'Bear Witness' exhibit opens at Minneapolis art gallery

People stand around the edge of a large flag installation
Scores of people observe the Bear Witness installation at Public Functionary’s gallery in northeast Minneapolis during the opening reception on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Updated Dec. 10, 10:50 a.m. | Posted Dec. 9, 11:34 a.m.

An art installation previously used in pro-Palestinian protests is getting a home for the next few weeks at an art gallery in Minneapolis. 

“Bear Witness: Honoring Gaza’s Martyrs” opened this week at Public Functionary in northeast Minneapolis. Ten thousand mini flags in red, white, green and black are arranged across the floor to form a Palestinian flag. Each flag is inscribed with the name and age of someone killed by the Israeli military in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas war.  

Donia and Nesma Abu Ammo, Palestinian American siblings and students at the University of Minnesota, joined over 100 others at the opening reception for “Bear Witness” on Friday night.

Their extended family lives in the Al-Zaytun neighborhood of Gaza City, and on Tuesday, they received news that their cousin, Khaleel Abu Ammo, was killed by Israeli forces.

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In a corner of the gallery, Donia and Nesma carefully wrote Khaleel’s name in English and Arabic on a small green flag and added it to the thousands of others in the installation.

Two hands hold a green flag with a name written in English and Arabic
Palestinian American student Nesma Abu Ammo holds a flag for her cousin Khaleel Abu Ammo, who was killed by Israeli forces in Gaza last week, at Public Functionary’s gallery in northeast Minneapolis on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The Abu Ammo siblings said internet blackouts in Gaza make it difficult for them to reach family members, and information often comes days late — as was the case in finding out about their cousin.

“We learned about his death two days after he died,” said Nesma Abu Ammo. “We have to call them in the middle of the night and just hope they answer.”

Sima Shakhsari, an associate professor of gender, women and sexuality studies at the University of Minnesota, helped put together the exhibit. 

“Many of those who wrote the flags — who worked and put so much labor of love into this project — were grieving,” Shakhsari said. “It is, in a sense, a mourning ritual and a grieving ritual for many of us.”  

Participants first set up the installation at the University of Minnesota on Nov. 7. They repeated the project at a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol a week later.  

At the first installation, volunteers read aloud the list of names, which they obtained from a Gaza Health Ministry report. The recitation took twelve hours over the course of two days. At the Public Functionary exhibit, the live reading has been replaced by an eleven-hour recording of the names. 

“It has a heavy load to it,” Shakhsari said. “The combination of the sound, the reading of names, and looking at thousands of flags with names on them — it’s just a very solemn and very heavy experience.”  

When participants first started working on the installation, they picked 10,000 flags to approximate the number of people reported dead in Gaza. Now the Gaza Health Ministry estimates the death toll at over 17,000. 

“It’s really important to see everybody here because a lot of these people have no one else to mourn for them,” Nesma Abu Ammo said.

Two young women, wrapped in black and white keffiyehs, stand in a gallery
Siblings Donia (right) and Nesma Abu Ammo pose for a photo next to the Bear Witness: Honoring Gaza’s Martyrs installation at Public Functionary’s gallery in northeast Minneapolis on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

For Donia and Nesma Abu Ammo, they remembered their cousin Khaleel for his strength and resilience living under the Israeli blockade in Gaza.

“He is the embodiment of Palestinian resistance,” Donia Abu Ammo said. “He was kind and loved life.”

The opening event on Friday featured readings from local Palestinian American poets and other artists of color. The installation has public viewing hours through the end of the month. 

A room full of people listen to a person reading on stage
Palestinian American playwright, actor and poet William Nour recites a poem during the opening reception for Bear Witness: Honoring Gaza’s Martyrs at Public Functionary’s gallery in northeast Minneapolis on Friday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The installation’s longer-term home is thanks to a collaboration with Mizna, an arts organization for Arab and Southwest Asian and North African artists. Shakhsari has collaborated with Mizna in the past and worked with the group to find a place for the exhibit at Public Functionary.  

Shakhsari hopes visitors take the time to look not just at the number of flags, but at the names — and the lives they represent.  “For me, really, the reason behind it was to say that Palestinians are not just numbers,” they said. “They are not just bodies that are massacred on TV screens … they are human beings.”  

Correction (Dec. 10, 2023): This article has been updated to correctly reflect Sima Shakhsari’s title.