‘I'm not allowed to go outside’: How one artist sees Switzerland

The Palestinian artist Lama Altakruri photographed in the studio at Kronengasse in Aarau. Thomas Kern/swissinfo.ch

What's it like to be a Palestinian artist-in-residence in Switzerland in the time of coronavirus? Lama Altakruri, 38, shares her observations of Swiss daily life in words and images. 

This content was published on July 22, 2020 - 16:33
By Thomas Kern and Lama Altakruri (text and art)

For the first half of this year she lived and worked in the town of Aarau, northern Switzerland. The artist residency provided by the Association Gästeatelier Krone presented an opportunity for Altakruri to work away from the restrictions and pressures of her everyday life in Palestine.

A residency is about providing the time and space for a guest artist to develop work and explore new ideas. It is an invitation to spend time in a new atmosphere and environment. For Altakruri this was a chance to advance some of her earlier work and to develop a new project, which was presented at an exhibition at the Forum Schlossplatz in Aarau.

About "Gästeatelier Krone" 

Gästeatelier Krone has been run by a local association for 25 years. The two-storey live-and-work space in Aarau is available to artists from India, Palestine and Africa. The selection process builds on long-established contacts with the guest regions. During their stay the artists receive a monthly stipend and some money towards their travelling expenses. The Gästeatelier Krone is financially supported by the Citizen’s Municipality of Aarau and the Kuratorium of canton Aargau.

End of insertion

An equally important aspect is the exchange with Swiss artists and networking with Swiss curators, galleries and institutions. Much of this has been difficult to achieve over the past six months. Once the Covid-related restrictions came into effect in mid-March, many of the usual activities like visiting other artist studios or the many exhibitions and museums became impossible and Altakruri faced unexpected challenges.

About the artist

Lama Altakruri (born in 1982 in Abu Dhabi, UAE) is a Palestinian artist based in Ramallah. She was raised in Bahrain before moving to Palestine in 1994. She holds an MFA degree in Art Theory and Practice from Northwestern University and a BA in Contemporary Visual Art from the International Academy of Art-Palestine. She uses text, sculpture, performance and public interventions to explore "global neo-liberal bubbles and the moments of comfort, anxiety, familiarity and detachment found in spaces of professional hospitality".

End of insertion

The following are her observations and notes on Swiss daily life, which resemble extracts from her diary. This small collection of texts is entitled Awkward Interactions:

Riverside

The lockdown started where you live, but here it hasn’t, yet. I close all the news pages and I go downstairs. People are sitting outside at the restaurants' tables. They look relaxed. I have to walk between the tables to be able to leave my building. I walk to the riverside, I hope a few people are there, but not a lot. A lot of people are there. When I go back, I have to walk between the tables to be able to enter my building.

Felix and his dog

Postcards, notes and material related to Lama Altakruri's work during her stay in Switzerland. Thomas Kern/swissinfo.ch

A dog runs towards me, I run away, the dog runs behind me, the dog’s owner runs behind the dog, I run behind the dog’s owner. I shout: “Is it gonna bite me?” he says: ”no she is not gonna bite you, she is playing with you, if you freeze she’ll stop.” Easier said than done. My heart is still racing, he talks to me to calm me down. “Where are you from? Oh, Palestine! It’s a place that gets mentioned a lot. Maybe neighbouring countries should give land to Palestinians so they can move there.” Maybe I should’ve asked him if they can move here.

The neighbour

I met my neighbour only once, but I know a lot about him, things I shouldn’t know, but our wall is too thin, and his voice is too loud. I know what time he goes to work and what time he comes back, I know about his long distance relationship, I know they fight a lot.


Cupcake

There is a little cupcake shop near me, the shop is pink with two white chairs outside its door. I enter the shop and ask to buy a cupcake,  she tells me that they have only one left, it’s a cheesecake cupcake, my favorite. She puts it in a little white box, I give her my money, she apologizes, she can’t accept cash, card only, because of the pandemic. I don’t have a card right now, I apologize and I leave behind the cheesecake cupcake in the little white box.

Scientology

He asks where I am from, I say Palestine, he says: “I was close, I was in Israel, many times, many times.” I don’t know why he said it twice.

End of insertion

A man on the street stops me, he asks if I like to read, I say yes, he asks in what language, I say English or Arabic, he goes to the table and comes back with a heavy book, he says it’s about a new technique for the brain, and here is our website. I look at where he points and I recognize the word Scientology, I tell him I can’t buy the heavy book, but I will look at the website, He asks where I am from, I say Palestine, he says: “I was close, I was in Israel, many times, many times.” I don’t know why he said it twice.

Passionfruit

We stand in front of the food scale at Coop, he is an old man, he says that he is Canadian. I let him weigh his bag before I weigh mine. He puts his bag on the scale, he looks at me and opens it, he grabs one piece and shows it to me, he says: ”this is called passionfruit, try to pick the ugly ones, they taste better, you open it with a knife and eat it.”

Self-service

I approach the counter and ask the cashier how to self serve in this self-service restaurant. She says: “So, you choose a pie from here, then a coffee from there, then you come back here and pay, after you finish, you return this thing there, what do you call it?” I reply: “a tray?” she says: “Yes, tray.”

Café Crème

The train station is almost empty, I’m waiting for my train and a man is hovering around me while speaking angrily to himself. My train is coming in 20 minutes, I can’t stand here longer while this man is walking back and forth in front of me. I wonder what he will do next, is he angry at himself, will he become angry at me. There is a Starbucks on the platform, maybe it would be better to go there and wait, I order a Tall Coffee, the barista says: ”here, we call it Café Crème”.

Meditation

I hear that there is an urgent call for a moment of global meditation, some kind of an astrological portal will open, millions will meditate together to end the 5G network and erase the virus. They will also dissolve the world structure. Will they succeed? Will they crash the internet? Will I lose contact with you? This talk about meditation makes me anxious!

Dollhouse

The artwork is packed, ready to be put in the suitcase. After 6 months in Switzerland, Lama is heading back to Ramallah. Thomas Kern/swissinfo.ch

All the dolls in the toys museum are looking at me, they make me feel like a stranger entering someone’s private space. A lot of them are in their miniature shops, interrupted and frozen while selling fabric, cutting a piece of meat, or baking sweets. In one shop, a doll sells other dolls. In a different section, I peek into the dolls’ houses, a doll family is having a meal together, while a doll is sitting in the bedroom. In another house, a doll maid is hanging the laundry in the attic, while another one is giving a doll baby a bath. I realize that I like dolls' houses better when they are empty.

Hospital

For the first time in my life, I faint. I’ve been sick for two weeks now. I’m used to getting sick, but I never faint. I call the emergency line and they send an ambulance. Two paramedics shake my hand. In the hospital, a young doctor also shakes my hand. In my hospital bed, I hear an old woman behind the curtain, she sounds in pain, I don’t know what she wants, she keeps repeating the same words, I don’t understand her language, I don’t know what to do, I can’t move. 


Share this story