Do you know how many UNESCO World Heritage sites are there across the globe? As of November 2021 there are 1154 sites. Do you know where the majority of them are? Well, I had a look at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre website and 545 are located in Europe and North America combined, which is a whopping 47% of the total number. This is hardly surprising, but what can be done to change this uneven distribution? Keep reading for a story of a very special UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination.
‘DAAR’ means home in Arabic and it is the name of the art and architecture collective established by Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti (Decolonize Architecture Art Research). The current exhibition titled Stateless Heritage at the Mosaic Rooms is a result of their research into the Dheisheh refugee camp, one of the oldest refugee camps in the world. The Dheisheh refugee camp is located in Palestine, near Bethlehem. It was set up back in 1949, around the start of the Nakba, which marked the beginning of forcible displacement of the Palestinians to make way for the new state of Israel.
If asked to picture in our heads what a refugee camp looks like, we would quite likely imagine an area filled with rows of tents in an otherwise empty space. Confront this mental image with the beautiful photographs of the Dheisheh camp that are displayed in lightboxes in Room 1. DAAR commissioned this series from Luca Capuano, the photographer who previously photographed UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy. It is easy to see how those images do not fit into a stereotypical image of a refugee camp. As explained by Alessandro Petti in an interview, DAAR wanted to subvert the image we often see in the news reports, which show an ‘endless day’ in the refugee camps. All the images of the Dheisheh camp displayed in the lightbox installation were taken during the night, which resulted in an atmospheric, almost theatrical quality of the photographs.
Downstairs in Room 2 is a display of albums with photographs from the 44 demolished villages where the refugees’ family homes used to be. Each book is placed on a plinth. The plinths are of different heights, and their arrangement brings to mind ruined foundations of a building. The visitors are encouraged to leaf through the albums and see what became of the 44 villages. Empty fields with occasional piles of sun-bleached rubble, or new buildings built by the state of Israel. It’s quite a chilling display, especially bearing in mind that the displaced Palestinians, who once called these places their home, are not allowed the right to return.
At the recent 17th Architecture edition of the Venice Biennale (2021), the DAAR collective presented their nomination of the Dheisheh refugee camp and the 44 villages of origin as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hilal and Petti admit that there are no real chances for the site to get accepted, according to the current guidelines. Yet, it was important for them to go through the documentation process as an artistic expression and as a way to open the conversation.
The artists are asking the visitors to think about what heritage means to them, and reflect on how, perhaps, we could change the definition of a World Heritage Site. A series of important questions follow, such as: who controls the historical narrative, who does heritage belong to, what does it mean to decolonize heritage? Lastly, who should have a right to nominate the sites? Currently only the nation states who adhere to the World Heritage Convention are eligible, but what if your state is not even recognized by the international community? To make things even more complicated, the World Heritage Site status might give a false sense of permanence to the refugee camp, which was meant to be only temporary.
The final room of the exhibit is The Living Room (Al-Madafeh), a welcoming space where you can have a look at other selected materials related to the exhibition. Many of the items on display in this space were borrowed from Palestinian refugees. While visiting the exhibition you can listen to a selection of music tapes, and watch two films. The films screening in November are Asmat – Names (Italy, 2015) by Dagmawi Yimer and The Great Wall (2015) by Tadgh O’Sullivan. I highly recommend that you leave yourself plenty of time for your visit. The Living Room will be a venue for a series of upcoming cultural events, you can check the Mosaic Rooms website for dates and times.
Thought-provoking and essential exhibition.
DAAR – Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti | Stateless Heritage
Runs at The Mosaic Rooms, London from 13/10/21 until 30/01/22
https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/stat UNESCO statistics
https://mosaicrooms.org/event/daar-stateless-heritage/ The Mosaic Rooms Stateless Heritage exhibition website
http://www.decolonizing.ps/site/media/ DAAR website
https://www.lucacapuano.com/the-architecture-of-exile/ Luca Capuano’s website
http://www.decolonizing.ps/site/about/ DAAR website
https://mosaicrooms.org/events/ Events at The Mosaic Rooms
Check out the online shop of Disarming Designs if you would like to support Palestinian artists and designers: https://disarmingdesign.com/about/