Mar 24 2017

Qalandiya International Diary (Part 3)

by HG Masters

Rooftops of Jerusalem with the golden roof of the Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhrah) and the Mount of Olives behind it. All photos by HG Masters for ArtAsiaPacific.

Day 3: Occupied Central

Jerusalem was a completely different context for Qalandiya International (QI) and its theme of “Return.” I hadn’t been to Jerusalem in five years, and the fault lines in this occupied and contested city have only deepened since then. The dispossession of Palestinians (and other non-Jewish residents) from their homes and properties here is not a historical event—it is very much ongoing, and fuels the violence in the city. In October 2015, there was a dramatic escalation in violence after Israeli police raided the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City, leading to series of knife attacks and other deadly incidents by young Palestinians on Jewish residents and tourists, and more than 200 Palestinians killed in security operations. (There’s a detailed chronology here. A year later, in October 2016, Jerusalem was still a city on edge—though attacks had abated, they hadn’t stopped completely (there was a shooting at a light-rail stop the day after we visited). The streets were filled with police, and the walls lined with graffiti supporting the violent conflict.

We traveled from Ramallah to Jerusalem via the notoriously bottlenecked Qalandiya checkpoint, a gap in the concrete security wall where many roads converge on the way to Jerusalem. We were delayed when one of the elderly women from Ramallah joining us was taken off the bus to have her age and identifications verified—Palestinians from the West Bank need special permits to enter Jerusalem, with some exceptions for age and gender—but eventually we were on our way again. Our first stop was the cultural center and gallery The Palestinian Art Court – al-Hoash, which everyone calls al-Hoash, located on the upper floor of an old stone building in East Jerusalem. Its project for Qalandiya International, “Re/Viewing Jerusalem #2: Return,” comprised an exhibition and public-art projects in the neighborhood. Al-Hoash’s director Alia Rayyan made an introduction, explaining there was an “important red line” running through the projects, about working with the community, investigating “issues of identity and the question of narrative,” with the larger objectives of increasing the “visibility of Palestinian life in Jerusalem and find[ing] new forms of socially-engaged art in public space.” Her concern was that the culture of the city was “disappearing day by day.” (There’s a video of the tours and Alia’s introduction here).

Photographs from LARISSA SANSOUR’s project, Archeology in Absentia (2016), at Palestinian Art Court – Al-Hoash.

Before we went out onto the streets—we broke into smaller groups to avoid blocking the sidewalks and because public gatherings require permits that the municipality rarely grants—I surveyed the projects at al-Hoash. The two that stood out were a hexagonal planter with a tree growing in the middle, which was surrounded by modular seating platforms—part of the “Campus in Camps” experimental education project by Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR). The planter was designed by DAAR founders Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, with Livia Minoja, for the library at the girls school in Shuafat refugee camp. Their proposal for the project is a complex one, but, briefly, DAAR’s overall design for the school uses a hexagonal structure that attempts to change the customary student-teacher dynamic in the United Nations-run school.

The other notable project at al-Hoash was Larissa Sansour and Soren Lind’s installation “Archeology in Absentia” (2016) which comprised a stack of porcelain plates hand-painted with folkic keffiyeh patterns, and photographs of 15 locations in Palestine where Sansour and Lind buried deposits of these plates. The concept follows from Sansour’s sci-fi film, In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain (2015), in which she depicts a futuristic resistance group burying porcelain objects so that it can be excavated and used as evidence of a past civilization. Sansour calls their project “a historical intervention—de facto creating a nation,” which, like many of her works about Palestine, is only a slight exaggeration of what is actually happening in reality. (For instance, a previous series from 2012, “Nation Estate,” imagined all Palestinians being forced to live in a single West Bank skyscraper with views of Jerusalem). As Sansour’s project alludes to, archeology has always been a hugely contested field in greater Palestine, where each layer of history can be instrumentalized to offer competing claims of ownership or legitimacy.

One the storytellers on the “Alternative Tour” through East Jerusalem, performing on DEBORAH AGUIRRE JONES’s project Here, There and Jerusalem (2016).

Fighting for every square meter is not an exaggeration of what happens in Jerusalem, and many of the public artworks and performances on the alternative tour reflected this. The storytellers, mostly young and performing for the first time, punctuated the destinations on the tour by speaking about different aspects of life in the city, offering personal insights into their reality under difficult circumstances. One of the first stops was Deborah Aguirre Jones’s Here, There and Jerusalem (2016), a small covered trailer with potted plants parked on al-Zahra street. It was a follow-up on al-Hoash’s own “Mobile Park(ing)” project of late September in which the organization had created miniature temporary gardens in metered parking spots, in response to the Jerusalem municipality’s closing the Karm al-Khalili Garden (formerly, Rockefeller Garden), the only public park in East Jerusalem and where many of the projects for “Re/Viewing” were going to be situated.

MAJD AMMOURI and AHMAD NABIL’s installation, Sitting, 2016, installation and urban furniture at Dar mall, Jerusalem as part of “Re/Viewing Jerusalem #2: Return,” 2016.

Among the alternative destinations for “Re/Viewing” that al-Hoash had found after the park’s closure was the small plaza of the Dar mall, a building with a troubled history, on Salah Eddin Street. This became the site of Majd Ammouri and Ahmad Nabil’s colorfully painted wooden boxes on wheels, with tables and canopies. As we gathered for another storytelling performance, people in the area had definitely taken an interest in our group’s presence, some out of curiosity and others with perhaps more skepticism.

ALEEN MASOUD and band playing at the Burj al-Luqluq Social Center, in the Old City of Jerusalem at the end of the Alternative Tour of Jerusalem, as part of “Re/Viewing Jerusalem #2: Return,” 2016.

Our tour kept moving, not stopping for longer than a performance. From East Jerusalem, we made our way into the Old City through Herod’s Gate, and after several more stops, ended up in the oasis-like 800-year-old Indian Hospice, a resting place for Muslim pilgrims from India. The last stop of the tour was the Burj al-Luqluq Social Center, an open-air, roof-level courtyard where a band played David Bowie and Queen’s 1981 song Under Pressure, with obvious implications (“Under pressure / That burns a building down / Splits a family in two / Puts people on streets”) and instrumental songs. The sun had just set, the azan echoed over the Old City, teenagers were playing football in the background, kids were running around the courtyard with balloons, and the moon rose in the cold clear evening. The intense beauty and desperation of the setting collided and it suddenly felt very cinematic. The crowd danced. It would have made  a perfect, bittersweet ending to a movie about the struggles and community of life in East Jerusalem.

View of Gallery Anadiel, one of a venues of Jerusalem Show VIII, in the Old City of Jerusalem.

But our evening was a double feature. That night was also the opening of the Jerusalem Show, organized by al-Ma’mal Foundation in the Old City at sites near the New Gate. Now in its eight edition since its launch in 2007, the Jerusalem Show has always integrated artwork in the fabric of the Old City, using semi-public, commercial and private spaces. As director Jack Persekian explained to the assembled crowd outside of the former tile factory building that is al-Ma’mal’s home, the Jerusalem Show is a very conscious attempt to “bring life and people to the city, especially at night,” to counter the “sweeping tide to the month” (a reference, I took it, to the centralization of Palestinian life in Ramallah, rather than Jerusalem) and to “defy the present morbid situation.”

The curator of the “Jerusalem Show VIII: Before and After Origins,” was Vivian Ziherl, and the exhibition was an extension of Ziherl’s curatorial initiative Frontier Imaginaries—a self-described “para-institution” working “trans-locally” that was established through a curatorial fellowship with the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. We had learned earlier that the day part of the exhibition was supposed to have taken place at a community center within the Shu’fat refugee camp, but collaboration with local groups in the camp had faltered, for reasons no one really wanted to get into. Instead, organizers decided to re-organize the exhibition at several spaces between al-Ma’mal and the New Gate. So the Jerusalem Show that we saw wasn’t exactly what Ziherl had planned—although, after several hours in the tense environs of East Jerusalem and the Old City, I had a hard time imagining a large mixed group with many foreigners looking at art and performances in Shu’fat, where things are more “under pressure.”

Despite the hasty spatial re-arrangements, “Before and After Origins,” offered plenty of substantial lines of thought, mixing perspectives from greater Palestine with those from indigenous Australia, Congo, Majdal Shams (in the occupied Golan), the Shan (in Myanmar) and elsewhere. The exhibition was organized roughly in two parts. The “Before” chapter was installed in al-Ma’mal and looked at the mythologies that undergird—and undermine—the legitimacy of “settler colonies,” beginning with the expropriation of raw materials and the transfer of populations that leads to complex hybridizations of local and foreign cultures.

TOM NICHOLSON, Comparative Monument (Shellal), 2014–16, glass tesserae mosaics, wooden boxes, dimensions variable, and two-channel video: left channel: 5 min 58 sec, right channel: 14 min 23 sec.

Ziherl explicitly organized the street-level gallery space of al-Ma’mal to resemble an “archeological dig,” beginning with Tom Nicholson’s Comparative Monument (Shellal) (2014–16), which looked at the history of the 6th-century Byzantine-era mosaic looted by Australian (ANZAC) soldiers from a hill near Shellal, in Gaza, during World War I. The mosaic was taken back to Australia where it now resides at the war memorial in Canberra. Nicholson worked with the Mosaic Center in Jericho to remake portions of original work’s 13 panels as if suspended in mid-excavation. There was also a video interview with Bedouin activist Nuri al-Okbi about the area’s “unrecognized villages” and the many people (his family included) who have had their land seized by the state of Israel. Digging, displacement and desecration was again the subject of Megan Cope’s sculpture Re Formation 1 (2016), a mound of concrete-cast oyster shells embedded in local clay, referring to the middens—mounds of shells and bones—created by indigenous people of Australia that were frequently destroyed by colonial settlers to produce lime for their buildings. 

Installation view of MEGAN COPE, Re Formation 1, 2016, cast concrete oysters and locally-sourced clay dirt. Commissioned by Frontier Imaginaries, with the support of Arts Queensland.    

RYAN PRESLEY, Crown Land (To the ends of the earth), 2016, synthetic polymer paint and gold leaf on hoop pine panel, 53 × 43 cm.

Taking up the complex, overlapping genealogies of mythology and religion were several works. From Majdal Shams, a majority Druze town in the occupied Golan Heights, Wael Tarabieh displayed six beautiful linocut prints from 1996 that depict the ancient Summarian epic of Gilgamesh. The story formed the archetype for the “Palestinian Roman soldier from Lydda”—later known to Christians as St. George and to Muslims as al-Khadir. To illustrate the story’s lineage, Ziherl paired an icon painting of St. George from the late 1800s by a Jerusalem School artist, with Ryan Presley’s contemporary miniature painting Crown Land (To the ends of the earth) (2016). In Presley’s work, he re-imagines St. George as a young aboriginal woman, trapped in a canyon between towering buildings, which represent corporate and military interests. The work is set within the context of the 2007 Northern Territory intervention when Australia sent 600 military troops to occupy indigenous communities to enforce disputed childcare laws.

Installation view of ALICE CREISCHER’s To Camille B., 2016. Photo by Issa Freij. Courtesy al-Ma’mal Foundation, Jerusalem.

Downstairs—where Ziherl’s intention was to “plumb an oceanic and perhaps subconscious dimension”—there was a case of incredibly intricate mother-of-pearl carvings, which represent Bethlehem’s long history of devotional crafts and show the impact that large shells from the Pacific and Australia had on its trade in the 18th and 19th centuries—another unlikely connection between the colonial exploration of the Pacific and Palestine. Also inspired by a shell was Alice Creischer’s video To Camille B. (2016). The artist had reportedly seen an engraved shell created by one of the 4,000 Communards deported to the Pacific island of New Caledonia after the 1871 Paris Commune was crushed. For her video she dressed her own children in historical-looking costume and shackles, and they visit an artificial indoor beach, portraying exiled Communards in an obviously artificial, contemporary environment. In Benji Boyadigan’s installation The Puppeteer (2016), a video of rapidly flickering optical patterns and frequencies, that use the same ones as “contemporary psychotherapies in the treatment of stress and mental tension,” was paired with a large Op Art-style painting of squares, each with radiating rings of color, that was called Stalemate (2016), in a kind of allegory—I gathered from the exhibition brochure—of trauma, recovery and, well, stalemate, which are evergreen themes in Palestine.

Bethlehem mother-of-pearl engravings, from the collection of George al-Ama.

Still from CHRISTIAN NYAMPETA, The Hereafter, 2016, single-channel video, carved stones and fabric prints.

GORDON HOOKEY, Unfinished Mural Victor, Solidarity, Peace and Freedom (detail), 2016, oil on canvas, 300 × 200 cm.    

In the exhibition’s second part, “After,” Ziherl proposed that the “art of connections is the deepest need of our time” to overcome divisions both within Palestinian society—which is split between Gaza, West Bank, 1948 and ’67 occupied territories and the diaspora—and between indigenous populations in still-extant settler states such as Australia, New Zealand, Israel, the United States, Canada, South Africa and elsewhere. Christian Nyampeta’s film The Hereafter (2016) was a visualization of that strategy, transposing two histories into one conjoined narrative. It begins with an excerpt of the 1992 film Guelwaar by Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène in which a man is buried in the wrong grave. It then continues the story with the same man (now played by artist-musician Bisan Abu Eisheh) who finds himself in the Hereafter (which looks a lot like the West Bank) and wanders through various settings trying to figure out the world he’s arrived in—until finally, he walks into a room where Guelwaar is been projected against a wall and he merges into the film.  

There were more explicit acts of solidarity, like Richard Bell’s Embassy (2013– ) erected on the roof of al-Ma’mal. An actual tent, it has been used at various biennials and exhibitions in recent years as a venue to screen videos and host talks or performances, and is an homage to the activists of the 1970s indigenous-rights movement that occupied Canberra for decades on end. It became the backdrop for the performance, The Birth of a Nation (2016), by Shu’fat rapper and filmmaker Muhammad Mughrabi. Making a similar bridge was Gordon Hookey’s painting Detail from the Unfinished Mural Victor, Solidarity, Peace and Freedom (2016), depicting the Palestinian football team scoring a game-winning goal past players from Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Italy. It was shown in lieu of Hookey’s 11-meter-long mural in the Shu’fat Refugee Camp, Murriland!, which tells the story of Queensland from a “blackfella” perspective—a work inspired by the 102 paintings of Tshibumba Kanda Matulu’s History of Zaire (1974–75), slides of which were showing in the same small space. There were also videos on six small monitors by Jawad al-Malhi, a resident of Shu’fat, who had filmed activities in the camp from the vantage point of a nearby Israeli settlement. Bisan Abu Eisheh showed his own sound installation, Radio Be’er Sheva (2014/16), which was based on interviews with three men who were imprisoned by Israel who had the job of listening, summarizing and distributing news from smuggled radios.

SAWANGWONGSE YAWNGHWE, 2nd of March 1962, Rangoon, Burma, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 210 × 405 cm.

Across the street, in the more spacious venue was Sawangwongse Yawnghwe’s large history painting 2nd of March 1962, Rangoon, Burma (2016), depicting soldiers murdering the last Yawnghwe (Shan state) leader during the military coup. More of his fabric paintings about recent reports of human-rights violations in Myanmar were shown at Gallery Anadiel around the corner. There was also a selection of works here by Majdal Shams artists, including Randa Maddah’s contorted figurative sculpture A Hair Tie (2016), an expressive painting of a man by Aiman Halabi, and Shada Safadi’s fabric piece Keep Breathing (2015), imprinted with a bodily-like form. Ziherl’s spotlight was meant to also complicate the idea of “return” (the larger theme of Qalandiya International) within the context of Israel-Palestine, as Majdal Shams is a Druze town occupied by Israel since 1967 and has more cultural connections with other Druze communities in Syria, and less stake in the Palestinian national project—although they share a similar history of occupation. The spotlight on Majdal Shams felt in line with Ziherl’s interest in drawing out the connections between artists from communities with long histories of occupation and brought together artists not often shown in an international context.

Still from KARRABING COLLECTIVE, Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams, 2016, video: 28 min 53 sec.

Admittedly, much of this piecing together and processing happened much later while working on a review of the Jerusalem Show VIII for Issue 102 of ArtAsiaPacific (Mar/Apr 2017), including watching videos online and reading about the artists. One of the pieces that I hadn’t been able to see that night was a video by indigenous collective Karrabing. Their video Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams (2016) (excerpt here), involves layers of overlapping time and memories about being stranded in the bush when the motor on a boat breaks down, and family members’ various interpretations of the event through the lens of “the ancestral present,” Christian faith and a bureaucratic or legalist interpretations. The Karrabing collective’s inclusion in “Before and After” then led me to anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli’s new book Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (2016), which helped to explain not only the group’s improvisational practice (Povinelli is the director of the film project and talks about the extended family of the Karrabing collective in the book), but also the larger cultural context for the project and the conflicting worldviews that exist in the film.

If the Karrabing collective’s work took several more weeks (months, even) to properly piece together, other works in the exhibition had more immediate impact. Perhaps the one that everyone seemed to appreciate that night was George Mahashe’s Camera Obscure #4: A Refusal to Allow Mediation (2016), located in the nearby Knights Palace Courtyard. Behind a white curtain in an archway was the projected image of an upside-down view of western Jerusalem seen through a tiny hole in the Old City’s stone wall. Like all of “Before and After Origins” it was a metaphorical invocation to re-see the landscape around us differently, with other perspectives and orientations.       

The second ending to the day was different. Sophie and I and others on the QI tour hung around on street outside Yerevan restaurant where they were serving food and drinks, chatting with new friends from that day, as well as a few curators from Tel Aviv who had come to Jerusalem for the evening. Although there was a sense that it wasn’t quite the Jerusalem Show that organizers had intended, it didn’t lessen the premise of connecting artists from such far-flung marginalized communities. How being in the context of Shu’fat would have changed things—we won’t know. But the intensity of being in Jerusalem was also more than enough to amplify the themes of the Jerusalem Show, just as it had been central to the plot of “Re/Viewing Jerusalem.”

HG Masters is editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific.

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