The Holy Land’s Contested Image, as Explored by Contemporary Artists –

The Holy Land’s Contested Image, as Explored by Contemporary Artists –


While all landscape has, in the words of art historian W. J. T. Mitchell, a “remarkable capacity” to “open up false depths, selective memories, and self-serving myths,” few places are as intensively imagined as the Holy Land. The terrain associated with the Abrahamic religions has been fervently remembered, visualized, and prayed for, often from afar, for millennia—in everything from calls sung on Passover expressing hope to meet next year in Jerusalem to the psalm for the city’s peace to the story of Muhammad’s night journey and ascension to heaven there. Comprising parts of present-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, the Holy Land is a nebulous geo-religious concept that has been shaped and repeatedly transformed not only by religion but also by the political struggles of statecraft and conquest.

Related Articles

A portrait on wood of a distinctive older man's face featuring a bulbous, red nose; a droopy eye; and a shaggy beard. A possible Rembrandt.

Those struggles stretch from the formation of the ancient kingdoms of the Israelites described in the Hebrew Bible to Roman, Christian, and Islamic conquests of Jerusalem thereafter, and into the rise of modern Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel. Many who mapped messianic projections of the Holy Land onto a physical landscape sought to remake the place as they had envisioned it, in ways often detrimental to those already there. While such broad historical arcs are often reduced to clichés of either eternal, timeless conflict or redemptive, millennial return, today, artists from Israel-Palestine deal more specifically with the contemporary consequences of these imaginings made real. Confronting the disjuncture between the lived realities of this place and how it has been mediated from afar, they scrutinize the relationship between material and ideological constructions of the Holy Land.

Modern technologies facilitated a transformation of Holy Land representations from distant visions to indexical representations: not only did the steamship and the railway make international travel far more accessible, but the invention of photography provided new kinds of images of the place. Jerusalem was first photographed by daguerreotype in 1839, the same year that process was announced to the world. An image of the city captured by Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet was reproduced as an engraving with aquatint in Excursions Daguerriennes, a catalogue of places high in the European imaginary commissioned by French optician and daguerreotypist Noël-Marie-Paymal Lerebours, alongside pictures of the Acropolis in Athens, the pyramids of Egypt, and Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris.

A black-and-white print on off-white paper depicts Jerusalem in the distance, with trees and a shepherd with sheep in the foreground.

Frédéric Goupil-Fesquet: Palestine. Jérusalem, 1842, engraving with aquatint, 5¾ by 7 inches.

Courtesy Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Jerusalem’s prominence in the earliest history of urban landscape photography also signals how such images further transformed other representations of the Holy Land that ultimately led to material changes to the urban fabric of Jerusalem. The widely circulated view of Jerusalem taken by Goupil-Fesquet (whose daguerreotypes are mostly lost, and known through the prints based on them) was shot from outside the Old City, slightly east and from a higher elevation, highlighting the city’s outer walls constructed by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and, above all, the Dome of the Rock. In the foreground, in front of the walls of the city, is a pastoral scene of a shepherd with sheep grazing on the hills, an idyllically composed detail almost certainly not captured in the original daguerreotype but added later, likely during production of the printer’s plate.

By the mid-19th century, the city of Jerusalem had expanded beyond the walls of the Old City, with suburban settlements radiating out from the city center. During the British Mandate that saw the United Kingdom take political control of the region after World War I, however, the areas immediately beyond the wall were carefully transitioned into green belts, in a process that would physically produce the pastoral landscape that European artists had first envisioned. This view of Jerusalem from an elevated distance contrasts with the landscapes of Palestinian artist Sophie Halaby (1906–1997), whose watercolors of the city and its surroundings made both before and after the formation of the State of Israel are generally devoid of iconic landmarks. Often painted from the windows and balcony of her home, they express a sense of intimacy, both with the Musrara neighborhood where her family lived until 1948 and with her East Jerusalem surroundings following their forced move to the then Jordanian side of the Green Line.

A watercolor is dominated by beige hues depicting hills, with a ribbon of green threading through the landscape. In the background is a washy blue sky.

Sophie Halaby: Untitled, 1952, watercolor and pencil on paper, 17⅞ by 20⅞ inches.

Courtesy Ramzi & Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation, Beirut

The photographers who arrived to document and distribute images of this sacred ground incentivized the religious to explore the Holy Land as both pilgrims and photographers themselves. The American Colony in Jerusalem was established in 1881 by a small group of utopian-minded Presbyterians from the American Midwest and later a group of Swedes, who became philanthropists in the city as they sought a Christian lifestyle within the Holy Land. They bought a building on the outskirts of the city (now in East Jerusalem) on the road to Nablus. (Today their communal residence is a hotel, a favorite location for international journalists and others who straddle the Israeli-Palestinian divide.) Elijah Meyers, a member of the colony, began taking photographs of the region, inviting other members of the community to join him. The sale of their pictures, focused especially on Christian scenes, ruins, and the local population, kept the colony economically afloat and provided an international Christian clientele with hand-painted photographic scenes of a land supposedly divorced from modernity. Members also collected other materials related to what they believed was the authentic sacredness of their surroundings, including examples of local flora and fauna, in a combination of museological taxonomy and spiritual witnessing.

Those 19th-century pressed-flower albums are the starting point for a recent project by Jerusalem-born, Jaffa-based artist Dor Guez. Lilies of the Field (2019–21) is the result of a two-stage photographic process. First, Guez photographed a series of American Colony pressed-flower albums, paying close attention to the remaining red and orange carotenoid pigment that over the years had seeped from the flowers onto a protective sheet of wax paper. Guez then produced a negative of that photograph, inverting the color scheme of the original and producing a cyanotype-like print. The project not only emphasizes the material traces or residue of the original flowers but also explores questions of veracity and romanticism in these individuals’ interpretations of the Holy Land.

On a black background, an image of a plant seems to glow blue, as if phosphorescent.

Courtesy Dvir Gallery/Brussels

While the American Colony pressed-flower albums were given names of Holy Land locations—such as Jerusalem and Jericho—the flowers arranged in compositions were not always native to those places. The American Colony was one of many groups to attach biblical meaning to the landscape, or to invent such meaning altogether. For example, George E. Post, a botanist at what is now the American University of Beirut and a Christian missionary, believed that scientifically studying the flora and fauna of the Holy Land would bring new Christian revelations. (Another contemporary artist, Jumana Manna, explores the contradictions therein in her 2016 installation Post Herbarium.) 

Jerusalem-born, Brooklyn-based artist Tali Keren probes how such understandings of the Holy Land have sustained modern Israel’s self-image as an “old new” nation state—and whose politics such religious imaginings ultimately serve. Her participatory projects and immersive film installations interpolate viewers into the ideological struggles reshaping contemporary Israel-Palestine. Keren’s Un-Charting (2021–) is an animated 20-minute video that explores historical and contemporary evangelical Christian visions of Jerusalem. The holy city appears in the work not as it is today, a dense aggregate of historical and modern architecture constituting a politically divided urban geography, but as a perfectly organized orthogonal grid.

This schema sprang from the mind of Richard Brothers (1757–1824), a British naval officer based in what was then the British colony of Canada. One of the founders of “British Israelism” (a school of thought declaring the British the inheritors of the Promised Land) and an eccentric proselytizer who declared himself  “Prince of the Hebrews,” Brothers spent years formulating his new Jerusalem based on his own idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible, including the Book of Ezekiel and its prophetic descriptions of heaven. Convinced he would conquer and rebuild the Holy Land in the manner of the crusaders who came before him, Brothers mapped out his utopian order through the spatial logic of a God’s-eye view.

In Keren’s work, Brothers’s vision of the new Jerusalem is rendered against a dark background as
a series of neon lines forming a checkerboard pattern of perfect squares. The animation zooms across this abstract city until the viewer reaches the exact center—a geometrically perfect Garden of Eden. Audio description of Brothers’s vision segues to the contemporary musings of
an Israel outreach specialist at an evangelical Christian church in Denver, Colorado, and her counterpart in Israel. As the two separately discuss the American churchgoers’ trips to Israel, and the folk dances they perform as entertainment for the Israeli military, Keren’s animation transitions to another landscape: a model city for military training at the Tze’elim base in Israel near the border with Gaza, built in 2005. Viewers are invited to trace the connections between the two sites and their material effects.

A digitally rendered scene from an animation is dominated by purple-pink hues. The image centers on a building in the distance that seems to be part of an illuminated city grid. The illuminated grid is shown from above in a small image at the top right corner of the frame.

Tali Keren: Un-Charting, 2021–, 3D animation, 17 minutes.

Courtesy Tali Keren

Keren’s earlier video The City’s Craftswoman (2015) follows a workday for Natasha Ostrovsky, who produces models for new buildings in Jerusalem after permits have been secured but before structures have been erected. As Natasha adds her maquettes to an enormous model of Jerusalem in the city hall basement, Keren illustrates how constant change structures a city touted for its timeless character—specifically by demolishing older buildings, particularly in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and putting in their place new ones that have been approved by the Israeli government. Ostrovsky removes prior building models, carefully placing them in plastic containers, and slots in recently approved construction.

Because of discriminatory housing policies, Palestinian residents have a far more difficult time obtaining permits than Israelis and Jewish settlers, thus reshaping the city’s demographics and physical structure. Since 1947, when the city was still under British rule, all new construction in Jerusalem has been mandated to be faced with a light-hued golden limestone or dolomite known as Jerusalem stone. This material has imbued the city with a sense of timeless homogeneity that is anything but, as Keren’s film reveals. The model in The City’s Craftswoman parallels the God’s-eye view of the city from above in Un-Charting; both films illustrate the intensive desire to reshape the Holy Land.

Rather than look to explicit historical referents, Palestinian Danish artist Larissa Sansour’s film and photo works turn more speculatively toward the relationship between imagined pasts and projected dystopian futures. In Vitro (2019) is a 28-minute, two-channel film codirected with Søren Lind that turns a science-fiction lens on the Palestinian Nakba (the “catastrophe” of the 1948 occupation) and its role in the construction of memory. The black-and-white film opens with a major disaster befalling the city of Bethlehem: A tsunami of dark liquid rushes through the streets; within seconds the waves course through the interior of the Church of the Nativity, the best-known and most-visited site in Bethlehem. Soon the entire city is engulfed in flames, plumes of black smoke billowing into the atmosphere.

After this dramatic opening, the majority of the film takes place in a cavernous concrete shelter where Alia, a younger woman born in the aftermath of this catastrophe, visits an older woman named Dunia, who is confined to a hospital bed. As the two converse it becomes apparent that nature is beginning to regenerate, although it is not yet safe to travel outside; people move through subterranean tunnels. As they talk, Alia peers out the windows of their shelter to see signs of life: though still unpopulated by humans, the street outside is lined with small olive trees and other native plants adjacent to concrete structures enclosed in glass.

Alia and Dunia’s conversation is interspersed with images of Bethlehem before the disaster, as nuns, priests, worshippers, and laypeople go about their daily business. Brief shots of nuns wearing gas masks as they bravely walk the postapocalyptic streets of Bethlehem highlight the extremes to which the religiously devout might go to maintain their sacred practices, despite the risk (and implied likelihood) of death. As Alia comments that life will soon return to a semblance of normalcy, she notes, “even the worshippers have returned.” Dunia replies, “Many of them never left,” suggesting that some may have died because they refused to leave their holy sites when a plague swept through the city.

The arrival of the new faithful repopulating the city ultimately mirrors Alia’s own story. It is revealed that she was conceived in vitro and implanted with the memories of a previous era; like the plants she intends to grow aboveground, she unwittingly carries the seed of an “heirloom” generation. She poignantly describes this experience as being “raised on nostalgia.” What ensues is an increasingly heated debate between the two women on the meaning and imperfection of memory and its role in establishing a future. As they talk, the lines between natural and artificial, fact and fiction, come to the fore.

Whether or not Alia directly experienced her memories of the outside world, those imaginings serve an important function in the rebuilding of a society that exceeds her frustrated personal wishes and desires. A thinly veiled metaphor for the Nakba, In Vitro reveals the younger generation’s struggle to carry a memory of a past they never knew, arguing that these images in the mind’s eye are what matters in the present: as Dunia explains, “the past never was, it only is.” More than warning that the past informs the future, Sansour appears to argue that what we understand to be the past is an active part of our present, which must be constantly reconstructed. Dunia argues for the continual retrieval of memory because she understands that it is the core of building a society anew, for better or worse; Alia’s responses, by turns upset and equivocal, affirm her uneasy acceptance of the responsibility to care for the images of the past.

Bethlehem-born, New York–based Ayreen Anastas’s films m* of Bethlehem (2003) and Pasolini Pa* Palestine (2005) interrupt any sense of nostalgia by documenting the daily realities of life in Palestine. Serving as a kind of video map, m* of Bethlehem slowly reveals the social and political tensions of a city under occupation. Stationary shots around the city capture water heaters and solar panels dotting rooftops, pairs and small groups of locals walking the city’s avenues, and church towers interrupting the skyline but appearing unremarkable when viewed from back alleys. What first appears to be a compendium of mundane images of contemporary life in Bethlehem is soon disturbed by the artist’s voiceover.

A video still shows shaky color footage seemingly shot from a car. Ahead, other vehicles are on the road lined by streetlights. A subtitle reads,

Ayreen Anastas: Pasolini Pa* Palestine, 2005, video, 51 minutes.

Courtesy Ayreen Anastas

Seeming to offer dictionary definitions without their accompanying headwords, and alphabetical lists of words without their attendant meanings, the film makes sometimes associative, sometimes arbitrary connections between the utterances, leaving the viewer struggling to grasp the relation between word and image. The voiceover begins to stutter, “ba-ba-baba-babel-babe-babel-baboon,” yielding other words: barbarism, barrier, barricade. The camera moves to locations outside the city center, including what appears to be a fortified Israeli settlement atop a hill. Papers nailed to trees presumably providing official notification—of eviction? destruction?—flutter in the distance. Shops and grocery stores close for business well before dark, likely as curfew is imposed. The m* in the title—the asterisk is a reference to the star of Bethlehem—could refer to a truncated map or withheld meaning.

In Pasolini Pa* Palestine, Anastas retraces the path of Italian neorealist filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini across Israel and Palestine during a 1963 trip to scout locations for his biblical drama The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). Seeking aspects of the divine in the landscape, Pasolini traversed the Holy Land—Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea—alongside a Catholic priest and a newsreel photographer. Much to his dismay, modernity followed him everywhere, with telephone poles and factories interrupting the images of biblical ruins in his mind’s eye. Anastas follows Pasolini’s footsteps in the present, critiquing the search for, in his words, an “archaic biblical world,” and revealing the complexities of contemporary life in Israel-Palestine. While Anastas pursues the same route as Pasolini, she distances herself from the filmmaker’s romantic gaze by both highlighting the contemporary landscape and interviewing subjects along the way: a Palestinian in the recently annexed Golan Heights shows off his Israeli identification card, and a man living on a kibbutz expresses feelings of disconnection from the community. Both offer a sense of unease and disillusionment about their place in an increasingly fraught and unstable landscape.

Pasolini eventually produced a documentary based on his travels, Sopralluoghi in Palestina (Location Hunting in Palestine) in 1965, but he never found his envisioned setting for The Gospel According to St. Matthew in the Holy Land. Instead, he conveyed his disappointment in the surroundings, asking how the gospels could have been written in such a landscape, which he described as “paltry [with] no scenography.” He eventually settled for an altogether different site—the scenic southern Italian city of Matera—reimagining the Holy Land once again, now almost wholly divorced from the place he visited. 

It is toward, and against, such visual fictions and their material effects that many of these artists today turn their critical eye. Like Alia in Sansour’s In Vitro, these artists grapple with the material consequences of nostalgia for a place remembered or pictured through the stories of others. While such visual fictions can be critiqued and analyzed, they can also never be fully disentangled from the histories that have given them form, and they continue to reshape the terrain. The question then increasingly becomes: which fictions will take hold, and whose interests and needs will they serve?