“This isn’t political, it’s humanitarian.” Jane Frere.
Each one is different. You can’t be sure of course, it would take a long time to study each of the 3,000 figures suspended from the ceiling of Patriothall Gallery. But although it’s the mass of humanity that you notice when you first walk into the gallery, I think it is the individuality of each little model that makes Return of the Soul so very moving.
Return of the Soul: the Nakbah Project, perhaps the most powerful exhibition in the Edinburgh Arts Festival, symbolises the exodus of 750,000 Palestinian men, women and children displaced by the creation of Israel 60 years ago. The wax figures were made in Bethlehem and the West Bank and in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. The workshops were led by artist Jane Frere who taught her students how to make the figures and at the same time she recorded their stories and memories triggered by deceptively banal questions such as, “What were you wearing the night you were evicted from your home?”
Mundane details catch the eye: a basket, a walking stick, a shawl. Others catch something deeper inside: a tiny babe in arms; a dead or sleeping body carried on the shoulder. The exhibition has a disturbing beauty which reminds me of images of other displaced peoples across the world so hauntingly documented by the photographer Sebastiao Salgado in his studies of ‘humanity in transition’.
People are on the move in their millions and wittingly (through our wars) or unwittingly (through the goods we buy) we all play our part in dislocating the lives of other human beings. Like Salgado, Jane Frere encourages the viewer to look and think for themselves about the continuing dehumanisation of people forced to leave their homes. This is not about politics, she says in newspaper interviews, it’s about people.
And one way and another her art involves a lot of people. The exhibition was hung with the help of many volunteers painstakingly attaching each small figure to transparent wires and then climbing on to scaffolding to suspend them from the ceiling. Among the volunteers was my friend and fellow Leith Open Spacer Nick Gardner whose excellent website coverage of the exhibition is among the media reviews displayed on the gallery wall.
Each figure will have to be taken down with equal care and volunteers will be needed for that too. So if you happen to be free between 8 am and midnight on August 18-20, leave your name at the gallery or email email@example.com
Return of the Soul is at Patriothall Gallery, Wasps studio, Stockbridge, until 18 August. There’s an interesting Aljazeera clip of an interview with Jane during the Jerusalem exhibition of Return of the Soul in May this year.
This is a very slightly changed version of my post on Leith Open Space website