Taysir Batniji's ghostly carvings at Barnsdall recall fallen brother

Taysir Batniji's nearly invisible etchings @LAMAGBarnsdall pay tribute to the brother he lost

On the surface, Taysir Batniji's installation at Barnsdall Park's Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery might seem like just another conceptual art gag: two walls full of what appear to be 60 plain, white pieces of paper displayed in plain white frames.

But move in closer, and the series of images carved into the paper begin to materialize: men laughing, a family embracing, and a newly minted bride and groom posing happily for the camera. 

The piece, titled "To My Brother," was produced by Batniji in 2012, and is currently on view in the exhibition "Shangri-La: Imagined Cities," a show of eight contemporary artists, primarily from the Middle East, which is accompanying an exhibition of objects from the Islamic art collection of tobacco heiress Doris Duke.

Batniji is a photographer and installation artist who was born in Gaza and now divides his time between France and the Palestinian territories. "To My Brother" commemorates the brother he lost to sniper fire during the first intifada in 1987.

For the piece, Batniji took 60 images from his brother's wedding album and set about carving them into paper. He did not use pens, pencils or any other kind of ink. The tracings only reveal themselves by the pressure he put on the paper. This means that the only way to see the images is to get up close to each individual frame.

In an interview with the arts publication Ibraaz, Batniji says this technique was partly inspired by a drawing his brother left behind on the day that he died.

"Two hours before my brother was killed in a demonstration, he had drawn an Israeli soldier shooting someone in my sketchbook," he told Ibraaz. "One of my other brothers or I erased the drawing but the traces remained visible on the paper. I kept this paper for a long time."

Batniji's tribute to his brother, tucked into a rear gallery, is a show-stopper. Turn the corner and you'll see nothing but sheets of white. But the piece rewards careful examination. Soon you'll find yourself staring at the ghosts of smiling faces — all of whom are staring back at you. All around the edges, the images dissolve into flat whiteness. It is melancholic without being melodramatic.

"He does a lot of different photography," says curator Rijin Sahakian of the artist's work. "But this is so different. It's so delicate. It contains the element of craft and there's the volume of it. But what he's done so beautifully is that he's made something personal that really makes the viewer engage."

"Shangri-La: Imagined Cities" is on view through Dec. 28 at the L.A. Municipal Art Gallery, as part of the L.A. Islam Arts Initiative, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, lamag.com and laislamarts.org.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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