Midcentury Cubism Comes to Ramallah
By HG Masters
In Ramallah this past weekend, scores of visitors lined up outside the International Art Academy of Palestine (IAAP) for the rare opportunity to view a canvas by Pablo Picasso, Buste de Femme (1943), an elephant-gray, deconstructed portrait of a woman. The cubist painting, which Picasso created while living in Nazi-occupied Paris (where he was barred from showing his work), is on loan from Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, to the IAAP from June 24 to July 20. The exhibition marks the first time that a work by Picasso has ever been shown in Ramallah, and during its month-long display, Buste de Femme is one of the only European modernist artworks that Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank can view in person.
The IAAP’s arts director Khaled Hourani spent more than two years organizing the painting’s loan from the Dutch museum. The particular painting was selected by students at the IAAP. The Van Abbemuseum, an institution that under director Charles Esche has become known for its innovative exhibition programming and collaborations, was a willing partner in the project. However, there were numerous logistical challenges that needed to be overcome. The painting, valued at USD 7 million, required the construction of a special room at the IAAP for its display, both to handle the expected volume of visitors and to ensure the canvas’ safety and preservation. There are security guards present in the room at all times, and because of concerns about regulating the painting’s climate, only three visitors are allowed in at a time to the specially constructed room-within-a-room at the IAAP.
Furthermore, as Hourani explained in a presentation at the Sharjah Art Foundation’s March Meeting in 2010, Palestine’s ambiguous legal status as an occupied nation and the ever-present potential for political unrest in the Palestinian Territories created difficulties in obtaining necessary insurance for the work. Organizers successfully petitioned to have Israeli custom fees, usually 15 percent, waived in this case. A final set of challenges was obtaining permissions and coordinating with Israeli officials, as the painting had been transported through Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport and then escorted by Israeli security officials and Van Abbemseum curators to the West Bank through the Qalandia checkpoint, and then under the escort of the Palestinian Authority. The project was originally scheduled to open in October 2010 and was then delayed until April 2011 because of logistical complications, before finally opening in late June.
The display of Buste de Femme was accompanied by a weekend of Picasso-related events in the West Bank and Gaza. In Jerusalem, al-Ma’mal Foundation is displaying video footage and documents accumulated by Hourani over the project’s two-year development. On June 25–26, a series of talks and films related to Picasso was held at Palestinian cultural organizations including the Ethnographic and Art Museum at Birzeit University, Sakakini Culture Centre and AM Qattan Foundation in Ramallah, The Palestinian Art Court (al-Hoash) in Jerusalem, as well as at Windows from Gaza for Contemporary Art and ILTIQA Artists House, both in Gaza. A documentary film about the entire project is being developed by Rashid Mashharawi, and is scheduled for completion in 2012, now that the Picasso has finally arrived in Palestine.
The project has many resonances for the both of the institutions involved, as well as for the public who will view the painting. Although there are more than 30 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings by Picasso at the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem—just 20 kilometers from Ramallah—Israel bars most West Bank residents from visiting Jerusalem. For Charles Esche and the Van Abbemuseum, the project represents a radical new way of presenting a seminal work from the institution’s collection. As he said in a statement about the project: “Our Picasso will be changed by its journey to Ramallah, it will take on extra meaning and the story will remain a part of the history of the painting from this moment on.” Back in the Netherlands, Esche has come under fire from a member of the extreme-right Party for Freedom (PVV), who accused him of having “an extremist agenda” and criticized the use of public funds for the project.
For Hourani, the success of bring a Picasso to Ramallah fulfills a promise he made to the students at the IAAP and to the public at large. The project, however, is not only a community service, but also an artwork, entitled Picasso in Palestine (2011). It is Hourani’s most ambitious artistic venture to date, one that began as an offhanded idea in a 2009 conference of museum and arts professionals. Many of Hourani’s provocative conceptual works begin as bold statements—as in his work at the 2010 Sharjah Biennial, a postcard showing a wall scrawled with graffiti that declared, “Every Palestinian Refugee in Lebanon is an Artist Until Proven Otherwise.” But two years later, not only did Picasso in Palestine become reality—an incredible accomplishment considering the difficulties of importing anything, much less a valuable work of art, into the Occupied Territories—but Hourani’s documentation of the project chronicles the Byzantine colonialist structures of the Israeli occupation that nearly prevented the display of the modernist masterpiece. As he has written about the project, “Picasso in Palestine is an art project that aims to probe mechanisms, procedures, obstacles and requirements in getting a painting of this kind to Palestine. By doing so it sheds light on the contemporary reality of Palestine and gives the art project the power of the impossible.” Educational, inspirational or critical—whichever way the public perceives Picasso in Palestine, Hourani and his many collaborators have created a unique showcase for a painting created under the restrictions of one occupation and now displayed under another.