An Interview with Inas Halabi

on display until June 3rd at de Appel
text by Sydney van Nieuwaal

As the first Spring sun beamed through the red-stained glass of de Appel, we slowly melted into the audiovisual documentations of After the Last Sky. In the exhibition, filmmaker and visual artist Inas Halabi presents three works, which all cultivate “questions about how to represent and perceive violence in the image and whether we can trust images”. Landscapes, soundscapes, forms of cooperation, and interviews in domestic spaces unearth ever-meandering strings of colonial violence. What is shown, heard and felt is a tight-knit oppressive tapestry, subjecting the regions and communities in question. Ahead of the final weekend of After the Last Sky, we had a chat with Halabi.

Inas Halabi’s After the Last Sky is on display until June 3rd at de Appel. Find more info here. On Saturday June 3rd, De Appel and Inas Halabi celebrate the finissage of the exhibition with a screening of AKA Serial Killer and Radio Alhara. More info here.

Hi Inas! After the Last Sky has been on display at De Appel for a few months now. How do you reflect on the period of the works on display?

Hey Sydney! It’s been a long journey, but overall I feel very happy with the results. The show was initially postponed, but the extra time allowed me to make curatorial decisions alongside de Appel’s new director, Lara Khaldi. We decided to present three works rather than one—what created a conversation between different geographies, connecting various anti-colonial struggles in a way that felt more fitting and urgent. It’s been such a wonderful opportunity to have my first solo show in the Netherlands take place at de Appel. 

How did you approach the space of de Appel to show the three works?

De Appel was one of the first art spaces I was introduced to when I moved to Amsterdam in 2017 and immediately became one of my favorites. I was very happy to have had the chance to present my work in de Appel’s Aula. The Aula is very large and open, with a unique architecture. The huge glass windows on either side create an immediate relationship between the interior and the exterior environment. As my work is centered around the notion of landscape, it felt perfect to present the three works here. 

Working primarily in film, my practice explores how social and political conditions of the past are inextricably linked to the present, and how colonialism manifests itself in different ways in our surrounding landscape. This is anchored in my interest in systems of power and control. I’ve been thinking a lot about how landscapes carry various forms of violence and how this affects our perception. At de Appel, I wanted to experiment with translating this concept into the exhibition. The three works on display are in conversation with each other, but also with the landscape we see outside. 

Instead of blacking-out the exhibition hall and treating the space like a cinema, I took this as an opportunity to situate my work within the fast changing landscape of Amsterdam Nieuw-West. It was crucial for me to keep the landscape outside visible. We covered the windows with red filters to create a different kind of lens which the visitor can look through while experiencing the works. The filters on the windows are a site specific installation, or an intervention. They function as a component to my short film We Have Always Known the Wind’s Direction, which focuses on the material effects of nuclear radiation—both physically and metaphorically. In both the film and the overall exhibition, the red filters are an attempt to disrupt time, place and perception, inviting the viewer to look more closely at their surroundings. The downstairs basement of the Aula gave an opportunity to explore the idea of ‘underground’ space. Since film is composed of layers of time, it was interesting to build up the exhibition in layers as well. In this sense, the basement functions as the underground. As a kind of footnote for We Have Always Known the Wind’s Direction.

We No Longer Prefer Mountains’ is inspired by fûkeiron or ‘landscape theory’—a term coined by avant-garde filmmakers who believed filming everyday landscapes can unearth the forces of “oppression that underpin one’s socio-political environment”. Can you tell us something more about this inspiration and the effect it had on the filming process?

Fûkeiron is a radical approach to film-making that emerged in Japan in the 1960’s. Fûkei means landscape in Japanese. Why landscapes mattered in fûkeiron was less about what they showed than what they did not show. Rather than dramatize a subject or an event, the camera focused on the landscape as an expression of the political and economic power relations surrounding us. To frame is to speak, to include and exclude, from near or far, up close or from long-lens distance. Approaching film through fûkeiron allows me to critically engage with situations and contexts which are historically and geographically marked by narratives of violence and repression. This, all while exploring and finding new modes of representation to highlight the instability of perspective. 

While filming We No Longer Prefer Mountains, I was constantly thinking about how the landscape we see around us is a reflection of the State and the dominant political powers at play. Some of the tactics I adopted from fûkeiron include approaching power as being not synonymous with police or military power, but with transportation and infrastructure, commerce and information. This includes the various billboards with Hebrew advertisements and the large red radio tower at the top of the mountain. Another influence is the 180° or 360° pans of the landscape where instead of showing the violence that occurred in the landscape, the camera traced the surface, following in the footsteps of a happening.  

In the film, the landscape carries a violence which is often invisible. An example is the largest Israeli national park, Carmel Forest, situated on Mount Carmel. Although this landscape seems beautiful at first sight, it was planted with foreign pine trees imported from Europe by the Jewish National Fund, atop of the remains of Palestinian villages, which were demolished by Zionist forces in 1948. The creation of these national parks was an alternative way to confiscate land belonging to the indigenous community, who are still the “owners” of the land, but are no longer allowed to use it without permission from the State.  

How much do you learn and explore yourself through the lens of your camera, or the membrane of your microphone, and how much do you document what you already know you’re searching for?

I consider the camera to be an extension of my body. Through it, I can perceive and understand my surroundings better. Film is a tool that can subvert power. It can alter and shift our perspective of the world. It’s a space where the past, present and future collapse. I wouldn’t say that I strive to document but rather attempt to create a parallel world to the one we inhabit, through film. There is a lot that I don’t know when I start working on a project. It has more to do with searching than knowing. The way I approach a topic or place usually starts with questions, and an urge to form or strengthen my relationship with both a landscape and its community. 

In the video We Have Always Known the Wind’s Direction, you aim to make the invisible visible. For instance, by using red-tinted filters, evoking the claustrophobic feeling of being encapsulated by nuclear waste. How did you arrive at the chosen means to report on this matter?

We Have Always Known the Wind’s Direction is a continuation of my previous research which explored the invisible and insensible aspects of nuclear power as an infrastructure of advanced capitalism— specifically focusing on the disasters of Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. In 2017, I was invited to participate in the Sharjah Biennial 13 Off-Site Project in Palestine. Here, I produced a publication that explored the theme of the ‘underground’. I decided to extend that research in the context of Palestine. I began collecting stories and testimonies related to the burial of nuclear waste in the south of the West Bank. Eventually, I met nuclear physicist Dr. Khalil Thabayneh, who has researched various levels of radioactivity, both natural and manmade, in areas not far away from an Israeli nuclear reactor, near the city of Dimona. According to his findings, some of these areas had high levels of Cesium 137, an artificial isotope resulting from chemical waste and nuclear testing. Also called “fall-out”. The publication was composed of 5 parts: three short stories and two books of images and text, including the red filter photographs. In 2019, I traveled back to the same areas in Palestine with my camera to further explore the impossibility of capturing radiation on film.

Hopscotch (the Centre of the Sun’s Radiance) is a longform seven-chaptered audiopiece, documenting long-lasting colonial oppression through the subject matter of train development. How did you approach your research and documentation for this project?

That project was commissioned by the Europalia Arts Festival in Belgium. The festival used Europe’s railways as a theme to explore other related narratives, histories and events. Hopscotch (the Centre of the Sun’s Radiance) starts in the first fully industrialized area in continental Europe: the region of Wallonia in Belgium. From there, it explores how histories (of labor) are embedded in the landscape, and how human struggles for power and control play out above and below the land. Before the last mines were shut down in the 1960s, The Wallonia region was considered to be the backbone of the Belgian economy. Today, it holds one of the highest unemployment rates in Belgium. The industrialization boom went hand in hand with the establishment of the train and the ongoing extraction and transportation of minerals from colonized lands.. This included the extraction of uranium ore from colonized Congo which was transported via the train to a refinery in Olen, Belgium. 

My research eventually led to a collaboration with sound recordists in Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The final work juxtaposes field recordings, oral histories and radio broadcasts—captured near the (now closed) Shinkolobwe uranium mine in the DRC and a former UMHK-owned uranium refinery in Olen, Belgium. This juxtaposition examines how the (colonial) past continues in the present, albeit under different guises.  

Hopscotch “shifts between chapters whose beginnings and ends are never the same, disrupting the notion of linear time that structures both historical and train-based narratives”. Can you elaborate on this notion of linear time?

One of the aims of Hopscotch is to disrupt the linear approach to history and time. The work borrows its title from Julio Cortazor’s book Hopscotch, whose chapters can be read out of sequence, according to the author’s instruction. The second part of the title, the Centre of the Sun’s Radiance, is borrowed from Patrice Lumumba’s Independence Speech of the DRC (1960). He compares the Congo to the center of the sun, radiating the entire African continent, emphasizing that true freedom and independence cannot be achieved as long as any part of a country or continent remains under (colonial) foreign (economic) domination.  

The industrial revolution in Belgium and elsewhere birthed the electrical telegraph, which initially replaced the sun as a measuring device. Rather than following the natural cycles of time, the train produced a machinelike cycle of synchronized time. And in its turn, that produced the society of labor which we know today: capitalism. The trains’ reliability, regularity and predictability engraved structure into the geography and psychology of the surrounding landscape and its community. 

The colonial administration, in this case Belgium, realized that without the development of transport infrastructure it would be difficult for them to extract minerals and resources from the African continent, in this case from the DRC.The train was built with the purpose of extracting uranium from the Shinkolobwe mine in Katanga to a refinery in Olen, Belgium, both owned by the Belgian mining monopoly Union Minière du Haut Katanga. This uranium was eventually used to create the first atomic bombs, used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

In what way do all three works fit under the title After the Last Sky?

The title of the exhibition is in reference to Edward Said’s book After the Last Sky (1986), which in its turn is borrowed from the line: “Where should we go after the last frontiers? Where should the birds fly after the last sky?” by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish from his poem The Earth is Closing On Us (1984). The exhibition’s title responds to the feeling of the landscape closing up on you, or suffocating you, where the direction and future of humans and nonhumans is no longer clear, but yet we still find ways to remain. Darwish writes: The Earth is closing on us pushing us through the last passage and we tear off our limbs to pass through… I wish we were pictures on the rocks for our dreams to carry as mirrors… Our star will hang up mirrors. Where should we go after the last frontiers? Where should the birds fly after the last sky…?” 

Only later, after having chosen this title for my exhibition, I noticed that “We Have Always Known the Wind’s Direction,” “Hopscotch (the Centre of the Sun’s Radiance)” and “We No Longer Prefer Mountains” all include elements from the environment or landscape in their respective titles. The landscape for me is both metaphorical and physical, taking on different layers and forms, depending on how and where we situate ourselves. 

Inas Halabi’s After the Last Sky is on display until June 3rd at de Appel. Find more info here. On Saturday June 3rd, De Appel and Inas Halabi celebrate the finissage of the exhibition with a screening of AKA Serial Killer and Radio Alhara. More info here.