Aug 28 2017

Sharjah Biennial 13: Ramallah, “Shifting Ground: The Underground Is Not the Past” (Part 2)

by HG Masters

The earth in an undeveloped plot of land in Ramallah, near the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, where the third off-site project of the Sharjah Biennial 13, “Shifting Ground: The Underground Is Not the Past,” took place in August. All photos by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific.

There is a surfeit of symbolism in Palestine, and while this can be rich material for artists, it often comes with the complications of addressing politics, past and present. Over the course of the second and third days of Sharjah Biennial 13’s offsite program in Ramallah, “Shifting Ground: The Underground Is Not the Past,” many artists and thinkers tried to think beyond, or around, a stagnant symbolic realm, one engendered by the current détente between the Israeli occupation and the aspiring Palestinian government-to-be.

A still image from a video by CASEY ASPROOTH-JACKSON, who had made a facetious proposal to install a roughly life-sized Nelson Mandela sculpture, based on the six-meter-high version inaugurated in Ramallah a year earlier, on the campus of Trondheim Academy of Fine Art, in Norway.

For instance, on late Saturday afternoon, in the garage space of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, Casey Asprooth-Jackson presented several video works about a facetious proposal, submitted to the Trondheim Academy of Fine Art in Norway, to install a Nelson Mandela sculpture based on the one that was recently unveiled in Ramallah. Asprooth-Jackson dialed up Palestinian academic Ala Hourani, who is based in Cape Town, and over the phone they unpacked the symbolism of the six-meter-tall Nelson Mandela sculpture that had been installed in an upscale part of Ramallah in April 2016. Hourani provocatively dubbed the figure a “neoliberal Mandela” (he’s wearing a suit and an incongruously orange-painted tie). These days, the historical anti-Apartheid leader, Hourani claimed, is really only beloved by whites in South Africa, because he promoted the idea of forgiveness for their apartheid-era crimes. After noting the persistent, horrific rates of poverty in the country, Hourani remarked, “Black people don’t want to forgive anymore,” before adding that whether in Palestine or South Africa, “We don’t need a figure to inspire peace; we need someone to inspire a revolution.” Artist Yazan Khalili countered this suggestion at one point with the observation that whereas previously liberation movements were socialist, they now advocate for the right to enter the so-called “free market”—which produces the problematic contradiction that liberation movements aren’t, in fact, inspiring at all.

That proved to be prescient remark, as architectural historian Keller Easterling began a late-afternoon session with a look at what she calls the “cosmopolitan occupation of earth.” She offered a critique of “medium thinking,” which mirrors the homogeneity of architectural infrastructures around the world, and “is locked in a system of binaries that feeds off of one another.” Her call to designers and thinkers was an “altered habit of mind” that gets out of that loop. Accompanied at first by what she called “promotional porn” (videos of real-estate developments, mostly) and then images of recent incidents of “spectacular failures of understanding” (ISIS, Trump) she ventured into proposing a reconnection with the earth through the metaphor of folklore, like those studied in Palestine by Tawfiq Canaan—stories that place humans in direct, responsive contact with the needs of the earth (telling of times of harvest, for instance). Rather than waiting for a revolutionary figure, Easterling was proposing that we listen to something other than our own selves. 

Architectural theorist and critic Keller Easterling, lamenting the “medium thinking” that she believes corresponds to the world of unimaginative, globe-spanning “cosmopolitan” design.

Another interesting riff on the radical potential of the earth came from filmmaker Filipa César, who narrated the fascinating story of Amílcar Cabral, a Portuguese state-trained soil scientist and leader of the Guinea-Bissau liberation movement in the 1960s and ’70s. César analyzed Cabral’s slogan, “Our people are our mountains,” which referred to his unconventional guerilla-fighting techniques for his offenses that started in the city centers rather than the hillsides, and hints also at his interest in agricultural alternatives for colonialism, such as planting sugar beets in Europe rather than exploiting lands in Africa for sugar cane. There was an extended metaphor about the soil and cultivation in Cabral’s thinking, and the accompanying footage that César played behind her came from Guinea-Bissau’s Cuban-trained filmmakers, whose restored footage had still evidently decayed, much like humus.

JUMANA EMIL ABBOUD’s performance in the garden of Sakakini, Out of the Shadows, mixed Palestinian folktales with events drawn from real life.

In the evening, Jumana Emil Abboud’s performance, Out of the Shadows (2016) took place in the garden of Sakakini. Palestinian folktales, famously studied by Tawfiq Canaan and others, were reprised by Abboud who weaves in accounts drawn from contemporary life. Her storytelling was set to video recordings of the Palestinian landscape made with filmmaker Issa Freij during their journeys to visit the locations of the springs documented by Canaan. She was accompanied by the young performer Salma Misyef, who, with Abboud, made paintings on an overhead projector and read parts of the narrative in Arabic. At the end, those of us who had been given an embroidered tag with the name of a spring were asked to stand when ours was called, and we learned what kind of spirits resided there. Bir Onah was the name of mine and it’s home to two spirits—the Virgin Mary but also one that is not so good. I looked it up later: the spring is located near Bethlehem in the village of Beit Jala, which was recently bisected by the construction of the Israeli separation wall around a new settlement. I’ll go look for it next time I’m in Palestine.

Venturing to spaces resting on the earth, the programming on the fourth day looked at the metaphorical connections and differences between cemeteries and museums. The three presentations in the first session discussed what to do with the radical energies of the past, beginning with the research of Beirut-based Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti into three 1970s leftist solidarity exhibitions in Chile, Nicaragua, and South Africa, as well as the 1978 “International Art Exhibition for Palestine,” organized by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) during its exile in Beirut. Nasser Soumi, one of the artists who had been involved in that show spoke about his mission to track down the fate of the artworks which had been donated to the Palestinian cause for their preservation until they could be displayed in a future museum in a liberated Palestine. For those who know a bit about Khouri and Salti’s research and exhibitions on the subject, hearing about Soumi’s lived experiences and tales of looking for the evasive artist and founder of the PLO’s plastic arts section in 1965, Mona Saudi—who says that unnamed friends of hers had been given the collection for safe-keeping—was fascinating. (Others works from that show were exhibited in Tehran and apparently remain in the storage of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art.) Also returning to the 1970s were Reem Shilleh and Mohanad Yaqubi, who work in Ramallah as a duo known as Subversive Film. Their research was on Fatah’s Palestine Film Unit and its founder Hani Jawhariyyeh, who wrote a guide to filming revolutionary conflict. Shilleh and Yaqubi had transformed Jawhariyyeh’s guide into one of Sharjah Biennale 13’s publications, titled The Syllabus, which revives this manifesto as a way (metaphorically) of revisiting an earlier period in the Palestinian liberation struggle.

Before lunch, author of another Sharjah Biennial 13 publication, Samir Harb spoke about his project, “Morbid Symptoms,” co-produced with Mimi Cabell and Nicola Perugini. Their investigation looked at the history and design of the Muqata’as in Palestine, which were a network of 62 hilltop forts built around 1936 to quell the Arab Revolt, designed by British police commissioner Charles Tegart, who had honed his expertise in suppressing counterinsurgencies in colonial Calcutta. These structures have been used by all the occupying powers since then to organize their control of the population. (That the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters is the Muqata’a in Ramallah, and the implications of that didn’t need to be aired openly but seemed to be widely understood.)

After lunch, artist Khaled Hourani described a novel he is writing about Sliman (Suleiman) Mansour’s famous 1973 painting Jameel al-Mahemel (“Camel of Burdens”), which depicts an elderly Palestinian man carrying Jerusalem on his back. The first version of the canvas was owned by Muammar Gaddafi, and its fate is currently unknown. According to Hourani, the episodes in the story will be a way to talk about the beginning of the modern Palestinian art scene, and also reflect people’s lives and shared history.    

Artist NASSER SOUMI speaking about his involvement in the 1978 “International Exhibition for Palestine” held in Beirut, and his ongoing efforts to track down the works that were exhibited there, for the collection of a Palestinian museum of modern and contemporary art in a liberated Palestine.

Artist KHALED HOURANI speaking about a novel he is working on based on the life of SLIMAN MANSOUR (or SULEIMAN MANSOUR) and his famous painting Jameel al-Mahemel (“Camel of Burdens”).

The earth, in the gardens of the Palestinian Museum, with Birzeit University in the background, seen at sunset.
The earth, in the gardens of the Palestinian Museum, with Birzeit University in the background, seen at sunset.

After lunch, artist Khaled Hourani described a novel he is writing about Sliman (Suleiman) Mansour’s famous 1973 painting Jameel al-Mahemel (“Camel of Burdens”), which depicts an elderly Palestinian man carrying Jerusalem on his back. The first version of the canvas was owned by Muammar Gaddafi, and its fate is currently unknown. According to Hourani, the episodes in the story will be a way to talk about the beginning of the modern Palestinian art scene, and also reflect people’s lives and shared history.    

Disappearance and reappearance became crucial themes in the next panel, titled “The Museum and the Illusion of State.” Rana Anani’s presentation, “Reluctant Archives,” used the tale of Ali Baba to suggest that the treasures of Palestinian culture are constantly being lost and rediscovered. Anani told the story of a bronze sculpture of Apollo found on a beach in Gaza after its disappearance two millennia earlier that ended up being sold on Ebay, as well as of the archives of the PLO that were looted by the Israeli military in its invasion of Beirut in 1982. Anani went on to describe her own project to digitize various family archives, borrowing the images but ultimately returning them so that they remain dispersed and thus less likely to be destroyed en masse as with past Palestinian historical records. [image G] Anthropologist Chiara De Cesari then explored the recent history of museums in Palestine in the post-Oslo Accords period, tracing the various developments that have now culminated in the recently opened Palestinian Museum in Birzeit. While being very careful not to be critical of the institution, De Cesari looked at the many contradictions of the project, including its foundational premise of, being formed by a civil-society group, acting like a state museum for a state that doesn’t yet exist, and the tensions between wanting an experimental structure that fits the reality of the occupation and the desire for proper institutionalization. Finally, researcher Doreen Mende, who worked with Baha Jubeh and Suhair Jubeh, looked at a very different Palestinian museum: the Abu Jihad Museum for Prisoner Movement at al-Quds University, which houses smuggled letters by prisoners alongside other artifacts that tell of the experiences of the 800,000 Palestinians who have at one time been jailed since 1967. Unlike the Palestinian Museum, which projects a desired normalcy, the Abu Jihad Museum is an institution that sprung from the unique conditions of Palestine, and in Mende’s framework, “de-normalizes exhibition practices,” while showing the “emancipatory potential” of an exhibition space. A particularly lively discussion followed, with Lara Khaldi posing the questions of whether a national museum was inherently a colonialist-linked project, and if there was potential for a post-colonial institution.

Capping the afternoon was Noor Abuarafeh’s lecture-performance The Last Museum: Museum of all Museums (2017), which imagines a future institution that chronicles all the ones that came before it. The work builds on Abuarafeh’s novel The Earth Doesn’t Tell Its Secrets’ – His Father Once Said (published in English at the Sharjah Biennial 13 in March, and in Arabic in Ramallah), which chronicles her exploration of Palestinian art spaces and various museums, and the family houses that also double as museums. She showed images that included her collections of the small items she had been gathering while visiting exhibitions in Palestine—leftover nails, screws, flakes of paint, tangles of hair, dried leaves, piles of sand and dirt—which led back to the idea of the earth and the entropy that will overtake us until we become its secrets.

In the evening, I was fortunate to have an encounter with the earth itself. Sahar Qawasmi and artist Nida Sinnokrot invited me to join them to watch the sunset from a hillside over the village of Ein Qiniya, where they are starting an art, architecture and agriculture initiative to revitalize a piece of disused land. The hillside has caves, springs, an incredible red-barked Manzanita tree that grows out of the rocks next to a shrine, fruit and nut trees, and for a few moments, the earth in Palestine was real and solid under our feet.

HG Masters is editor at large for ArtAsiaPacific.

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