The recent meeting I had with my supervisor started with a confession and apology. “I feel like I need to tell you that I did the interviews I needed to do in Sweden but haven’t gone further with my research thoughts since the last time we’ve discussed”. He asked what it was that drew my attention and I responded with a shrug, “…it was just so incredibly fascinating with Tensta Konsthall”.
Tensta Konsthall is situated below the shopping centre at the heart of Tensta neighbourhood in Stockholm. Tensta is a multicultural neighbourhood inhabited mostly by people with immigration backgrounds and was considered one of the most segregated areas in Stockholm and Europe more largely. Because of this reason, Tensta is often mentioned as an instance of a dubious architectural city planning, resulting in people testifying as feeling isolated, underserved, and marginalised. Today, Tensta is slightly more diverse, as artists and others found their home there after being pushed outside the city centre by rising living costs. Tensta Konsthall is a multifaceted art centre for the community. For newcomers, a visit to an artistically progressive art space that is taking an active part in international political and social discourses within a class-defined area such as Tensta is registered as a surprise. More informed visitors, as well as locals, see the konsthall as a nourishing space for learning and for socially and politically interaction. Thought through and run by a diverse staff that carries the local knowledge into curatorial, educational and institutional decisions, Tensta Konsthall critically demonstrates the proximity of personal situatedness to political structures. It fuses community care with the exhibition of provocative and discursive art, while also being, in the simplest manner, a safe gathering point with the nicest (and cheapest) coffee around.
On one Tuesday, Peter the Swedish-speaking volunteer at Tensta Language Café looks gripped with urgency. He takes me into the exhibition space, right at the centre point of the work ‘Stateless Heritage’ by DAAR (Decolonising Architecture Art Research). ‘Stateless Heritage’ is a constellation of large lightboxes of photographs taken from the Dheisheh refugee camp in Palestine, surrounding several open books that present the locations where the camp refugees originally came from. Today, at some of those places are Israeli villages and cities, one of them is Tzuba, a Kibbutz where Peter volunteered during his adolescence, and which has a very warm spot in his heart. Peter touches his ear, signalling me to listen carefully to the sound of the recording of a woman’s voice reading out the names of the villages. He’s accenting his hand gesture when she reaches ‘Tzuba’ and looks at me, “What do you think?”
Without asking for it, there is often the expectation from an Israeli who enters artistic, left-leaning, political circles to make a comment, and thus identify themselves politically. I would have liked to believe that I could enter places such as Tensta Konsthall, and the FEINART programme with all my other identities before the Israeli one. But because of reasons that are clear to me and that I respect, my nationality frequently wins the race toward being the main centre of attention, against my other identities. Certainly, this is a consequence of solely external expectations, but it also the outcome of my sense of urgency and curiosity, to find out, each time anew, where things stand and what is the set of responsibilities that are delegated to myself as well as the other participants, when entering these precise ‘zones’ in a conversation.
Peter reacted affectively to the sound of ‘Tzuba’. I get it. It’s a sense of urgency of wanting to defend and symmetrise the conversation around the piece with contexts that ‘shall not be left excluded’. It makes me think about the many attachments and anxieties that I need to calm down and reconcile with, to enable me genuinely to listen in those moments of conflictual exchange. It’s a worthwhile practice. In fact, the several encounters I had at Tensta that were a stimulus to personal considerations about the political intricacy I bring to the space by attesting where I come from, sedimented into the recognition of an additional consideration. During the residence at Tensta, in a spontaneous and unstrategic manner, we practiced an affordance for identities, cultures, and opinions so as they could unfold in their own way into an unconfigured dynamic of being together in some moments. Eventually I responded to Peter’s question that “ownership of and zealousness to land induce the whole conversation retrograded”. We all feel so much for this land, I wish our love could become a bridge for us to confederate for its good care.
Sundays are usually quiet at the Konsthall, therefore I found them perfect for work. Fahyma had already prepared the coffee and was surprised to see me on a Sunday. I laughed and told her that we are not as free as we might seem. I walk from the office to the coffee corner to the sun-lit bench outside; my usual fidgeting before getting into working mode. Something with the combination of my posture together with a shirt I wore that had a masculine edge to it intrigued a question in Fahyma – if I were in the army. I accepted her question with a smile, and with genuine relief that we can finally talk about the ‘elephant in the room’, a thing that would seldom occur in Swedish culture where generally confrontations are avoided. This was the moment in which we both felt it would be a good idea to use the help of Google Translate, as truly, a conversation on such a charged topic comes with very little space for misunderstandings. I confirmed that I did my mandatory service in the army, 15 years ago, in the education force, and worked with children. Not teaching them on how to shoot but doing community work as they came from homes that were considered unsafe. Fahyma said she is against the dictatorship of Asad, and I equalized that I despise Netanyahu. We agreed that solutions demand mutual compromises.
Fahyma comes from Syria, like my father’s parents, only that they came from a small Jewish community in Damascus. In a “real Tensta moment”, as Cecilia termed our speedy, slightly stressed, prepping up for the conference of the Swedish Institute in the Middle East, we’ve all joined forces for an evening of an exhibition tour, talks, and a dinner combining Fahyma’s Syrian food, samosas made by Asha, and Cecilia’s Swedish deserts. I’ve helped Fahyma with cutting and warming the Syrian dishes – Sfiha, Tabule, stuffed wine leaves – dishes that I recognise from home. Fahyma complimented my cooking skills, and I knew that it is thanks to years of strict training from some other Syrian lady, my grandmother.
There was so much that felt familiar and identifiable than foreign in my encounters with Fahyma. On the rational, informational, intelligential level this is obvious; we are all born equal and far more similar than what we are biased to think. But on the emotional and corpor(e)al level, where feelings are stored in a Middle Eastern perpetual history of distrust, such an experience is a reversing and deconstructive one, for it inscribes a new emotional and more hopeful range of associations of the other.
Thank you Tensta Konsthall for a most amazing residency. Thank you for inviting me to an incredibly well-curated and produced trip to Jokkmokk and Mesaure where together with artists, architects, curators, and thinkers we could reflect on feasible and progressive acts against violent land extractions and state violations of indigenous rights.
Thank you for a meaningful visit of the Language Café to the Jewish Museum. I’m not taking this for granted but am thankful for the openness of Swedish-language students from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to learn about Jewish history. I truly hope that we can acknowledge that above and beyond anything, we’re not willing to tolerate any manifested form of racism.
Thank you Suzanne, Paulina, Didem, George, Fahyma, Asha, and Katinka for being most welcoming and fun to meet every morning.
Thank you, dearest Cecilia, for your amazing spirit, involvement, and care. Your encouragement, even with the smallest gesture, to participate and express myself in highly challenging forums is deeply valued and that I will take with me for my future endeavours for creating alternatives to nation state hard politics.