How artists ex­press the Pales­tinian ex­pe­ri­ence

Melissa Gron­lund delves into the theme of this year’s Qa­landiya In­ter­na­tional and why it mat­ters to the artists who are in­volved

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“There’s a fram­ing to Pales­tinian art in­ter­na­tion­ally. Peo­ple want to see the suf­fer­ing,” says Yazid Anani, one of the cu­ra­tors in­volved in the Qa­landiya In­ter­na­tional bi­en­nial. “They want to see the wall, they want to see check­points, and they want to see the Is­raelis. Less has been done on the sta­tus quo of the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity and its trou­bling con­struct.”

Two weeks ago, the Qa­landiya In­ter­na­tional opened across the Oc­cu­pied Ter­ri­to­ries with the theme of “Sol­i­dar­ity”, bring­ing to­gether ex­hi­bi­tions from Jerusalem and Ra­mal­lah, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

This year, the bi­en­nial re­fused all in­ter­na­tional fund­ing, and all nine or­gan­i­sa­tions that par­tic­i­pated in the event con­trib­uted to it them­selves. Each ex­hi­bi­tion was asked to ad­dress that charged Pales­tinian term of “sol­i­dar­ity” – a theme that, iron­i­cally, yielded a va­ri­ety of re­sponses.

“We didn’t want to ro­man­ti­cise ‘sol­i­dar­ity’,” says Reem Sha­did, who co-cu­rated one of the Qa­landiya ex­hi­bi­tions, Debt at Ra­mal­lah’s Khalil Sakakini Cul­tural Cen­tre. “What does it mean? It’s such a per­sonal sen­ti­ment. In some ways, it’s no longer col­lec­tive.”

Sha­did and her co-cu­ra­tor, Yazan Khalili, con­sid­ered debt as a means of struc­tur­ing hu­man and artis­tic re­la­tions, both in terms of what is owed fi­nan­cially and emo­tion­ally. “You owe a lot to your fam­ily, for ex­am­ple,” sug­gests Sha­did. For Ly­dda, a show ex­am­in­ing a gar­den city from the 1940s that was planned for Bri­tish colo­nial­ists, Anani ex­plored a site he is un­able to visit. A show at the Pales­tinian Mu­seum looked at how tra­di­tional Pales­tinian em­broi­dery be­came part of the sym­bol­ogy of strug­gle.

But if the re­sponses were var­ied, one clear pic­ture of the Pales­tinian art scene emerged: one that is mov­ing away from the first gen­er­a­tion of the coun­try’s artists who cre­ated com­mit­ted art in line with Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tion goals. They’re also, and more slowly, mov­ing away from the sec­ond stage as well, the post-Oslo Ac­cords era when Pales­tinian art gained cur­rency abroad and when the NGOs be­gan fund­ing the nascent Pales­tinian state. Ac­cord­ing to An­to­nia Blau, who is re­search­ing a PhD on Eu­ro­pean cul­tural en­gage­ment in Pales­tine, for­eign in­vest­ment now sup­plies the in­fra­struc­ture for most of the Pales­tinian cul­tural and gov­ern­men­tal in­sti­tu­tions.

“With the theme we said let’s go back to the First In­tifada,” ex­plains Anani. “We wanted to be in­de­pen­dent of the Is­raelis at that time. We wanted to grow our own food. We wanted to pro­duce our own knowl­edge.” Now, he con­tin­ues, “we are back to a stage where we are so de­pen­dent on the Is­raelis for our po­lit­i­cal deal­ings, through the Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity. The mar­ket is in­flated with Is­raeli prod­ucts. We don’t do any­thing about our own se­cu­rity – we can­not do any­thing ex­cept through the Is­raelis.”

The cur­rent es­pousal of “Sol­i­dar­ity” means not only sol­i­dar­ity against the Is­raeli oc­cu­pa­tion, but self-suf­fi­ciency for the Pales­tinian cul­tural scene.

Part of the rea­son that artists want to move away from the com­mit­ted, or an­guished, vi­sion of the Pales­tinian artist is the rel­a­tive nor­malcy of life in Ra­mal­lah, the de facto cap­i­tal of Pales­tine. Bou­tique ho­tels cater to a hand­ful of tourists. Bars serve lo­cal brews; at the Garage, across from the Sakakini Cen­tre, artists spilled over from the Qa­landiya open­ing onto mis­matched chairs and re­claimed benches, and smoked late into the night.

The oc­cu­pa­tion is ever-present, but artists and cu­ra­tors want to ap­proach it as it is: not as a sym­bol, but in the myr­iad, com­plex, and in­flex­i­ble ways it con­trols daily life.

Ac­cord­ing to Sha­did, who grew up in Jerusalem and is now deputy di­rec­tor of the Shar­jah Art Foun­da­tion, the fact of the oc­cu­pa­tion is “ev­ery­where. You can’t es­cape it.” It presents it­self in nu­mer­ous lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenges. For Debt, she and Khalili, an artist and di­rec­tor of the Sakakini Cen­tre, couldn’t get work to be shipped in, both be­cause of their low bud­get and re­stric­tions on what can be sent into Pales­tine. “We’re just used to it,” Khalili says. “We don’t even send let­ters of in­vi­ta­tion any more. Kha­las. We know they won’t go through.” In­stead, artists do­ing projects with the Sakakini come on tourist visas.

“It’s al­ways in the back of your head,” says Rana Anani, project co-or­di­na­tor of Qa­landiya. “It means you don’t travel to other cities in Pales­tine. You don’t show your chil­dren the coun­try. You get used to just stay­ing in Ra­mal­lah, be­cause the process of ap­ply­ing for a per­mit is too com­pli­cated – and hu­mil­i­at­ing. You drive two hours out of the way to avoid a check­point. It’s there all the time.”

The sys­tem of per­mits meant that the Qa­landiya’s “sol­i­dar­ity” was a priv­i­lege open only to vis­i­tors: most of the or­gan­is­ers and lo­cal au­di­ence couldn’t travel to all the sites. Many of those from Ra­mal­lah saw the Jerusalem shows through In­sta­gram; the ex­cur­sion to the Golan Heights was sim­i­larly out of reach. Only those Pales­tini­ans born in­side the 1948 bor­ders, and whose par­ents never left, have free­dom of move­ment through­out Is­rael. The re­stric­tions af­fected the way work was shown. At Debt, Sha­did and Khalili, who have known each other since they were stu­dents at Birzeit Univer­sity, asked artists to re-imag­ine ex­ist­ing works as posters, which they could print in Ra­mal­lah.

Walid Raad’s Walk­through,

Part 1 (2013/2018) was orig­i­nally an enor­mous in­stal­la­tion and per­for­mance. It looked into a ven­ture in Dubai that set up an artists’ pen­sion trust. For the Ra­mal­lah show, Raad pared back the project to a poster, trans­lated into Ara­bic for the first time and free for vis­i­tors to take away. “What did it mean for Walid to make this in Pales­tine?” Khalili asks. “Al­though we were bring­ing

al­ready ex­ist­ing works, none of them came as it is. Ev­ery work went through a cer­tain kind of trans­for­ma­tion to cross this thresh­old, to be in Pales­tine.”

Be­cause the lo­gis­tics were so com­pli­cated, cu­rat­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion re­quired nu­mer­ous con­ver­sa­tions with artists, and the show it­self ben­e­fited from it: Debt coaxed from its artists a se­ries of par­tic­u­larly thought­ful an­swers.

Re­stric­tions on travel were the im­pe­tus be­hind Yazid Anani’s Ly­dda ex­hi­bi­tion at Birzeit Univer­sity, part of the “Cities” project that the ar­chi­tec­ture pro­fes­sor and cu­ra­tor has been ex­plor­ing since 2009.

“The Cities ex­hi­bi­tions con­nect the di­vided cities in Pales­tine, whether in Is­rael or the Pales­tinian com­mu­nity in Gaza or the di­as­pora,” he ex­plains. “My stu­dents at Birzeit didn’t know the other cities in Pales­tine – they only knew the su­per­fi­cial, pop­u­lar cul­tural sym­bol of the city. For ex­am­ple, Nablus – knafeh. We thought, how can we ex­ca­vate im­por­tant knowl­edge that is not about the larger nar­ra­tive of Pales­tine, but about the cities them­selves? We started re­search­ing Jerusalem, Ra­mal­lah, Nablus, Jeri­cho, Gaza. We tried each time to look for knowl­edge that would help us un­der­stand what has been marginalised in our own his­tory.”

Ly­dda was planned as a gar­den city in the 1940s to host Bri­tish colonis­ers. Un­earthing this past, the city’s planned eth­nic seg­re­ga­tion emerged as a fore­run­ner of the cur­rent seg­re­ga­tion be­tween Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans to­day. “I can­not my­self go to Ly­dda,” Anani says. “But the in­ter­na­tional artists, and artists form Jerusalem who have a pass­port, they can go there phys­i­cally rather than only learn­ing about it through talks.”

An­other ques­tion prompted by “Sol­i­dar­ity” was: what is the art scene do­ing well? What does it need more of? The bi­en­nial or­gan­ised a num­ber of talks and con­fer­ences on this topic: it was a mo­ment of col­lec­tive self-eval­u­a­tion. As ever, an­swers were frac­tured and split, but build­ing space for crit­i­cal art ap­pears the fo­cus for many. “This is not the place to be an artist,” says Khalili, whose own prac­tice as an artist shares space with his other role as di­rec­tor of the Sakakini. “Here you can­not think of art only through galleries and the art mar­ket. One has to pro­duce this al­ter­na­tive to it. At the Sakakini, it’s about pro­duc­ing that al­ter­na­tive. We work on pro­duc­ing art that can­not be com­modi­ties.”

I heard from more than one artist that their art­work now is build­ing in­sti­tu­tions, whether real sites, like the Fateh Al Mu­dares Cen­tre in Ma­j­dal Shams, or projects that blur the line be­tween art­work and mu­seum. In Debt, Khalil Rabah, for ex­am­ple, showed part of his long-run­ning Pales­tinian Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory and Hu­mankind, which he be­gan in 1995. In 2004, the Ra­mal­lah artist auc­tioned off parts of the Wall that the Is­raelis erected around Jerusalem and the West Bank – a pointed per­for­mance about the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of Pales­tinian suf­fer­ing that the au­di­ence took se­ri­ously, and started bid­ding real money for, even though Rabah had meant it in jest.

In Debt, as well, the New York/ Ar­me­nia-based artists Rene Gabri and Ayreen Anas­tas made a pro­posal for the Com­mu­nist Mu­seum of Pales­tine, as a kind of crowd-sourced, dis­persed in­sti­tu­tion. They of­fered tiles read­ing the ‘Com­mu­nist Mu­seum of Pales­tine’, which vis­i­tors could sign up to take. Next, Gabri and Anas­tas will as­sem­ble a col­lec­tion by ask­ing artists to do­nate their works, rather than buy­ing them, and will place the works in the homes of Pales­tini­ans who have taken the tiles from the Sakakini. The tiles are ef­fec­tively a logo – if mem­bers of the pub­lic are walk­ing by and see them, they can stop in to view the works.

“Each con­text cre­ates a sit­u­a­tion – even through very neg­a­tive con­di­tions like oc­cu­pa­tion, colo­nial­ism, set­tlers – that makes some­thing pos­si­ble that wouldn’t even be imag­in­able else­where,” Gabri tells me. “We would like to gen­er­ate an­other pos­si­bil­ity of think­ing about art and the des­tiny of art, about the place that art is housed, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively, and to cri­tique some his­tor­i­cal el­e­ments of the mu­seum.”

While we were speak­ing, a vis­i­tor knocked some tiles off the ta­ble and they shat­tered on the floor. Anas­tas glanced over and shrugged. “It’s just a tile.” The project is about the peo­ple.

Clock­wise from top left: artists Rene Gabri and Ayreen Anas­tas’s tiles read­ing ‘Com­mu­nist Mu­seum of Pales­tine’, as part of their show, Debt; a vis­i­tor peers at Ma­jed Shala’s sculp­ture in the ‘Ex­hi­bi­tion To­wards Hope’; Hans Haacke’s ‘We (all) are the peo­ple’; cu­ra­tors Reem Sha­did and Yazan Khalili; and cu­ra­tor Yazid Anani Melissa Gron­lund; Qa­landiya In­ter­na­tional; Yazan Khalili; Hal­imeh Magid; AM Qat­tan Foun­da­tion

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