Comparative monument (Shellal), 2014-2017

Glass tesserae mosaics, wooden boxes, dimensions variable, and two-channel video.

Mosaics created with the Mosaic Centre, Jericho, with mosaicists Rafat Al Khatib and Renan Barham, and project management with Osama Hamdan and Iyad Jammed. Artist assistant on mosaic cartoons: Jamie O’Connell. Video camera: Issa Freij, Christian Capurro, Tom Nicholson. Video editing: with Alex Archer. Video graphic: Mark Peters. Translation: Ameen Darwish, Yumi Maes, Reem Jaber, and Rasha Tayeh. Drivers: Walid Ghousheh and Karem Ghousheh. With the generous support and engagement from Al Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art.

Exh.: Before and after origins, Jerusalem Show, Qalandiya International, 6-22 October 2016; The National, AGNSW, Sydney, 30 March-16 July 2017.
 

 

Comparative monument (Shellal) draws on the complex history of the Shellal Mosaic, the extraordinary 6th-century Christian mosaic uncovered in Palestine by Australian soldiers in 1917, today built into the Australian War Memorial (AWM), Canberra. Developed with support from Al Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, Jerusalem, and the Mosaic Centre, Jericho, Comparative monument (Shellal) imagines the repatriation of this mosaic. A new mosaic is created, conceived as a viewing platform for the desert hill near Gaza where the Mosaic was first uncovered.

During the second battle of Gaza, 17 April 1917, a group of Australian soldiers discovered fragments of a mosaic, now known as the Shellal Mosaic. This early Christian mosaic’s abundant iconography of animals – a symbolic lexicon of values and virtues, anticipating the form of medieval bestiaries – was recorded in a remarkable set of watercolours by a young soldier, Francis McFarlane (a sketchbook now held in the AWM archive). The Mosaic's uncovering, documentation and removal coincided with the conceptualisation of an Australian national war memorial, which the foundation stone outside the AWM buildings today marks as May 1917, the very same days the Mosaic was being uncovered and documented on another, very distant hilltop. The Mosaic was subsequently shipped to Australian and built into the walls of the AWM in Canberra upon its construction, part of the building’s central symbolic axis, in the Hall of Valour.

The Shellal Mosaic’s presence in the AWM shaped the decorations of the Hall of Memory (immediately above the Hall of Valour), which the Australian artist Napier Waller decorated with a vast mosaic complex. Waller’s remarkable dome mosaic, an extraordinary yellow celestial space conjured by an elaborate Art Deco chromatic system, remains symbolically central to the AWM and its rituals today.

 

 
Comparative monument (Shellal) attempts to figure the repatriation of the Shellal Mosaic. Working with mosaicists Rafat Al Khatib and Renan Barham at the Mosaic Centre in Jericho, Nicholson created a new set of glass-tile mosaics. These mosaics are accompanied by a two-channel video work: one video including a rich array of archival photographic and film material; the second including fragments from an extended interview with the eminent Bedouin Palestinian activist Nuri al-Okbi. The project imagines an exact replica of the Shellal Mosaic, but constituted with tiles instead removed from the rich yellow hues of Waller’s Hall of Memory dome, situated immediately above the Shellal Mosaic in the Hall of Memory. Replicating tile-for-tile the original mosaic in the fragmented form in which it was transported to Australia, this double of the Shellal Mosaic bears a palette different to its original. Waller’s elaborate Art Deco chromatic systems are disorganized by the elaborate “folds” of the Byzantine mosaic, and conversely, a different set of animals begin to appear in the proto-bestiary of the Shellal mosaic through the transformations of a new chromatic order.

 
 

 
 
The project conceives this mosaic anew as a form for the hill where the Shellal mosaic was taken in 1917, a unique place where both (war-ridden) Gaza City and the (glassy new high-rises of the) Israeli city of Beersheba/Be’er Sheva/Bir Saba can (just) be seen from one place, like two fata morganas on the horizon. Comparative monument (Shellal) imagines the repatriated mosaic as a platform where Gaza City and Beersheba might be regarded at once, a ground where these two cities might begin to come into view together.


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