Thursday, January 01, 2004

Jack Persekian / south ... east ... mediterranean... europe

Between December 14 and 16, Platform organized south ... east ... mediterranean... europe, a conference and conversation series. The project was within the context of "In The Cities of the Balkans", the 2nd part of "The Balkans Trilogy", a project initiated by Kunsthalle Fridericianum, with writers, critics, curators and artists from Sofia, Skopje, Jerusalem, Cairo, Belgrade, Beirut, Zagreb, Istanbul, Tirana, Pristine, and Sarajevo. The meeting focused upon rethinking artistic production, cultural geography and possible future collaborations in South-East Europe and the South-East Mediterranean, otherwise known as the Balkans and the Middle East.The participants were, Rene Block, Natasa Iliç, Vasif Kortun, Suzana Milevska, Jack Persekian, Shkelzen Maliqi, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Eleni Laperi Koci, Migjen Kelmendi, Lejla Hodzic, Christine Tohme, Mai Abdu ElDahab, Katerina Gregos, and Boris Buden.
It was funded by Förderung aus Mitteln der Kulturstiftung des Bundes and organized in collaboration with Kunsthalle Fridericianum Kassel.

art / occupation in eight points
Jack Persekian


In 1948 the State of Israel was established on land that was formerly Palestine, and approximately half the Palestinian population were driven into exile, where they still reside in the Diaspora, outside the former boundaries of Palestine. “The other half live in what became of Palestine which is known as the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel. This geographical reality has meant that the work of Palestinian artists begins from varied locations, from the city centers of Europe and the States to the various refugee camps, and is formed by different experiences, education, backgrounds and opportunities.”[1]

The history of Palestinian art may be divided into three phases according to Kamal Boullata [2], one of the leading Palestinian artists and art historians. In the first phase (1885-1955), - the period mainly prior to 1948 which also came to be known as the year of the Nakba, the Catastrophe - icon painting was developed as one of the country’s earliest traditions of picture making. Yet the possibility of an indigenous art was aborted as a result of the uprootedness and dispersion of the Palestinian society. The two decades after Palestine’s fall (the second phase) were characterized by radical political and cultural changes in the Arab World. The visual arts enjoyed an unprecedented presence in the cultural arena, which had traditionally been dominated by the oral arts. Pioneers, mainly raised among the refugee population, forged a new Palestinian art, making their debut in Beirut which became the region’s cosmopolitan art center.


The third phase is marked by the 1967 war which led to the displacement of many Palestinians and where entire segments of the population fell under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. This region turned into a cultural ghetto. Insulated from the Arab world, a new generation of artists emerged. They came from Christian, Muslim, Druze and self-proclaimed aetheists’ backgrounds. Some received academic training; others remained self-taught.

These young Palestinians had been greatly disappointed by the defeat of the Arab armies and hence decided to take up the struggle themselves by all available means. Wherever they lived, these emerging artists sought to articulate their personal predicament in relation to the collective dream of regaining their homeland. Under military occupation exhibitions constituted a new form of political resistance. Since art was a means for expressing collective identity, Israeli authorities began to impose military censorship on all exhibitions and art activities. Even the combined use of the four colours that made up the Palestinian flag was banned, and an attempt to establish a local gallery in 1979 was aborted.

This was an important revival of the arts with an emphasis on addressing the political issues and the plight of the Palestinian people. This revival brought about innovation and creativity on the one hand, yet restricted the scope of that creativity on the other, and limited the horizon of imagination. It actually put restrictions on what’s do-able and what’s not; that it is politically motivated is desirable, and apolitical forms of expression are not supported.


As most of the cultural production was encouraged to stand in the face of the overwhelming power of the Israeli occupation - which was tearing at the very fabric of the Palestinian society, trying with all its might to deny the mere existence of the Palestinians – and to give proof to and ascertain the existence of the Palestinian identity and people in Palestine long before the establishment of Israel and the emergence of the Zionist dream, a P.R. machine was put in motion fed by the sprawling popularity of the ever expanding political factions and the enthusiasm of the young generation to be part of the liberation movement of Palestine. This P.R. machine needed cadre, and as there were so many factions operating in the field, they all had to be represented. Hence, the cultural production’s relevance was gaged against its popularity and outreach, not against its intrinsic creativity and artistic merit. To a large extent numbers mattered and political affiliations dictated the choices and preferences, and those who made it had to master, first and foremost, how to play the political game.

Size matters

In those heydays of the PLO (the Seventies) Palestinian artists found great support and enjoyed a whole lot of possibilities for exhibiting and travel. They would be invited to participate in all sorts of solidarity affiliated events, exhibiting in the corridors of the United Nations and other conference and meeting halls, presenting their work and representing Palestine and its culture and people. Yet, as most of these events were held on shoestring budgets, artists were requested to literally carry their art with them; for packaging, shipping, handling and insurance was no way to be covered. Hence, this size constraint was somehow internalized by the artists and with time not only limited the dimensions of the artwork produced but also the medium and material utilized in its production.

From another perspective, which is understood in almost every other way I tried to put it in this text, there is absolutely no serious public money for art in Palestine. Hence, artists try in most cases to fulfill demand rather than initiate supply. The most accessible market for these artists is the upper-middle and the upper classes who would want to decorate their homes with artworks which match their living room colours. This has reduced the scope of production to two-dimensional works and almost done away with sculpture, not to mention art in public places.

Public Art

When thinking about public art and its state in Palestine, trying to exercise some comparative aesthetics with other places in the world, it becomes very evident that we are dealing with incompatible situations, circumstances and contexts. These are nowhere close to normal conditions that we have to deal with in Palestine. The perpetual state of occupation, humiliation and destruction has pushed the Palestinian people beyond the limits of forbearance, and it was only but natural for people to take to the streets and start the Intifada (the popular uprising). Monuments, anywhere and in any circumstance “have to satisfy the eternal demand of the people for translation of their collective force into symbols. The most vital monuments are those which express the feeling and thinking of this collective force, which is the people”.[3]

In the context of the situation and in the last 500 years, Palestine has always been occupied by some foreign force that took control of all aspects of life, including art for that matter. Artists within this context could not take control of what is beyond the limitations of their homes, i.e. they could not consider (even if they wanted to) what is beyond the confines of their dwellings and studios as a possible venue/platform for their artwork. That’s on one level; on another level, and in this given situation, art becomes a form of resistance. Thus, what is against the occupying force cannot, only but naturally, be exhibited in public spaces, and only for devious intent would an occupier invite or commission an “enemy” artist to present work in public or private domain. Consequently, it’s not just that possibilities and resources are not available but the sheer existence of what it takes to conceptualize and realize art in public spaces is nowhere to be found.
In recent years and particularly after the empowerment of the Palestinian National Authority over parts of the occupied territories few initiatives surfaced in an attempt to urbanize the local scene (i.e. do what others did) and beautify public spaces. The concept of public sculpture in these few instances was introduced as a compromise between what could be monuments interpreting people’s force and what might have been a public work of art. Yet, according to the book Nine Points on Monumentality “periods which exist for the moment have been unable to create lasting monuments”. Graffiti immerged to become the most enduring, expressive, popular and accessible form of public art - art manifestation under occupation.


In the occupied territories Suleiman Mansour is a leading figure in the art scene not only due to his articulate and expressive artwork but also because of his capability to mobilize artists, access resources for exhibitions and other projects and also connect with the outside, particularly the Arab World. With other colleagues he established in the early 70s the local chapter of the League of Palestinian Artists and worked extensively in the 70s and 80s to mobilize the artists as one body in the national struggle. But as this work was fueled by the PLO, its downturn in the mid 80s after the expulsion from Beirut and the in-fighting amongst the different factions choked-up the resources coming in to the League and hence this collective effort was nipped in the bud. This condition also reflected all aspects of life under occupation. Frustration, humiliation and desperation pushed people in late 1987 to take to the streets with anything they were left with to fight occupation. In the early years of the Intifada, disobedience and boycott were very important forms of resistance. Likewise, few artists started reflecting on their practice and wished to express this new notion of struggle in their work. Sliman Mansour, for one, wanted to participate in the boycott of Israeli products in his work. He dropped the oil paint, gouache and water colours which he would normally buy in Israel and reverted to the motherland and what it produces. Mud, straw and natural dyes substituted the imported materials and started to constitute the construct of his two-dimensional and three-dimensional reliefs. More importantly the toppling of the old ways of struggle by the Intifada – from regimented, restricted and politically captive resistance orchestrated by the PLO and its factions to an outright popular confrontation with the occupying forces – led Mansour to rework and deconstruct the former national imagery that appeared in his earlier work (the utopian images of the olive pickers, the peasant women, the traditional embroidery and Jerusalem) with mud which alluded to the actual reality of the homeland - fragmented, cracked and parched; a clash of the real with the ideal. This constituted a sort of shift from the representation of the collective national identity to questions about identity and individuality, particularly after the commencement of the peace process where a decline in the impetus to create nationalist works for popular consumption became clearly visible.

Young generation

The emerging artists in that period (i.e. early 90s) were unburdened with the need to express external emblems of nationality through overt symbols. Instead they concentrated on more subtle subjects utilizing suggestive materials that evoke personal memories as well as collective cultural textures. At the same time the first and only independent gallery opened in Jerusalem. Timed with the beginning of the peace process Anadiel gallery doubled as both a permanent exhibition space for Palestinian artists and an address/reference point for all those who wanted to make contact with local artists. It was actually the renewed interest in the Palestinian people and their affairs which was brought about by the extensive media coverage of the Intifada that gave the gallery a more important role than just selling art and making money. I should make it clear at this point that the idea of the gallery started with a commercial underpinning in the background, but this idea soon came face to face with the dire economic reality and had to be aborted. Hence, the decision to close the gallery down or keep it running was not up to a simple profit and loss calculation, but more important considerations, such as providing a venue and an opportunity for local artists to present their work, possibility of accessing venues, events and exhibitions abroad through contacts established by the gallery, and the prospect of securing financial assistance (even though little) for art projects from mainly European organizations and governments. It was actually the latter consideration that gradually led to launching the project of hosting foreign artists in Palestine, the initiation of exchange programs and residencies abroad, and securing needed financial assistance for continuing the work of the gallery. Contact with the international art scene and exposure to varied ideas, techniques and experiences re-energized the young generation and provided the fertile soil for jumpstarting the local art scene. In addition to that a fresh wave of young Palestinian artists who studied in Israeli art academies came in to break the stale and stagnant art atmosphere with bold and daring new ideas which somehow shook the foundations of the dominant old-guard aesthetics.

The gallery started a project of hosting Palestinian artists living in the Diaspora, some of whom had never been to Palestine. Having had secured foreign nationalities and passports, these artists were able to visit, of course as tourists. This project was made financially possible by the artists’ respective governments. Mona Hatoum, Nasser Soumi, Samir Srouji, Jumana El-Husseini, and Susan Hijab were among the artists hosted. Very interesting discourse ensued between the visiting and local artists on issues of representation, questions of identity and modernity, and more tangible concerns of articulation and relationship to the land and the popular imagery. The wind of change which cuts across all aspects of life, brought about much needed reflection, the revisiting of predominant dogmas and set off a new effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and expression.

Al-Ma’mal Foundation for contemporary art

The gallery was a private initiative which did not qualify for important funding from international organizations. Yet its function was quite visible and the expansion of its capabilities and resources was imperative to propel it into a more extensive role. Hence a group of artists, architects and active individuals in the cultural scene got together and established Al-Ma’mal Foundation with the main aim to promote, instigate, disseminate and make art in Palestine. They envisioned Al-Ma’mal as a catalyst for the realization of art projects with local and visiting artists, giving at the same time special attention to working with youths and children. Al-Ma’mal, situated itself in the Old City of Jerusalem, it currently runs three programs; the Artist-in-Residence, the Workshops Network and the Productions and Publications.
Al-Ma’mal attempts to give art more possibilities to become a mode of expression and a way of life.

[1]Tina Sherwell-AlMalhi, Articulations of Identities: changing trends in the contemporary Palestinian arts, July 2000
[2] Kamal Boullata, ART, The Encyclopedia of the Palestinians, New York, Facts On File, Inc., 2000
[3] Jose Luis Sert, Frenand Leger and Sigfried Giedion, Nine Points on Monumentality, joint statement written in 1943 and republished in the Harvard Architecture Review IV, Spring 1984, MIT Press, pp. 62-3.