Letter to Malevich

Dear Malevich,

[1] In 2015 I was invited to participate in a retrospective exhibition on abstraction and politics from 1915 to 2015, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The title of the exhibition, Adventures of the Black Square, referred to the work of Kazimir Malevich. I withdrew from the show before it opened, upon becoming aware of funding provided by the Israeli Embassy in London. 

[2] Written by Reyhaneh Jabbari, 26, to her mother upon learning that she had been sentenced to death. An Iranian court charged Jabbari with the murder of a former employee of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, despite her insistence that she had acted in self-defence as he attempted to rape her.

I have long thought of our missed encounter,1 and of writing you.

The more I think about it, the more I realise what I am writing about is not the encounter. It is a feeling. I am writing about unrequited love.

The phrase, ‘The world did not love us, mother’ began echoing in my head as I realised this. Do you remember? Reyhaneh and her last message to her mother?2 I am very sorry to appropriate her words and their meaning – I fully understand their catastrophic context – but how crushing it is to recognise the loneliness in that love and that declaration, through language alone.

The fragility of the lover who has not been loved and will not be loved.

I have attempted to analyse the substance of this weight: here is a love letter after all, written with the full knowledge that I love a person, an idea, a project even, that will never love me in return.

I understood this fact when I realised the subtle violence that reveals itself in the loftiness of abstraction, in the negation and erasure implied by such loftiness. In these lines and forms and aesthetics I know intimately, and master fully.

The violence that hides in the white on white.

In her Journey to Mount Tamalpais, Etel Adnan describes the colour white as the colour of terror: the great white mushroom, the white and radiating clouds, and the white on white in your painting.

Even you recognised terror – or your proximity to it – when you realised that you were leaving the world you knew.i Was it a prophecy of destruction? The white on white.

This square, perfect and complete, in its homage to geometry, erases what came before it. It asks for no dweller or resident; it comes after destruction asking for another destruction. There is nothing to expect after its passage.

Just like your white square destroyed the black square that preceded it.ii

Exactly like Jaffa.

[i] ‘When, in the year 1913, in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity, I took refuge in the square form and exhibited a picture which consisted of nothing more than a black square on a white field, the critics and, along with them, the public sighed, “everything which we loved is lost. We are in a desert.”’ From ‘Suprematism’, the second of the two essays which together comprise ‘The Non-Objective World’, Malevich's major treatise, published in Germany in 1927.

[ii] Malevich’s reduction of the pictorial elements in his compositions increased steadily, culminating in his ‘White on White’ series, 1917-1918.

[3] From the inaugural address  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe gave as Director of the Department of Architecture at the Armour Institute of Technology, 1938. Alfred Swenson, Pao-Chi Chang, Architectural Education at IIT  (1938-1978), Chicago: Illinois Institute of Techology, 1980, p. 26.

Even as the stones of Jaffa were being dismantled, Tel Aviv’s white ‘Bauhausian’ walls were being built.iii

Bauhaus...the avant-garde movement that long seemed isolated from the colonial system and its architecture. It detached itself from modernity and its partitions, and associated itself with migration and displacement,iv ignoring the underlying erasures: a perfect square that abolishes what came before it,v and asks for no dweller or resident, or rather, asks for a specific dweller. A parallel line, so close and yet so distant.

After he emigrated to the United States of America, to Chicago more specifically, Mies van der Rohe spoke to his students about the honesty of (construction) materials and its connection to architectural function and accumulated know-how.

I very much trust these words and abide by them. I trust the perfection of the marble square and its geometric lines. But what does material honesty mean in the context of ruin? I don’t really know.

He says, 

‘Nothing can express the aim and meaning of our work better than the profound words of St. Augustine: “Beauty is the splendour of Truth.”’3


[iii] The narrative of Tel Aviv as the “White City” creates a definitive rhetorical link between Bauhaus and Tel Aviv, in particular, and the State of Israel in general. In July 2003, UNESCO’s World Heritage commission recommended inscribing the “White City” of Tel Aviv into the organisation’s list of World Heritage Sites. In his book ‘White City, Black City’, Sharon Rotbard uses this moment of official recognition as an entry point to deconstruct and interrogate that narrative: ‘As an architectural narrative this “White City” legend started to spread only when it received its official “scientific” and historical stamp of approval in the summer of 1984, with the exhibition entitled ‘White City’ and curated by the architectural historian Michael Levin at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art… But ‘White City’ was much more than your average architectural exposition; it was the first concreted attempt to construct a history – the history – of Israeli architecture. Within this historiography, the White City of Tel Aviv and its composition were established as an inaugural point zero – the moment when Israeli architecture began.'

The White City architectural narrative claims the migration of Bauhaus as a school of thought, through a few Bauhaus students, which later translated into buildings erected from nothingness, from the dunes of the desert.  On another level, it ignores other predominant architectural influences, such as Le Corbusier and the use of pilotis — piers or columns raising architectural volumes above the ground.

‘Having acted as the region’s cosmopolitan centre up until 1948, Jaffa contains quite a considerable range of international and modern styles of architecture, which were not included in the story of the White City,’ Rotbard adds. The White City narrative is nothing more than a spatial manifesto that singles out Tel Aviv within the region, in order to legitimise its political existence.

[iv] The history of Bauhaus is a story of migration and exile.
1919—1924: the Bauhaus school was established in Weimer. The school battled national and local hostilities till finally was forced to close.
1925—1932, Dessau: the school closed after the Nazi party became the strongest in the Municipal elections in 1931. One of its major election pledges had been the cancellation of grants to the Bauhaus and the demolition of its buildings.
1933, Berlin: the school continues as a private institution, but with no chance to re-establish itself amid the rise of the Nazi power, the school was forced to close. The Bauhaus masters themselves dispersed; Walter Gropius to Harvard, Mies van der Rohe to the Armour Institute in Chicago.

[v] Arieh Sharon (b. 1900, Poland) was one of four architects who went to Palestine after graduating from the Bauhaus school, becoming one of the most popular and influential architects within Zionist circles in the British Mandate period from the 1930s onwards. In his book, ‘Kibbutz + Bauhaus’ (1976), Sharon not only reappropriates the “interrupted” school of thought that was the Bauhaus, but inscribes it into the spatial fabric of the Zionist state. Sharon’s book links the claimed utopia of the militant structure of the Zionist community directly to another assumed utopia – the Bauhaus. He gradually moves from the kibbutz’s philosophy of the communal, to the Bauhaus’s Gesamtkultur (the avant-garde concept of “total culture”, in German) as if the latter was the manifestation of the former.
The Bauhaus, and the international style in general, emerged from the trauma and the ruins of WWI – it is evident in the desire for the tabula rasa, or blank page, defended and constructed by modern architecture.

This desire in creating the tabula rasa, assuming it or inventing it, unfolds constant violence.  

We can trace this violence throughout the history of modern architecture – whether in colonised contexts or not – but it is especially obvious in the rhetoric surrounding cities that “emerge from dunes,” from nothingness. Such violence is re-asserted in the writing of history: who, for instance, is entitled to re-claim an idea? The one defect of the Bauhaus is that it can only be reclaimed by the coloniser.




This letter was first published as part of Station Point, ifa-Galerie, Berlin, 2019.

The body of the letter was translated into English by Omar Berrada.

Image: Detail from Station Point by Saba Innab, curated by Omar Berrada at ifa-Galerie Berlin, 2019.
Photo by Victoria Tomaschko, courtesy of ifa-Galerie Berlin.

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