The photo that remembered how to forget

Linnéa Bake on Noor Abuarafeh's Resistive Narratives at Kunstverein München

November 16, 2023

Noor Abuarafeh, Resistive Narratives, 2023 installation view

In September, Kunstverein München opened Palestinian artist Noor Abuarafeh’s first solo exhibition in Germany. Abuarafeh’s work deals sensitively with the politics of archives and art history, and the exhibition ruminates on how to narrate and recuperate histories of Palestinian art and life. Even before Hamas’ deadly atrocities on October 7 and Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza, Abuarafeh’s exhibition made an important and necessary contribution to Germany’s cultural landscape, where Palestinian voices are often marginalized. As the country’s cultural institutions now cancel programs with Palestinian, Arab, and left-wing Jewish artists and writers—as well as cultural producers invested in decolonial projects, often from the Global South—who have voiced solidarity with Palestinians, the exhibition takes on new, urgent resonance. Curator and writer Linnéa Bake reviews the exhibition, which closes this weekend.

Noor Abuarafeh, Resistive Narratives, Kunstverein München, September 9–November 19, 2023.

Can a photograph fail to remember the event it captured? Can a memory be something one did not live first-hand, but which one is sure belongs to them? Can either be trusted? In a letter to Sylvia Wynter dated May 2020, Israel-born theorist Ariella Aïsha Azoulay reflects on intergenerational memory and her Arab-Jewish Algerian ancestry. She begins with a postcard that depicts a photochrome image of twelve Algerian girls in an embroidery school for Arab girls in French-colonized Algeria in 1905. In her ensuing critique of the universalization of identities in service of dominant historical narratives, Azoulay positions photographs as constitutive documents in the history of modern citizenship. A photograph bears the traces of the encounter between the photographer and the photographed—and, importantly, the spectator—all of whom become constituents of a civil contract: For Azoulay, photography may contribute to a public and collective space that creates conditions of citizenship and participation beyond the regulation of governing powers.1 In its capacity to constitute intergenerational memory, Azoulay suggests that a photograph is more than evidence. Refusing the imperial logic that relies on disrupting intergenerational memories, despite having no memories from Alegria of her own, Azoulay states in her letter, “I am not inclined to let this manufactured absence determine what I remember and what could and ought to be remembered.”2

Taking up this tension between documentation and the limits of the archive, Noor Abuarafeh’s exhibition Resistive Narratives at Kunstverein München explores how material traces and absences of memory work to construct historiography, its temporalities and subjectivities. The Palestinian artist’s first institutional solo exhibition in Germany engages with the politics of the archive through five video works, spanning ten years of her practice. The videos collectively interrogate the role that museums, archives, and other institutionalized forms of documentation play in constructing national subjecthood, while simultaneously examining the vacuum created by their absence.

Noor Abuarafeh, Observational Desire on a Memory That Remains, 2014, video still

The exhibition takes an archival object as its point of departure: a color photograph, around which the narration of Abuarafeh’s short video Observational Desire on a Memory That Remains (2014) unfolds. The photograph shows fourteen men, all Palestinian artists, gathered at an exhibition in Jerusalem in 1985. Some stand and others squat, and most of them direct their gaze towards the camera. Abuarafeh’s video investigates the artists’ identities and whereabouts, employing mostly still imagery (the photograph as well as other archival sources) to delve into the history of modern Palestinian art, its key figures and protagonists, platforms and documentation. This history and its sources have been obscured and repressed by the conditions of occupation and war, displacement, and dispossession—conditions that continue to determine Palestinian life and that, by extension, as Abuarafeh highlights in her work, have historically obstructed the formation of its archives. 

Fragments of the artist’s investigation unfold in a dialogic form, alternating between a narration from Abuarafeh’s perspective and a fictional account of the late artist Sager Al-Qatel, who is present in the work’s central photograph. The attempt to trace the whereabouts of the fourteen artists’ artworks—many of which now exist only as black-and-white photocopies or from family members’ descriptions from memory—soon reveals that the group portrait, assumed to be photographic documentation, is actually a photorealistic painting. In an act of “museological mimicry,” the artist Khalil Rabah commissioned the painting for his 2011 Art Exhibition series, a body of work that converts photographs of Palestinian art exhibitions into photorealistic paintings.3 

There are thus several layers of fictionalization at play in Abuarafeh’s work. Not only does the very source material of her investigation turn out to be a reproduction, but the narrator, himself one of the deceased subjects of this investigation, speaks from a perspective imagined by Abuarafeh. Such “parafictional strategies,” as Carrie Lambert-Beatty has proposed, may be oriented less toward the disappearance of the real than toward the pragmatics of trust.4 As Abuarafeh carefully intertwines fictional dialogue with actual interviews, real histories with imagined perspectives on them, her works instill critical doubt in the spectator. Employing deception to allow for the possibility of its discovery, parafiction—where the fiction hinges on fact—encourages us to evaluate “not only whether a proposition is fictional, but what parts of it are true.”5 The resulting alertness in the viewer that Lambert-Beatty asserts resonates throughout the encounter with the works in the exhibition.

Noor Abuarafeh, The Magic of the Photo That Remembers How to Forget, 2018, video still

Abuarafeh’s video The Magic of the Photo That Remembers How to Forget (2018) continues the artist’s engagement with the assumed photograph and its stages of reproduction. By asking who might have been omitted from the original group and why, the narrator speculates on the political and ideological motivations behind such acts of omission and the gaps that emerge in their place. A dedication to Palestinian woman artist Vera Tamari (born 1945)—recognized as one of the West Bank’s leading artists of the late twentieth century and active in the same circles as the men in the portrait—hints at who Abuarafeh might suspect is missing from the image. 

These first two works challenge the viewer with an almost forensic approach to content and form by interacting with an archival source, following the clues it leaves behind, and restaging its setting in an attempt at historical remapping. Similar artistic approaches to thinking historically about the present can be traced in the works of other artists who take up Palestine’s history and contemporary condition—such as Larissa Sansour, Basma Al-Sharif, Oraib Toukan, or Jumana Manna—and in their employment of both documentary and fictional strategies in search for truth and its multiplicities. Not only do the parafictional elements in Abuarafeh’s works create tactical ambiguities in search of historical truth, but their spectatorial engagement and “civil contract” galvanize viewers into forming their own subjective negotiations with archival traces.  

Following this thinking, it becomes clear that Abuarafeh does not seek to offer a coherent historical account or to “solve” a case. Instead, her seven-to-fifteen-minute-long videos attempt multiple readings and leave things unsaid and questions unanswered. They are accumulations of loose threads that collectively point to how twentieth-century Palestinian art history has been traumatically divided, dispersed, and doubted. The inevitable concomitant lack of documentation and knowledge production leaves many subjects nameless and “inventoried” persons reduced to numbers. Abuarafeh herself employs a formal gesture of indexing the subjects in her investigations, pointing to the broader dehumanization of Palestinian individuals in dominant history writing, in archival as well as contemporary forms of visual representation.

Noor Abuarafeh, Directions for Intimate Solutions or Seemingly More Intimate, 2013, video stills

Deeper into the exhibition, the earliest work on view acts as a formal blueprint for the artist’s approach to problematizing the archive’s claim to objectivity. In this silent film, Directions for Intimate Solutions or Seemingly More Intimate (2013), Abuarafeh manually interacts with objects and photographs from a family archive. The camera pans across the still imagery as if peeping through a hole; the artist’s hands appear in the frame, successively rendering the depicted people anonymous by covering their faces—at once a critical reinscription of their dehumanization and a gesture of resistant opacity. With this simple yet ambiguous gesture, Abuarafeh complicates the relation between a photographer’s/ spectator’s/ archivist’s voyeuristic gaze on individual fates and histories, while equally highlighting the significance of these privately recorded memories’ role as source material for the construction of public knowledge. 

Abuarafeh’s exhibition comes during a year in which the Kunstverein München has rigorously engaged with its institutional role and responsibility as an archive where public knowledge is accumulated and constituted. The institution celebrated its bicentennial this year and dedicated its program and an extensive publication not only to its institutional history but also to the public role that the Kunstverein-model has played in Germany since the nineteenth century. Throughout its programming in recent years, the Kunstverein München has scrutinized its institutional past, including the institution’s complicity with the Nazi regime.6 The motivation for these recent programs has been the assumed incompleteness of the Kunstverein’s archive; the institution has framed itself as a subject to be held accountable and has restaged its archive not in a feigned completeness but through an attempted topography of its gaps.

Central to this project is the question of whether the archive helps us to remember, or if its partiality might contribute to a process of forgetting.7 Resistive Narratives, and Abuarafeh’s practice as a whole, is also invested in this line of inquiry, insisting that archives, collections, and the institutions that house them are not and cannot be treated as impartial spaces. The exhibition design, however, follows a minimalist, almost clinical aesthetic that appears at odds with the negation of such neutrality: In the main hall of the Kunstverein, Abuarafeh’s videos are presented on uniformly sized screens installed on plywood cubicles reminiscent of transport crates. The otherwise empty, white-walled space is ordered by the experience of watching each video in its “crate,” a rigidity that is only partly overcome by overlapping sound, allowing the simultaneity of multiple voices in the space. Referencing the precarious conditions of (indefinite) transit that Abuarafeh thematizes in her search for lost Palestinian artworks, the exhibition design acts as a rather literal backdrop. Moreover, this presentation risks aestheticizing museum storages or archival shelves as a neutral zone or vacuum, rather than manifesting critical perspectives of the archive as a real (spatially, geographically, institutionally determined) place where the violence of interpretive authority and the asymmetry between the collector and the collected intersect. 

Noor Abuarafeh, Resistive Narratives, 2023, installation view

Noor Abuarafeh, Resistive Narratives, 2023, installation view

Abuarafeh’s engagement with the formation of dominant narratives and the museum as a transit zone of asymmetrical agencies is most strikingly conveyed in her film Am I the Ageless Object at the Museum? (2018). In a poetic narration, the fifteen-minute video departs from the connections between the museum and the zoo, cautiously intertwining their institutional histories in an interrogation of the colonial epistemologies that underlie these disciplinary practices of “collecting.” Throughout the film, Abuarafeh’s camera pans from living animals in the artificial environment of their zoo cages to taxidermy displays in a natural history museum. The work is guided by the male narrator’s voice through an associative and asynchronous reflection on classification and its perplexingly wry effects: “The home sparrow was an exotic gift the colonizer found in the countries he colonized / […] In Pakistan they regarded it as a bird, of course. / But in Europe they categorized it as an insect!” Increasingly conflating the perspective of the observer and the observed, the work deploys both equivocal metaphors and sober observation to unveil how the zoo, as a collection of animals, conforms to the institutional congruency of the museum as well as the graveyard, “because they are both full of stories.” 

The notion of the museum as the place where ‘objects go to die’ continues in an installation that frames this video. The assemblage of “ageless objects” ranging from animal figurines to rock crystals carefully arranged on a plywood table seems imbued with the aura of their undisclosed meaning, ultimately rendering them interchangeable. This intervention prompts a critical reading of denominational and classificatory value systems—as colonial tools of the curatorial par excellence. The artist’s display of original objects alongside the video projection contrasts with the prevalence of unruly copies throughout her videos. Against the aura of the original objects, the appearance of photocopies, reconstructed scenes, and other acts of mechanical reproduction throughout Abuarafeh’s practice indicates how valuable the duplicate becomes under the ongoing threat of the original’s destruction or loss, the material conditions of the occupation, dispossession, and displacement of a people.

Noor Abuarafeh, Am I the Ageless Object at the Museum?, 2018, video still

Noor Abuarafeh, Resistive Narratives, 2023, installation view

In Abuarafeh’s newest work, this observation is turned on its head. The Moon is a Sun Returning as a Ghost (2023) is the first chapter of a new long-term project that attempts to locate Palestinian artworks that have remained largely unaccounted for due to bureaucratic obstacles, such as lacking import permits, as another consequence of the Israeli state’s control of the movement of Palestinian people and their belongings. In the video, the artist successfully traces one of these artworks back to a storage facility in London. Abuarafeh proceeds with what again proves to be her strength as an artist and a poet. She takes us on another speculative and metaphorical journey, this time reimagining the moon’s quotidian movement as a gradual disappearance. Rising every evening as the sun’s ghost, the moon is visible only because of its exposure to the sun’s light. Reflecting on how the immateriality of missing objects affects our memory of them, the narrator—in this case the artist herself—states that she “felt uncomfortable in front of these artworks.” This moment of recovery in the storage facility is thus not one of catharsis, of having cracked the case, as one might expect. Instead, the narrator confronts us with a sense of awe, humility, and sobering disenchantment: “I felt these works looked different than our imagination / all the stories… / rumors… / narratives… / and gossips that are related to their disappearance... were not there…”

Abuarafeh’s rumination on how the oral histories of archival records constitute knowledge is reminiscent of what theorist Doreen Mende terms the “paratexts” of art—correspondence, contracts, invoices, storage lists, import permits, marginal notes. Archiving this “murmur in the background,” as Mende calls it, might be the most effective strategy for doing justice to a memory.8 Mende’s characterization of art history’s paratexts also demonstrates how archival practices are confronted with the “parafictional” at all times, relying on memories, stories, and subjectivities to build histories. The challenge of embracing the paratextual and the parafictional alike—as Lambert-Beatty highlights with reference to Latour—is not to give up on facts while rethinking them as matters of investment, control, process, debate, and desire.9 Abuarafeh’s works strive to negotiate the challenge this poses for an engagement with and reconstruction of Palestinian archives: taking into account fragmentary sources, the subjectivity of first-hand accounts, the rumors, the state-sanctioned narratives, the work of interpretation that goes into deciphering them, and, not least of all, the experience of trauma and the ways it both compels and disallows speech.

Giving space to such an approach to a Palestinian historiography is much needed, especially in Germany, where the cultural landscape continuously struggles to reconcile postcolonial discourse with the country’s historical responsibility to Jewish life. Through the prism of the German guilt for perpetrating the Holocaust, cultural debates in recent years have repeatedly conflated any criticism of the Israeli state with anti-Semitism. The resulting climate of prejudicial fear, anger, polarization, and silence has entailed an increasing lack of trust in the capacity of cultural institutions to convey, mediate, and house complexity and nuance. Consequently, Palestinian artists, writers, and thinkers have been uninvited from public platforms and exhibitions and prevented from speaking publicly, further debarring empathetic and nuanced public debate, informed opinion-making, the recognition of the lived experience of violence, and the coexistence of multidirectional memories. The value of Abuarafeh’s exhibition at Kunstverein München—at this moment and beyond—may lie not only in giving space to narratives resistive to the dominant writing of History, but in ultimately resisting narrative itself as a dominant framework. In privileging other, slipperier forms of remembering, Abuarafeh’s films poetically speculate on the potential of liberating memory from matter, approaching our archives by listening to the ghosts they have produced.

Noor Abuarafeh, The Moon is a Sun Returning as a Ghost, 2023, video stills

Author’s note (October 17, 2023):

An exhibition review may well be itself a “paratext,” serving as a subjective account within the context of a specific time and place. This text, commissioned before Hamas’ atrocities on October 7, 2023, was written in a moment that has dramatically intensified some of the realities that Noor Abuarafeh’s works implicitly and explicitly speak to. This text is implicated in the context of the unfathomable and ongoing losses of Palestinian and Israeli lives, as are its author and its readers. This moment marks the continuation of unbearable, unrelenting pain, of violence and its necessary condemnation. It is also a moment that produces narratives we should resist. In a time that proves yet again how information is as malleable in form as it is material in effect—deeply concerning tendencies and acts of anti-Semitism, racism, and Islamophobia, and rising support for the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany attest to this—it is both a challenge and a privilege to write about art. In the current situation, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are being undermined and authoritatively restricted in Germany, by the highest levels of government, precisely restricting the ability of art—its practices, discourses, and spaces—to apply media literacy, question binary ways of thinking, and to engage in mutual exchange. Yet, as I read Judith Butler’s recent essay—and other similar responses—arguing that we need “our poets and our dreamers” to urge us to “refuse to believe that the structures that now exist will exist forever,” I couldn’t help but think about the very first question Abuarafeh’s work poses at the start of the exhibition: “When the dreamer dies, what happens to the dream?”10

1 Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008).

2 Azoulay, “Open Letter to Sylvia Wynter: Unlearning the Disappearance of Jews from Africa,” The Funambulist, June 29, 2020,

3 Khalil Rabah, Art Exhibition: Readymade Representations 1954–2009, 2011. See:

4 Carrie Lambert-Beatty, “Make-Believe: Parafiction and Plausibility,” October 129 (Summer 2009): 54.

5 Ibid., 58.

6 For example, Bea Schlingelhoff’s 2021 exhibition No River to Cross in which the artist proposed to amend the institution’s bylaws, including “an apology from the Kunstverein München concerning its cooperation with the National Socialists, and an acknowledgement of the joint responsibility for the injustices committed by them, as well as a lasting commitment to the principles of non-discrimination and equality.” See:

7 This question was posed by Kunstverein München’s director Maurin Dietrich in a conversation with curator Gloria Hasnay and theorist, art historian, and curator Doreen Mende published in “THE ARCHIVE AS… RECORDING DEVICE” in FOR NOW. 200 Jahre Kunstverein München, ed. Maurin Dietrich and Gloria Hasnay (Berlin: Distanz, 2023), 315.

8 Ibid., 313.

9 Lambert-Beatty, “Make-Believe,” 82.

10 Judith Butler, “The Compass of Mourning,” London Review of Books, October 19, 2023,

All images © Noor Abuarafeh. Courtesy Kunstverein München. Photos: Maximilian Geuter

Linnéa Bake is an independent curator and writer based in Berlin. She is one of the co-founders and directors of the non-profit space soft power

This text was supported by a Public Humanities Grant from Humanities NY