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Creativity in captivity: A Palestinian art festival
Amira Hass
November 14, 2012

A movie, a musical-visual presentation and a soccer ball were three of the works presented at the opening of the Qalandiyah International Biennale the Thursday before last. The sparseness at the opening was made possible by the generous duration of the festival - two weeks. The first three days offered a confusing, dizzying plethora of forms and genres, styles, titles, statements of intent, lectures and discussions, tours to villages and rebuilt and preserved ruins of historical centers, presentation spaces, and participants. As time passes, one gets better at orienting oneself in the physical space and the biennale concept grows clearer; The plethora ceases to confuse, and the dizziness makes room for regret than one cannot take it all in, be everywhere, and write about it all.

The tin funnel by Nazareth artist Nardeen Srouji is presented in the space of an ancient house, partly in ruins and partly reconstructed, in the village of `Abwein, north of Ramallah, and it arouses distress and anxiety by turning a small, innocuous kitchen utensil into a gigantic object (3 by 3.5 meters ) forcing itself on a tiny bottle. The series of faux children`s paintings `M43` by Muhammad Al Hawajri of Gaza is presented in the Al Ma`mal Gallery in the Old City of Jerusalem. The date of the work (2009 ) is hair-raising for anyone remembering Operation Cast Lead, and the stars of the series - Israeli soldiers - are busy with all sorts of weird and funny routines, not just with pointing their rifles.

At the Al Ma`mal Gallery in the Armenian Quarter, one can also see `The Trojan Cow,` a sculpture in a series by Amer Shomali from Beit Sahur, commemorating the 18 cows the IDF chased because they were being raised as part of an attempt to sever Palestinian economic dependence on Israeli companies during the first intifada.

The animated film by Dia Azzeh from Jerusalem is shown in the Al Mahatta Gallery in Ramallah. It invites viewers to cross a line drawn on the floor (the opposite of the usual `Do not cross` lines in museums ) in order to get involved with what is happening on the screen, stop the beating of the figure lying on the ground, and chase off the two figures administering the blows. Al Azzeh was not among the winners of the festival`s Hassan Hourani Young Artists Award, but his statement - the necessity of involvement to stop an injustice and faith in one`s ability to make a change - is an integral part of the spirit of the biennale and the energy it exudes.

From Gaza to Nazareth

Some 50 works of art by Palestinian and international artists are scattered through Jerusalem, Ramallah, Gaza, Nazareth and the villages of Qalandiyah, Bir Zeit, `Abwein, Hajjah, Jama`in and Dhahiriya. None of the participants, including the organizers, are allowed to travel to Gaza; no one in Gaza, including the artists, is allowed to leave for the different biennale events. Most of the participants, residents of the West Bank, are not allowed to enter Jerusalem (an 11-minute drive from the El Bireh International Academy of Art, not including the wait at the checkpoint ) or travel to Nazareth. This is the reality of a life of forbidden encounters, prohibited travel and fragmented geography.

The biennale crosses and smudges imposed boundaries, and what better place than Qalandiyah to represent the imposition, what came before it, and what can still be its future: Qalandiyah is not just a terrifying checkpoint and an ugly separation wall; it is not just a crowded refugee camp seething with rage and poverty; it is not even just the village arbitrarily split into two in 1967, with one piece being annexed to Jerusalem and the other remaining part of the West Bank. Neither is it just the God-forsaken enclave it is today, after the wall, the separation fence, and the for-Israelis-only Begin Road have hemmed it in. Qalandiyah is also an international airport, which until 1967 served flights departing for Beirut and the Gulf States, and was the gateway for Jordanian travelers before there were airports east of the Jordan River.

The airport is in ruins. Today it is a point of severance, division and separation. But the biennale revives it as a point of connection and encounter. All residents of the village, women and men alike, attended the opening ceremony, and thus an event usually reserved for some kind of cultural or moneyed elite was shared by a much broader public.

The movie by director Nihad Awwad of Beit Sahur, shown at the opening, reconstructs the time when the airport was five minutes from home and the runway was also the road to Jerusalem. Whenever a plane took off or landed, a siren would go off and all traffic would come to a standstill. The opening event itself took place in the home of the Huqaya family in the village, a 200-year old stone palace. It is enchanting with its arches and domed ceilings, even though it has been partially in ruins and uninhabited for decades. The works of art were displayed in three of the rooms. One of the urban legends in Qalandiyah is that the village name comes from the tribe that accompanied Saladin, who liberated the land from the Crusaders.

As a contrast to the inter-Palestinian political split, the biennale offers another option: cooperation. Seven Palestinian cultural and arts institutions joined together to produce the first shared biennale: Al Ma`mal Foundation, Riwaq (for the preservation and reconstruction of the Palestinian architectural heritage ), the A.M. Qattan Foundation, the House of Culture and Art, the International Art Academy - Palestine, the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, and the Palestinian Art Gallery - Al Hoash.

While in other countries a biennale is an initiative from on high, from various government agencies, appealing to the community of art institutions and artists, the Qalandiyah Biennale is an initiative whose planning and production started and stayed at the grass roots level. So says Jack Persekian, Al Ma`mal`s founder and artistic director. At a press conference before the opening of the biennale, Persekian said: `We thought that instead of competing for financing we`d work together. It`s wrong to think in terms of survival. We`re not `surviving` - we`re taking action, creating. Creation and art are our activism.`

Cement hourglass

The preparations for the Qalandiyah Biennale took about a year. Every institution managed its own modest budget, including paying international and Palestinian artists whose works were commissioned, paying workers, paying the air fare and hotel bills for guest artists and lecturers. Persekian estimates the total budget at less than $500,000. `Palestinian politics have hit a dead end. The Palestinian economy is collapsing. Palestinian art is the only activity in motion and development,` he said.

One of the foreign artists commissioned by the organizers is Britain`s Cornelia Parker (other works were commissioned from artists in countries including Egypt, Romania, Australia, Switzerland, Lebanon and France. ) One of Parker`s three works is the outline of a square made of metal wire produced by melting down rifle bullets. Other than bullets, another plentiful material that invites one to deconstruct and reconstruct in various ways was the separation wall. Majd Abdel Hamid (a native of Damascus who lives and works in Ramallah ) pulverized bits of the wall and created three hourglasses with the help of a glass craftsman from the village of Jab`a, east of Ramallah, who was excited by the idea.

Khaled Jarrar from Jenin takes chunks out of the wall, pulverizes them, and mixes the dust with water, making cement from which he created the soccer ball on display at the entrance (and previously displayed in France and already sold ). The idea came to him while working on a documentary and being accompanied by young day laborers who sneak into Israel though all sorts of openings in the wall. No worries, he says, the army is well aware of these holes. It`s okay to print it. He saw kids playing soccer; the ball sailed over the wall, only to disappear into the unknown. He decided to do the opposite of what an uncle of his, from a West Bank village in the north, had done by constructing the wall.

Jarrar also makes a living off the wall, but by disassembling it. The cement soccer ball - heavy and impossible to roll - is accompanied by a short video clip showing him whacking at the wall with a chisel and breaking pieces off. He has a dream, he says, that thousands will one day show up to do the same. `As an artist I make art out of the materials dominating our lives,` he explains.

Indeed, the wall and the wasteland around it were also used in a short film by Ruanne Abou Rahme and Basel Abbas. Their two-tiered work occupies two rooms in what used to be the Qassasiyeh tile factory in the Armenian Quarter, which has been converted to another building of Al Ma`mal. One room depicts the story of gangs fighting the authorities in various places around the world - France, Mandatory Palestine and Mexico. This, if you will, is visual research about the thin line that, under certain historical circumstances, separates bandits from revolutionaries.

The other room shows nonstop film loop. Two young people, seen only from the back, are traveling by car in an `ocean of emptiness.` Through tunnels, they get to a wall, from the wall to half-built buildings at an abandoned construction site, from there to roads in a wasteland empty of people, then back to the wall, and finally back to the tunnels, over and over again. Even without words, the jerkiness of the camera eloquently expresses the reality of siege and imprisonment. Pared-down subtitles in Arabic and English change the mood from the sense of being besieged with no exit to a promise that the young people will eventually rebel.

After four concentrated days of observing various works of art, one has the sense of things often being too literal - arcane explanations accompanying the works, and visual works relying on the word. Persekian agrees and says this is a difficult challenge: creating art relating to certain circumstances and a certain place, having aesthetic qualities without being only decor, while at the same time broadcasting an idea without needing verbal help. `In this part of the world we should develop visual literacy, which does not have the syntax and structure of languages,` he says. `We do not have in our society any kind of formal education in terms of visual literacy. Maybe what we would need, coupled with our initiatives in taking our exhibitions and tours of villages etc., is to start thinking and developing this curriculum.`
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