The Key of Return

Carl Knappett examines the way in which people think through material culture stating that the “meaning of an object arises in the articulation of the its pragmatic and significant dimensions.” He uses a methodology that utilizes physical affordance, cultural and conventional constraints, iconicity, as well as indexicality, to exemplify Bonnot’s case study that showed that significance and symbolism of material culture could shift through time and spatiality.

This case study can be applied to that of Palestine, more specifically the right of return, Al ‘Awda, for Palestinian refugees. Within a Western context, old keys may be seen as just that, an old key. There are key museums that possibly seek to present older keys as art as opposed to anthropological artefact, as Gell would suggest. However, for Palestinian refugees, the symbolism of older keys not only represents, but also is synonymous with the right of return to their homeland, which they actively seek. Many Palestinians who fled Palestine during the Nakba held onto their house keys and land deeds, in hopes of a quick return. However, the current political situation has not lent itself to the repatriation of the Palestinian refugees, leading these keys to be passed down from generation to generation.

This generational hand-down of keys is one of the reasons why the image of the key is referred to as mftaH al ‘Awda, or the ‘Key of Return.’ This tradition has brought together generations of Palestinians in the aspiration to return to a homeland some have never seen. The Key of Return acts as a uniting factor amongst Palestinians all over the world, unifying Palestinians under one goal. Palestinians have shifted their political representation, as well as shifted their political aspirations, however, the right of return has been one thing that most Palestinians can agree on, regardless of political affiliation or geographic location.

While the Key of Return is largely a political statement, it can slink into the realm of the arts. Many Palestinian and Palestinian activists, who are artists, use this image in their work. The Key of Return has the ability to be both aesthetically appealing and meaningful, putting into issue Gell’s theory that people are “slaves” to art and aestheticism and that objects considered as “aesthetically superior” suggest symbolism beyond “mundane artefact.” The Key of Return’s beauty lay in the resistance movement, aspirations of return and Palestinian unity. It is only mundane when it is devoid of meaning and history, yet artists use the Key of Return as a socio-political statement in their art. Artists have the ability to evoke more emotion from an image of the key through various elements of their work; artwork of the key can therefore be considered meaningful and aesthetically appealing. However, had the Palestinian right of return not been associated with the image of the key, artists may fail to make the key aesthetically appealing, as it is a historical artefact, but it is the meaning behind the Key of Return that gives the key in artwork its aesthetic appeal.

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