Zoo, or the letter Z, just after Zionism

“Two white donkeys dyed with black stripes delighted Palestinian kids at a small Gaza zoo who had never seen a zebra in the flesh…” — (Reuters, 8 October 2009)

ZOO, or the letter Z, just after Zionism, focuses on the role of architecture in times of conflict, and it shows how architecture can be used as both a constructive and a destructive force. The Israeli- Palestinian conflict demonstrates time and again how architecture — from that of the landscape to that of the settlements — is used both as a political lever and a strategy of war.

The exhibition starts on page 437 of the Atlas of the Conflict, Israel-Palestine by Malkit Shoshan. The book illustrates the processes and mechanisms behind the shaping of Israel- Palestine over the past century through hundreds of detailed maps complemented by a lexicon. 

Under the letter Z, two seemingly unrelated terms appear: Zionism and Zoo. The first described the ideological movement that led to the establishment of a Jewish homeland and a modernist nation-state. The latter depicts a small zoo in Gaza City struggling to survive.

The two terms have inspired a fascinating exploration of ideas and associations conjured by seeing (or imagining) a white donkey, tethered with a rope and zig-zagged with beige masking tape. The white donkey is transformed into a zebra by a Palestinian zookeeper, eager to offer the Gaza community a moment of escape to normality, which in this case means a visit to the zoo as a space for urban leisure.

The exhibition explores these seemingly unrelated themes within the context of the Gaza Strip and traces them both back to the Age of Reason, the epoch of the classification of nations and animals. The exhibition includes an installation of a hard cage that slowly transformed into a house and turned into a soft domestic macrame-like enclosure—the installation hosts three Belgium donkeys, seven large rats running through tunnels along the walls, and pigeons. The gallery windows are covered with new lexical terms revealing a reality of classification going wrong.

Other parts of the exhibition include an archive, an oasis projection, a series of videos, and a publication with four essays and a lexicon. The first essay by Shoshan reflects on Zionism and zoo. She explores these seemingly unrelated themes within the Gaza Strip context and traces them back to the Age of Reason, the epoch of the classification of nations and animals. Hancock, an architect and former zoo director, examines the phenomenon of the zoo and concludes that this cultural institution is unable to respond adequately to the ethical questions it raises. 

Sarah Roy, a political economist and scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University with over 100 publications focus on the economy of Gaza, paints a poignant picture of the current harsh living conditions in Gaza. Edo Amin, an artist, cartoonist, journalist, and activist, describes how imagination and fantasy — including the conjuring of a donkey into a zebra — become powerful tools for survival in a climate of systematic oppression.


Zoo publication


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