Art and Culture Celebration Lets Palestinians Imagine Freedom

A month-long biennale taking place at various locations in Ramallah and across the Middle East aims to bring art closer to the public and put Palestine on the world art map.

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From the video work “Mnemosyne” (2016), by Inas Halabi.
From the video work “Mnemosyne” (2016), by Inas Halabi. Credit: Courtesy of the artist

A scarred forehead, hospitality in a magnificent stone house from the Ottoman period, a sofa that passed between checkpoints and masses of creative energy stretch an invisible but strong line between I’billin in the Galilee and Ramallah. “Mnemosyne” is a video installation by Inas Halabi, who won the young Palestinian artist of the year award, presented this week by the A.M. Qattan Foundation.

During the course of 10 days in June, Halabi sat 17 members of her family individually on a sofa in the yard of her grandparents’ home in I’billin. She asked each of them the same three questions connected to the scar her grandfather had on his forehead. She made them promise they wouldn’t tell one another what they had been asked. The answers from nine of them create a photographic mosaic comprising repetition of information, but also of differences that stem perhaps from forgetting but also possibly from processing and adaptation of the collective memory.

Halabi, 28, was born in Jerusalem to parents who, because of their work, moved from their Galilee home to the capital many years ago. She says she has always been interested in all these elements, interwoven together: memory, reconstruction of memory, forgetting, and collective memory that moves in the direction of a historical narrative or even becomes mythology.

The Young Artist of the Year Award (YAYA) is named after Hassan Hourani, a promising painter who was one of the winners of the first competition in 2000 and who drowned off the coast of Jaffa in 2003 (the awards are presented every two years). The award has become a tradition in Ramallah, and is dynamic by virtue of the fact that it’s always seeking new talent. However, it’s integrated into another dynamic tradition that’s emerging: the Qalandiya International, a biennale celebrating culture and art. Since 2012, Palestinian cultural institutions come together every two years to realize an ambitious and challenging project that lasts for nearly a month. Under a central theme, it houses a symposium of exhibitions, installations, guided tours and discussions. This year’s theme is “Return.”

Different model

In a period of frustrating and discouraging political and geographical divisions and subdivisions, and profound alienation of the society from its leaders and suspicion toward them, Palestinian cultural institutions are offering a different model: one of planning, coordination, cooperation and enthusiasm. In 2012, five institutions joined up to hold the first biennale. This year (the third biennale), their number has risen to 15. This is a successful model that combines ideas, energies and funding, and aims to bring more people closer to art and reinforce Palestine’s standing on the international art map.

Palestine is itself a dynamic entity in this regard, with its boundaries reaching the homes of each of the actual and potential participants in the project, artists and spectators alike. For example, artist Somar Sallam is a double refugee, born in Damascus in 1988 to a Palestinian family, which fled from Syria some years ago and found refuge in Algeria. She won second prize in the competition for her video work “Disillusioned Construction” – a crocheted patchwork quilt, covering a body as though providing shelter and then unraveling. “Hands and fingers perpetuate the same movement to create a woolen cover, composed of connected imperfect patches that use three colors: red and black and white (referring to night and day),” notes the catalog. “It becomes a cover for a body, which becomes exposed through the unraveling of the thread and the gradual destruction of the blanket. The labor of weaving together has come undone and the body loses its shelter and protection.”

Abdul Rahman Katanani was born in the Sabra refugee camp in Lebanon. His work is displayed as part of a group show in Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture in no other than Beirut. One of his Facebook friends is Mohammed al-Hawajri, who was born in the Bureij refugee camp in Gaza and is the curator of another exhibition, simultaneously on display in Gaza. He participated in previous Qattan Foundation competitions and the 2012 biennale – that time with a memorable series of seemingly childish paintings at the Al-Ma’amal gallery (another founder of the biennale) in East Jerusalem, in which he takes revenge on soldiers in a humorous way.

From the video work “Mnemosyne” (2016), by Inas Halabi. Credit: Courtesy of the artist

In Amman, Jordan, there’s a screening of “Trip Along Exodus,” the film that Lebanon-born Hind Shoufani made about her father, Dr. Elias Shoufani, who was born in Me’iliya in the Galilee, studied for his degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and gave up an academic career in the United States to join Fatah in Lebanon. Other events will also be held in London, Haifa and Bethlehem.

In the Ramallah area, the exhibitions and artistic-political discussions are scattered among a number of stunning stone buildings, restored by the Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation, a nonprofit that’s also participating in the biennale.

The list of artists, works, curators, panelists, judges, organizers and planners is of dizzying length. It includes both a number of foreigners (mainly among the curators and jury members) as well as residents of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.

The abundance of simultaneous events (until the end of the month), names and venues in the catalog is confusing at first, but gradually becomes clearer.

The connection made between all the locations is impressive, but the separation is painful. Only overseas visitors and Jerusalemites (and other Israelis) can attend the exhibition in Jerusalem. Beirut and Amman are close as the crow flies, yet unreachable because of the cost and impassable borders – while Gaza is Gaza. Closed and sealed, with its sea as accessible as the moon for people in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

The young artist Majdal Nateel was unable to attend the YAYA ceremony in Ramallah. Since she knew she wouldn’t be able to get her work out of the Gaza Strip, she gave instructions over the phone and in writing, to be carried out by others: pillows made of gypsum and filled with earth, arranged in several rows. The title of her work is “Dream is Possible” and the explanatory notes state: “The installation materializes the concept of ‘return’ as an individual and collective dream that defines the Palestinian, and other refugee, experiences. ... The earth leaking through the pillows symbolizes the strong connection Palestinians have to their homeland, as well as the dispossession and displacement they have suffered.”

Disregarding the catalog, the connection between “Gaza” and the sacks of earth (sand) aroused associations with the sacks of food from the UN Relief and Works Agency, or the digging of tunnels as a route to freedom. The freedom of the observer.

Palestinian artist Inas Halabi.Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Yet the immediate present is absent from the biennale. About 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Ramallah, the neighborhood of A-Ram was ablaze for several days during clashes with the Israeli army. On Tuesday evening, a young Palestinian man from the neighborhood of Silwan was killed by Israel Defense Forces gunfire during clashes there. Last Sunday, the Civil Administration demolished residential buildings in two communities: in the northern Jordan Valley and at the edge of Jerusalem. On Yom Kippur (Wednesday), Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem were cut off and blocked. And on Monday, a group of Israelis prevented a family from the village of Qaryut from harvesting their olives, chased them away with axes and sharp implements, and damaged their car. And so on.

‘Imagining return’

In the garden of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, in the courtyards of the restored stone buildings in old Ramallah and on the bus that takes visitors to the Bir Zeit University Museum exhibition about the destruction and rehabilitation of Gaza, the present does not impose itself.

“As people who work in art and culture, we have to act as free people,” says Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, a director at the Qattan Foundation Serving Culture and Education in Palestine and the Arab World. “We have to free our imagination from the burden of daily life – from its restrictions and limitations, including the occupation.”

But Abu Hashhash, who was born in the Al-Fawwar refugee camp near Hebron, hastens to add: “This isn’t an invitation to disengage from the reality, but rather to imagine the future as a free people.” Implicit in what he says is also an invitation for Palestinians to stop seeing themselves constantly as a derivative of the Israeli occupation, as well as an invitation for others to stop seeing Palestinians only in the context of the alien Israeli regime.

Even the theme of “Return” is not necessarily connected to Israel and Israelis. Two weeks after the second biennale ended in 2014, representatives of the various institutions met to consider the next one. Someone proposed the general topic “return,” said Abu Hashhash, in his office in the splendid building where the Qattan Foundation resides. “And right away we agreed. Not necessarily because of the Palestinian context, but rather because of what is happening in the world and the region – the Nakba [Arab for “catastrophe”] that recurs again and again in Yarmouk [in Damascus], in Gaza, the Palestinians and the millions of others who are seeking a place of refuge. Precisely at a time when so many people are losing their homes, we are going against the tide and imagining return. All the Arab societies are being cut asunder today by wars, the Palestinians are split, and we want to connect and are connecting: We want to find a space in which we can work together and plan together.”

The overriding theme of this year’s biennale is “This Sea is Mine.” Anyone who knows this as a line from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Mural” understands, says Abu Hashhash. Anyone who doesn’t know it might perhaps learn. And certainly the universality of the statement will speak to everyone. The introduction to the catalog states: “The sea – which has inadvertently been omitted from our narrative and the agendas of our politicians, and has subsequently been transformed into another component of the siege, or a trap for those fleeing death – could potentially elevate the question of this right from the possibilities of politics to the realm of obviousness.”

In Gaza, Haifa, Amman and Beirut, the exhibitions’ thematic treatment of the sea is direct. At the initial YAYA competition open call, young artists were asked to reimagine the artistic conceptualization of “return” using notions such as repetition, recurrence, patterns, rhythm, rehearsal and movement.

These guidelines appealed to Halabi, a graduate of Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem, who holds a master’s degree in art from Goldsmiths, University of London. The idea of researching her grandfather’s scar – in an artistic way – had come to her earlier, but the YAYA announcement set it in motion.

She heard only six years ago, from her mother, that her grandfather had suffered a forehead wound in 1948, from a bullet shot by an Israeli soldier. She wasn’t sure how her relatives would answer her question about what they knew about the scar when she sat them down on the sofa – the same one upon which her grandfather would read the newspapers before heading out to work the fields. They didn’t know what she would ask. She had an important photographic “rule” for the somewhat surreal – and therefore highly appropriate – frame: the comfortable sofa next to a tin shed, two armchairs that one of her uncles lifts so that a stray dog won’t sit on them; and the olive tree that sometimes moves in the wind.

‘Thrown out like garbage’

She asked her subjects to indicate where her grandfather’s scar was. Some remembered it being in the middle of the forehead, others on the side. His widow said that during the war as he accompanied his aunt to Lebanon, the army opened fire on them and a bullet grazed his forehead. Only later did he notice he was bleeding. In a wadi, he met a woman who was fleeing with her children, riding on a donkey. The soldiers (always “the army,” in her grandmother’s words), fired at them and killed them. Some of the relatives remembered that he was wounded when he returned from Lebanon.

One of his daughters said that he and other men from the village were put on a truck “and thrown out like garbage at the Lebanese border.” Some remained there, others insisted upon returning – and then the soldiers opened fire on them. Some of the returnees were killed, while others were wounded, survived and returned – like her father.

The grandmother related that on his way back, wounded, he came to a house along the way, weary from thirst and fear, and asked for a glass of water. This moved Halabi to the core: the hand of chance had entered the scenario. Before she heard the grandmother tell her about the glass of water, she had asked her relatives to drink from a glass of water she had placed next to the sofa immediately after they answered her questions. This is an artistic reference that corresponds with the title: Mnemosyne is the goddess of memory in Greek mythology, notes Halabi. Her name is also that of the river of memory in Hades, which flows parallel to Lethe, the river of forgetting. The dead drink from the latter, said Halabi, in order to forget their previous lives before their souls are reincarnated in another life. However, a select group of those who arrive in Hades are offered the opportunity to drink from the River Mnemosyne and therefore carry their memories and traumas of their past lives with them.

Who drank in order to forget the trauma and who drank to remember? This remains an invitation for reflection to all the men and women sitting on the sofa that was taken from I’billin to Beit Sa’a – the home of a wealthy family from the beginning of the 20th century that the Ramallah Municipality has restored and turned into a public building. Halabi, in visualizing the reconstructed collective memory repeated with variations and contradictions, tells a personal story of a family’s successful return. With a scar.