Interview: Jane Frere, artist

Artist Jane Frere's time in the West Bank inspired her to create work that gave a voice to the people there

• Jane Frere with Return of the Soul, which features 3,500 tiny wax figures suspended on invisible wires so they appear to be taking part in a great exodus

LAST March, artist Jane Frere was at a checkpoint in the West Bank, on her way to give a series of lectures for the British Council. Young people from a nearby refugee camp were throwing stones at the soldiers, who were responding by firing tear gas and rubber bullets. "I got sandwiched between the two," she says. "We had to wait for a lull between the shooting and the stone-throwing, and then drive like fury."

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She remembers the feelings: raw fear on the one hand, on the other the annoyance at a minor delay in an important schedule, the twin emotions experienced daily in similar contexts by thousands of Palestinians. As she was driven between the youths and the soldiers, she noticed the looks of hatred etched on both sets of faces.

All this was familiar to Frere who spent many months living "behind the wall" in the occupied territories and in Palestinian refugee camps while making her 2008 exhibition, Return of the Soul. The work, a stunning sculptural installation featuring 3,500 tiny wax figures suspended on invisible wires so they appeared to be taking part in a great exodus, was shown at WASPS Patriothall Gallery during Edinburgh Art Festival in 2008. It marked the 60th anniversary of what Palestinians call "the nakbah" (Arabic for "the catastrophe"), when the state of Israel was founded causing some 750,000 to flee their homes.

The figures were made, under Frere's guidance, by Palestinians in villages and refugee camps, who imbued them with their own family stories.

Home in the Highlands, Frere still needed to process her own feelings, and she has done so by painting. A selection of her works go on show for the first time today at the Woodend barn in Banchory, Aberdeenshire. At the same time, a new composition by a family friend, David Ward, inspired by her e-mails, will be premiered as part of Aberdeen's Sound Festival.

"I found it so difficult returning to the UK," says Frere. "I was an emotional wreck, although I didn't realise it at the time. I felt like I was a vessel over there, a tear collector, collecting the tears of people telling me these terrible stories of whole families being wiped out. Everyone in exile or inside the wall has a story to tell, if you're ready to listen you become like a therapist. After a year I was filling up with these terrible stories."

The paintings were a form of catharsis, an outpouring of her own emotions and those she had witnessed in others. "I realised I had suppressed a lot of anger over there. You see people being humiliated at checkpoints, but if you get angry anything can happen, so you have to stand there and behave yourself. My painting was a release for all of that, I don't behave myself in my paintings."

They are dynamic, insistent works, all drawing on "the wall", the eight-metre high concrete barrier built by the Israelis to segregate Palestinian areas and further restrict movement of people. One series of paintings, Checkpoint Births – Madonna and Child, deal with women who are forced to give birth at checkpoints when they are not allowed through to get to hospital, putting mother and baby's lives at risk.

Another, ironically titled Terrorists, deals with the imprisonment of adolescent Palestinians.

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Composer David Ward says he was moved by Frere's e-mails. "I've long been interested in setting a variety of texts. These e-mails had very dramatic content, and I responded to them musically. The text drives the character of the piece. I wanted to get across the sense of frustration and claustrophobia and also the extraordinary resilience and humanity which comes through as well." His 25-minute composition will be performed by Emily White and Steve Bingham on trombone, violin, electric violin, voice and alto sackbut. Frere says that when she heard a rehearsal she was astonished how well the music had captured her feelings.

Her own journey to the Palestinian territories began (the irony is not lost on her) at Majdenek, a former Nazi concentration camp near Lublin, Poland. On one visit, she met some Israelis who planted Israeli flags in the ground as a memorial. "I felt this terrific empathy for these people, but that vision of the flags chilled me. The Israeli flag was a symbol which I associated with human rights atrocities, failed resolutions, it felt like an insult to the memory of those who died. I was confused, I was grieving with these people and yet I was feeling angry."

That experience catapulted her into intensive research about the Israeli flag and its origins. Reading ground-breaking historians such as Ilan Pappe and Benny Morris, she discovered the nakbah, and the fledgling state's "systematic ethnic cleansing policy to rid the land of the indigenous population". Wanting to understand the situation first hand, she travelled to Israel where she was made artist-in-residence with a gallery in East Jerusalem.

She was given an apartment in a "ghost suburb", formerly an affluent Palestinian area, now segregated behind the wall. Many of the residents fled when the wall went up, fearing they would be cut off from families or jobs. "It was like the Mary Celeste, the family which had lived in my apartment left everything, even their bottles of olive oil. People lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on their properties. When people think of the occupation, they think of Gaza or the refugee camps, not the middle-class Palestinians who lost everything.

"The infrastructure had broken down, there were no street lamps, sometimes I'd get home by the light of the fires of burning rubbish in the street. There were power cuts sometimes. It was very scary but I wanted to be scared, I wanted to know what it was like to live under occupation, that feeling of incarceration. When it is complete the wall will be 720km (441 miles) long, it is a massive prison camp. I was trying to understand both sides, but I find it very difficult. This is an illegal occupation, therefore my sympathy is with the victims, and it would seem like the international community is doing nothing to solve it."

And every day, there were the checkpoints. "People were humiliated, sometimes me. I'd be sitting on a bus and some 18 or 19-year-old soldier would brush his M16 gun across my hair as he swaggered down the bus. Older people, trying to visit a family member who's dying of cancer, would be stopped from going through for that crucial meeting with that person because an 18-year-old told them there was something wrong with their paperwork. It's like watching a bully in the schoolyard – you just want to do something."

Instead, it all became fuel for the paintings. They are cathartic, she says, but also painful. She relives her memories every times she paints, and is acutely aware of her responsibility to the "real people" whose stories she is drawing on. "I could step on an aeroplane with all my data and photographs and make paintings, but they have to stay behind the wall."

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For her, art is an act of engagement, the best artists are those who take the temperature of society. "Personally, as an artist, I like to think of myself as a kind of barometer, that there is a sense of the time I've lived in through my work. If you go to a big show like Frieze, you will see hundreds of paintings, but for me most of that is wall decoration." When Return of the Soul was shown in East Jerusalem, many Palestinians openly wept. "It's very strange to be an artist who has produced something which has caused so many people to cry!

"My work is not didactic. Of course it's political, but I don't like to think of myself as political, I'm humanitarian. I just try to reflect what I've witnessed. I'd like people to think and to ask questions. Just one question. Even if it's, 'What the f*** was all that about?' That's a very good question to start from."

• Jane Frere: In The Shadow of the Wall, is at Woodend Barn, Banchory, Aberdeenshire, from today until 30 November. David Ward's Emails from Palestine will be performed by Emily White and Steve Bingham at Woodend Barn tonight at 7:30pm. For more information about the Sound Festival see www.sound-scotland.co.uk