchanged it for French francs sixty-seven times, until the sum, after three days of exchange fees, was gradually reduced to insignificance. The piece displays photographs of currency exchanges paired with receipts of transactions. Border crossings for money, these places are portals for a global economy of continual transactions. Still, even this exchange is never free, we learn, and its costs vary from place to place. Exchange can gradually wear down even money. Similarly, in My America (I am still here) of 2000, Jacir went to various stores in the World Trade Center mall and bought a variety of goods. She later returned them, completing a circuit of ownership and currency transactions. The circuit is replayed in the documentation, in which photographs of the purchases are presented with receipts of the full refund. An infinite back and forth seems possible, the object caught in an eternal return. But if My America realizes certain privileges of living in America—participating in a consumerist fantasy of infinite mobility—then the parenthetical I am still here signals the undesirability or impossibility of other returns (she is still here).

These pieces reenact exchange with veiled content. They stage a perverse inequality between things and people. That inequality is the ability of commodities to move about relatively freely through global markets and across national borders, whereas people (so often the focus in her projects) are restricted physically and geographically. People, not things, are denied entry into certain territories or nations, regimented in ways that are politically instrumental to maintaining political bodies, economic groupings, and ethnic identities. Jacir responds to this system more explicitly in Sexy Semite, a series of mock personal ads she had her friends take out in the Village Voice between 2000 and 2002. “You Stole the Land, May as Well Take the Women! Redhead Palestinian ready to be colonized by your army” reads one ad. Another: “Shalom baby! Hot Palestinian Semite gal Hoping to find my perfect Israeli man. Let’s stroll the beaches of Akka & live and love in Jerusalem. No Fatties.” Beyond the funny reversal of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict into a personals tryst, the piece’s humor turns on suggesting the unthinkable equivalence of Israel’s Law of Return (allowing any Jew to emigrate to Israel and obtain citizenship) and the controversial Palestinian right of return (claimed by Palestinian exiles, denied by Israelis).4 While for some this indicates the direction of revolutionary energies—to struggle for open borders5—for Jacir the task is more modest: to meditate on the ridiculous effects of such barriers on people’s lives, to point out that ridiculousness by contrasting it with the ease of other forms of exchange or with easy exchanges enjoyed by others.

Jacir also explores the effects of travel restrictions placed on people in Crossing Surda (a record of going to and from work) of 2003. The video shows the everyday commute to work that multitudes of Palestinians are forced to walk due to a frustrating travel checkpoint manned by Israeli soldiers. This was the last remaining open road connecting Ramallah with Birzeit University and approximately thirty Palestinian villages, until it was disrupted by the checkpoint in March 2001. Consequently, everyone, including the disabled, the elderly, and children, must now walk as far as two kilometers to cross the road. When the Israeli soldiers periodically decide to shut it down, they fire live ammunition, tear gas, and sound bombs to disperse people from the checkpoint. Shot with Jacir’s own hidden camera, the video documents the walk, occasionally showing everyday encounters between ordinary Palestinians and Israeli military might. Otherwise, the clandestine tape exposes nothing so much as the very interdiction on the representation of such borders. The frustration caused by endless checkpoints and border controls explains why Jacir once got in a car and drove in Texas for one hour without stopping. From Texas with Love of 2002 presents the resulting video: one hour showing the road ahead. The piece was no doubt directed toward Palestinians under occupation. In fact Jacir asked them the question: “If you had the freedom to get in a car and drive for one hour without being stopped (imagine no Israeli military occupation; no Israeli soldiers, no Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks, no ‘bybass’ roads), what song would you listen to?” The responses varied.

For the artist, “The ability to actually experience such a freedom in other countries is a painful marker and reminder of the impossibility of experiencing such a basic human right in Palestine.”6 There is a self-punishing side effect to such enjoyment as driving freely in Texas. When one endlessly repeats the freedom of movement here, one also continually reenacts the painful reminder of its impossibility there. For Jacir this dialectical reversal is just the point: the piece is less about the utopian escape from the restrictions of occupation, which, never naïve, is continually ironized in Jacir’s work; rather, From Texas with Love allows the expression of freedom to dramatize a profound unfreedom.

Sometimes, Jacir turns exchange into a mode of subversion. O Little Town of Bethlehem of 1999 is a series of Christmas cards, Hallmark style. One shows a color image of three men on camels riding in the desert toward a radiant manger in the distance, flanked by palm trees. Kitschy cards like this can be found at any convenience store in any town across the United States. Upon opening the card, however, one reads its consciousness-raising message:

There has not been a “silent night” in Bethlehem in over two months. Homes, churches and mosques have been under constant Israeli bombardment. Innocent civilians have been killed by U.S.-sponsored Israeli bullets and bombs. Olive trees, which Palestinians have tended to for centuries, have been razed to the ground by the Israelis.

A website is provided (www.lawsociety.org), as are the artist’s name and email address. Infiltrating the normalizing circuits of everyday exchange, both consumerist and ideological, these “Christmas cards” were clandestinely placed in stores to await unsuspecting shoppers. Other such cards display an appropriated pop-cultural image of the manger, but now with Israeli Apache helicopters (made in the USA) hovering overhead threateningly, like giant mosquitoes. The collage that united the two orders of representation is cartoonish but slick, and aside from its subversive content the representation appears like a typical holiday card; Jacir had it professionally printed. The commercial-like montage signals the collapse of one-time radical avant-garde strategies (like the work of John Heartfield) into today’s mass marketing design (Hallmark cards), revealing the domination of representational space by commercial design. Jacir’s appropriation counterattacks by reclaiming the commercial image of Bethlehem for her own arsenal. The politics of space, for Jacir, is simultaneously a war of graphic design, a contest of the distribution of propagandistic images, and a conflict over the domination of real territory. But such a representational appropriation can hardly compete with the occupation of geographical space by the formidable Israeli Defense Force. While the tactics of montage once indicated a front for opposition, today such avant-gardist fantasies can only be engaged ironically: Jacir’s intervention is minuscule, even laughable, and self-consciously so, compared to the massive machinery of control brought to bear on Middle Eastern space, discursive and geographic.7
The apparent impossibility of seizing the means of production, of reengineering revolutionary images that would dismantle the propaganda structure of power and deliver an insurgent political message to the masses—which Heartfield attempted to do in the 1930s—informs the resignation and double-edged tone one feels in much of Jacir’s work. This is perhaps why her project rarely adopts a reductively critical rhetoric or an oppositional voice confined by its politically instrumentalized speech. If it does so, it is distant from other models of conceptualist critique, even if it occasionally comes close to the older accusatory polemics of such work (such as Hans Haacke’s systematic subversion of corporations, or certain photomontage strategies of the 1970s and 1980s): rather, Jacir pursues a meditation on a political conflict and its representational complexities, and she exposes not only the oppressive policies of Israel but also the absurd and inhumane effects of such policies on Palestinian lives, as in Where We Come From.

Emily Jacir, Where We Come From (Amal), 2001–3; Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Emily Jacir

The vicarious, not victorious, realization of diasporic desires that Where We Come From performs is, in the end, no substitute for the basic rights denied to those in exile. It is exactly that failure that wins the success of this piece. Through it we confront the absences that Jacir’s service cannot fill. These instill a yearning in us, its viewers, to see some sort of resolution, to wish for an answer to the inequities of movement outside of the piece. “If I could do anything for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” The desire this question elicits is ultimately very difficult to occupy, at least for us who are not exiles, as we can only understand it—vaguely—on the basis of what we can do. What would it be like not to be able to do these things? But neither is it a position that power can occupy, for power produces it in the first place: the structure of exile is already responsive to various occupations. A feeling of sitelessness, of a damaged life, results from the experience of requiring another to carry out the wishes that can’t be performed by oneself. Consequently, one is denied the feeling of being at home in exile due to thoughts of the loss of one’s home. But this is a sitelessness that is frequently relished in exile as well, a paradox perpetuated in Jacir’s work: to refuse to feel at home while homeless and—perhaps perversely—to stubbornly own that homelessness, for the converse would only be a mark of resignation or of capitulation.8

Edward Said points out the troubling uncanniness of the Palestinian diaspora: “to have been exiled by exiles.” What results is a mirroring frequently answered with aggressivity—to deny exile even to the exiled. For it produces a double displacement, not only of bodies from territories, but of stories from history, nations from narration. But is this not a repression that only continues the mimetic cycle, eliciting aggression in turn? Said notes, “It is as if the reconstructed Jewish collective experience, as represented by Israel and modern Zionism, could not tolerate another story of dispossession and loss to exist alongside it—an intolerance constantly reinforced by the Israeli hostility to the nationalism of the Palestinians, who for forty-six years have been painfully reassembling a national identity in exile.”9 The poignancy of Where We Come From is that it begins to tell the story of the Palestinian diaspora in a way both humanizing and tragic, so that an identification might take place outside of threat, an itinerant desire without hostility.


  1. On this complicated history, see Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).
  2. Edward W. Said, “Reflections on Exile,” Granta 13 (Autumn 1984), 159.
  3. Roland Barthes writes about the photograph of his own mother as such a fetishistic stand-in for loss in Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Noonday, 1981). One could also reference Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance of 1988, which explores the renewal of a mother-daughter relationship broken apart in the midst of war-torn Lebanon in 1981. Hatoum’s focus, however, is on the material mediations of this relationship through the use of video and overlays of Arabic script that seem both to repair and to rupture.
  4. Though many missed the joke. The Anti-Defamation League and the Israeli consulate took seriously its conspiratorial tone, even imagined a terrorist agenda.
  5. For Palestinians in particular, but also for leftists in general, as in its most recent expression: Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
  6. The piece was shown in One Ground: Four Palestinian and Four Israeli Filmmakers at the University of California Riverside, California Museum of Photography, in 2003. The quote comes from the website: https://www.cmp.ucr.edu/oneground/Emily.Jacir.html.
  7. For further elaboration on the status of irony in contemporary art, see my essay “The Cruel Dialectic: On the Work of Nils Norman,” Grey Room 13 (Fall 2003).
  8. Theodor Adorno, writing in exile from Nazi Germany, reached a similar conclusion: “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (New York: Verso, 1991), 39.
  9. Said, 164.
cite as: , “Desire in Diaspora: Emily Jacir,” March 2017.San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, https://www.sfmoma.org/essay/desire-diaspora-emily-jacir/

T. J. Demos

T. J. Demos

T. J. Demos is a professor in the Department of History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the founding director of the school’s Center for Creative Ecologies. His most recent book, Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology, was published by Sternberg Press in 2016. An extended version of “Desire in Diaspora: Emily Jacir” appeared in his book The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis (Duke University Press, 2013).