Art at the time of Palestine

Since the war between Palestine and Israel began on 7 October 2023, the catastrophic humanitarian situation unfolding before the eyes of the world has been unprecedented. The death toll (more than 30,000 people, half of them children), the wounded, the hostages, the displaced people, the fear of a new Nakba and the plight of civilians lacking everything, all add up to a heavy toll. The entire regional balance has been upset once again, with the Israeli and Palestinian peoples prisoners of their extremist leaders. We are also witnessing a global split in debates, an upsurge in anti-Semitic acts throughout the world, and a divide between the Western world and the Global South. So how can we avoid an inexorable escalation despite international condemnation? Who can stop the ongoing massacre in the Middle East? The shockwaves of war between Israel and Hamas have spread around the world. Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli demonstrations are multiplying here and there, particularly in universities. More and more people are calling for a ceasefire, a truce or, at the very least, a humanitarian pause.

While for several months now many Palestinian artists have unfortunately been censored and art exhibitions have had to be cancelled, some institutions have nevertheless chosen to maintain their programming, wishing to highlight the multiple expressions of Palestinian artists who proclaim the solidarity of a people, claim their attachment to their identity, their roots and their land, and advocate the vitality and richness of their culture, at a time when their existence seems more than ever to be under threat. For the artists continue to hold out the hope that one day the two peoples, Palestinians and Israelis, will live side by side in peace.

So, from Paris to Tunis, from London to Italy, from New York to Ramallah, from Amman to Gaza and from Birzeit to the World Press Photo, let’s discover a selection of artists, institutions and cultural events that have been organised recently or are still ongoing. They have caught our attention because they express resistance, dismay and anger in the face of the extreme fragility of human lives caught up in the recurring conflict in the Middle East that has been going on for over six months and more.

What Palestine brings to the world, at the IMA in Paris 

For more than half of 2023, the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) has chosen to give a special place to young creators from Gaza by showing the Parisian public the cultural effervescence that Palestine is constantly revealing and nurturing. Ce que la Palestine apporte au monde (What Palestine Brings to the World) exhibition, which opened on 31 May 2023 and has been extended from 19 November to 31 December 2023, is a subtle and intense journey that has met with great success, both in the media and among the general public. “Do you like it? We’re extending it”, declared Jack Lang, the current director of the IMA, in a Tweet. “Because 50% of the visitors were young people under the age of 26 who wanted to understand, find out about, discover and marvel at Palestinian creativity. While the IMA is the only cultural institution in the world to have devoted a temporary event of this scale to Palestine, this exhibition-event highlighted Palestine’s exceptional contributions to world culture and paid tribute to the richness and diversity of its heritage, history and legacy,” also explains the former French Minister of Education and Culture.

Presented in several rooms and on several floors, the exhibition is based on three themes using a multi-faceted museum approach: firstly, Palestinians in their museums; secondly, Images of Palestine: A Holy Land? An inhabited land! and finally, Jean Genet’s suitcases. The irreducible vitality of modern and contemporary Palestinian art, created both in the occupied territories and in exile, in dialogue with their counterparts in the Arab world and on the international scene, leaves no visitor indifferent. When faced with all these men and women who have chosen art as a means of expression, as a weapon of resistance, as a tool of revolt and as a political act, we can only marvel.

Since 2016, the IMA has also housed within its walls the collection of the future National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Palestine, a “solidarity collection” of some 400 works ranging from the informal to the hyper-realist, made up of donations from almost fifty international artists and brought together at the initiative of Elias Sanbar (writer and former Palestinian ambassador to UNESCO) and coordinated by the French artist Ernest Pignon Ernest. They all raise a series of questions: what does it mean to be human, in one’s body and identity? What does it mean to live, for oneself, with or among others? 

There will also be a presentation by HAWAF imagine SAHAB, Gaza’s cloud museum. This museum of possibilities is accessible to audiences in Palestine and around the world on the cloud and in the open air. It is based on virtual reality technology and the creation of digital works of art based on Palestinian heritage. It stimulates the imagination and offers a different vision of the future. Its ambition is to rebuild Gaza’s artistic community in a territory under embargo and without a contemporary art museum.

The Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) was founded in 1987 by France and the States of the Arab League to promote Arab culture in all its forms. Housed in a building designed by Jean Nouvel and recognised the world over as a symbol of contemporary architecture, the IMA is a veritable meeting place and forum for exchange. Located in the heart of historic Paris, it has been helping to strengthen cultural, political, economic and social ties between France and the Arab world for thirty years. In addition to its ambitious artistic programme, the IMA has strengthened its role as a think tank on the contemporary Arab world and as a meeting place for all those involved in French and Arab societies, particularly economic players. Today, more than ever, the IMA is perfectly fulfilling its role as a cultural bridge between France and the Arab world, and at a time of great tension, its mission to promote a better understanding of the Arab world and to strengthen Franco-Arab dialogue is essential.

L’Arbre et le Déluge, at B7L9 in Tunis 

Running from 24 January to 5 May, the group exhibition L’Arbre et le Déluge (inspired by an evocative text by the Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan) features seven emerging voices from Palestine. These voices are those of members of the Palestinian diaspora around the world or people living in the occupied territories. They tell of the diversity of Palestinian experience, reflecting a rich and complex heritage and offering a powerful metaphor for resilience in the face of adversity. adversity.

Firas Shehadeh, Sarah Risheq, Nerian Keywan, Bint Mbareh, Dina Khorchid, Walid Al Wawi and Shadi Habib Allah, exploring video, music, photography, drawing and installations in a protean way, attempt to answer the recurring questions: What happens after the storm? How do you remember, mourn and carry on? They all bear witness to multiple experiences relating to fundamental themes such as the strangeness of living with memory, place, the imaginary and the perception of everyday life.

A large central white wall also features almost a hundred highly graphic, colourful and emblematic posters created by the Free Palestine collective. These posters are taken from a free website where anyone can download the image of their choice for personal use. The Palestinian poster tradition offers a unique perspective on the history of modern Palestine and is an underestimated part of its cultural heritage. The posters themselves are important reference points. They offer a unique perspective through which the public can gain insight into the attitudes and aspirations of those directly involved in contemporary Palestinian history. They have lived it and recorded it in graphic art.

Created in 2005, the Tunisian-Swiss Kamel Lazaar Foundation inaugurated B7L9 in 2019 as the first independent art station to be set up in a half-rural, half-industrial area in the northern suburbs of Tunis. This first non-profit contemporary art centre offers a programme of artistic and cultural events accessible to all free of charge, highlighting the vitality and diversity of the MENA region’s cultural scene.

From Palestine with Art, at the P21 gallery in London 

From Palestine with Art is a unique showcase that aims to share the vibrant culture, heritage and struggles of the Palestinian people through various artistic expressions: painting, sculpture, installation, embroidery and multimedia presentation. The exhibition showcases a wide range of talented Palestinian artists who seek to highlight their experiences, history and aspirations. After being presented at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022, it was shown at Gallery 21 in London from 2 February to 2 March 2024. The Palestine Museum US, based in Connecticut, is proud to present a selection from its extensive collection of contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa. It highlights the growing recognition of Palestinian art and culture on the world stage. Through the power of art, the exhibition aims to foster dialogue, create awareness, promote a deeper understanding of the Palestinian narrative, challenge stereotypes and create links between diverse communities.

Falastin Hurra, touring Italy

A collective exhibition of dozens of Palestinian, Italian, French and American cartoonists, drawers and illustrators has been touring various Italian cities since last December. The reference point for initiatives in support of the Palestinian people is also the first assembly coordinated and convened by the Naples group ‘Sanitaries for Gaza’. This group was set up by a group of Italian health professionals to denounce the health catastrophe in Palestine and to act as an international bridge to restore medical normality in Gaza, giving a voice to Palestinian colleagues’ requests for help. The Falastin Hurra exhibition, which means Free Palestine, opened amid a barrage of Israeli air strikes, killing prominent Palestinian cultural creators such as Hiba Abu Nada and Inas al Saqa. “The war against culture has always been at the heart of the aggressors’ war against our people, because the real war is a war against the narrative aimed at stealing the land and its rich treasures of knowledge, history and civilisation,” the Palestinian Minister of Culture fiercely explained.

Palestine: one land, one people, at the United Nations in New York

To mark the 75th anniversary of the Nakba and the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on 29 November, the CEIRPP (Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People) organised an exhibition entitled Palestine: One Land, One People in the Visitors’ Lobby at UN headquarters in New York from 29 November 2023 to 8 January 2024. The exhibition featured photographs, videos and works of art illustrating different episodes in the lives of Palestinians before, during and after the Nakba (which means catastrophe in Arabic). Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee their homes between 1948 and 1949 as a result of the territories that came under Israeli control following the Arab-Israeli war, which led to the creation of the State of Israel. This sad episode in history reminds us that nearly 6 million Palestinians are still refugees today, scattered throughout the Middle East region. Hundreds of thousands of these refugees suffered further forced displacement and thousands were killed during the Gaza war of 2023, in a situation described as a “humanitarian catastrophe” by António Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations.

The Zawyeh Gallery, in Ramallah

Founded in 2013 by Ziad Anani, Zawyeh Gallery is an independent visual art space located in Ramallah, Palestine situated 40km north of Jerusalem. In 2020, the gallery expanded its reach by establishing a second location in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Dedicated to the promotion of emerging and established Palestinian and Middle Eastern artists, Zawyeh Gallery pursues its mission through a diverse range of thematic exhibitions. Over the years, the gallery has organised numerous solo and group exhibitions, showcasing works of art spanning various mediums such as painting, sculpture, installation, video and photography. In addition to its local presence, Zawyeh Gallery strives to support young artists and to introduce contemporary and modern Palestinian art to a foreign audience through various international fairs. Embracing the power of creativity and artistic talent, Zawyeh Gallery sees them as instruments of resilience in the face of adversity. By investing in these qualities, the gallery seeks to foster a vibrant and sustainable artistic community.

In Solidarity with Palestine, at the Darat Funun Foundation in Amman

From 24 October 2023 to 22 May 2024, in the light of the tragic situation currently unfolding in Palestine and the loss of countless innocent lives, it is more necessary than ever to amplify the voice of artists. Samira Badran, Jumana Emil Abboud, Rula Halawani, Mona Hatoum, Khaled Hourani, Emily Jacir, Abdul Hay Mosallam, Ahmad Nawash, Ismail Shammout, Laila Shawa, Wael Shawky and Suha Shoman bear witness to the injustices of our world today and offer new visions of how we might live together. In Solidarity with Palestine, works from the Khalid Shoman collection document artistic resistance in Palestine across history and artistic mediums, including drawing, photography, design, calligraphy, poetry, installation art and video. 

The Darat al Funun Foundation is housed in a complex that is both urban and rural, consisting of six historic buildings from the 1920s that make up a charming Ottoman house located on one of the many hills in Amman’s historic city centre, surrounded by pleasant gardens, enriched by an archaeological site and with a beautiful panorama, creating a unique encounter between the arts, architecture, archaeology and landscape.

The Eltiqa space in Gaza

The Eltiqa space, which has existed and struggled since 2018 in Gaza, was unfortunately bombed and destroyed by Israeli forces at the end of December. It had presented its artists’ collective in 2022 at Documenta in Kassel. After the Venice Biennale, Documenta is the most important contemporary art exhibition in the world. “It’s a hecatomb, I have no other words. The artists who are supposed to be the last bearers of life and humanity have lost their hope. For them, it’s a question of survival. No one has been spared”, explains Marion Slitine, historian and anthropologist, associate curator of the exhibition What Palestine Brings to the World at the IMA.

The Palestinian Museum in Birzeit 

The Palestinian Museum in Birzeit is a non-governmental association dedicated to supporting Palestinian culture locally and internationally. The museum contributes to the telling of stories about Palestinian history, culture and society from new and critical perspectives. It also provides space for creative enterprises, educational programmes and innovative research. The Museum is a non-governmental association registered in Switzerland with a branch in Palestine. Its mission is also to transcend political and geographical boundaries by seeking to form a link between Palestinians in Palestine and abroad through its digital archives and online platforms.

A modern architectural feat located at the top of a green hill overlooking the Mediterranean coast of the town of Birzeit, 7 km north of Ramallah and 25 km north of Jerusalem, the museum was designed by the Irish architectural firm Heneghan Peng and is intended to be ecological, combining culture and nature. The Palestinian Museum has joined forces with the British Library to support a project to conserve and digitise endangered collections relating to Palestinian history and cultural heritage.

A Palestinian woman kisses her niece’s body, by Mohammed Salem, Palestine, Reuters, World Press Photo

The winning photograph of the 2024 World Press Photo – the highly respected international prize for photojournalism organised by an institution in the Netherlands – went to Palestinian photographer Mohammed Salem. He describes the photo, taken just a few days after his own wife gave birth, as a “powerful and sad moment that sums up what was happening in the Gaza Strip”. It shows Inas Abu Maamar (36) cradling the body of her niece Saly (5) who was killed, along with her mother and sister, when an Israeli missile hit their home in Khan Younis, Gaza. The jury commented on the way the image was composed with care and respect, offering both a metaphorical and literal insight into an unimaginable loss. The jury also noted that this photographer had won an award for the same subject over ten years ago. 

And finally, the keffiyeh, adopted, decried and reinterpreted by many artists around the world, could be the common thread running through it all. This 1m x 1m piece of cotton, originally Egyptian, black and white or red and white, was used by peasants to protect themselves from the wind, sun and sand, and to distinguish city dwellers from country folk. Worn today as a traditional headdress by a large number of people in the Middle East, highly symbolic of the resistance of Palestinians like Yasser Arafat (leader of the PLO, an emblematic and controversial figure in the fight for the Palestinian cause in an attempt to encourage a peace process with Israel), the keffiyeh has become popular even in fashion circles, as Chanel had already given it pride of place in 2015.

Text by Christine Cibert

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