Kareem Estefan

Brown University

Kareem Estefan is a PhD candidate in Modern Culture and Media at Brown University.

Decolonial Witnessing:
Opacity, Speculation, and World-Building in Contemporary Palestinian Visual Culture

"Palestinian cultural production has in large part been bound to an ethical and political imperative of counter-memory since 1948. Compelled to act as witnesses of an ongoing catastrophe, Palestinian artists and filmmakers have produced ample visible evidence of suffering and struggle, while critiquing Zionist settler-colonial erasures of Palestinian identity and history. Today, however, the documentary exposure of Israeli state violence and the elicitation of sympathy for Palestinians as victims constitute restrictive conventions symptomatic of a post-Oslo era of NGOization. Palestinian artists are increasingly rejecting such aims as beholden to the ideologies and institutions that govern the funding, circulation, and reception of
visual culture from Palestine and the broader Middle East today. My project therefore focuses on Palestinian artistic practices of witnessing, primarily in film/video, photography, and digital media, which confront the limits of humanization through strategies of opacity, fabulation, speculation, and world-building.

What does it mean to witness other possible worlds amid the ruins of historic Palestine? I examine a range of theoretical inquiries into repair, representation, and imagination in the wake of catastrophe, including Saidiya Hartman’s model of “critical fabulation,” Ariella Azoulay’s proposals for “potential history,” and Jalal Toufic’s concept of the “withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster.” I also analyze the role of the witness within the discourses of international law, human rights, and social trauma, and in relation to Palestinian instantiations of the witness such as Naji al-Ali’s Handala character, in order to give shape to a figure I call “the opaque witness.” Building on the “right to opacity” posited by Édouard Glissant, I explore the questions: How might the refusal to produce visibly suffering subjects in need of human rights advocacy and humanitarian aid engender new forms of relational witnessing and co-resistance? How can we conceive of the witness as a figure associated not only with seeing, remembering, and testifying, but also with the imaginative capacities of fabulation and speculation—and channel these energies toward an emancipatory poetics and politics of decolonization? I discuss these questions and strategies through moving images from Palestine and its diaspora by Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Yazan Khalili, Larissa Sansour, and Elia Suleiman, while drawing inspiration from a range of Palestinian and Arab art, cinema, and literature, including Ibtisam Azem’s The Book of Disappearance, Mohamad Malas’ The Dream, and the parafictional videos, performances, and installations of post-war Lebanese artists."

--Kareem Estafan, 2020