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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Art under occupation: Qalandiya International opens in Ramallah and Jerusalem

Budgets aren’t large, and because few artworks can be shipped in, the biennial has developed a certain aesthetic: work feels local, a lot of it made or printed in situ

Jack Persekian, was once chief curator at Sharjah Art Museum (pictured), and went on to found the Jerusalem Show, part of Qalandiya International, which kicked off again on Wednesday. Pawan Singh / The National 
Jack Persekian, was once chief curator at Sharjah Art Museum (pictured), and went on to found the Jerusalem Show, part of Qalandiya International, which kicked off again on Wednesday. Pawan Singh / The National 

“Before, we used the city to show art,” says Jack Persekian, founder of the Jerusalem Show. “Now we use art to show the city.” The latest instalment of the ten-year-old Jerusalem Show, an exhibition of Palestinian and international contemporary art, opened yesterday night in sites spread across the Old City, marking the beginning of Qalandiya International.

Old women scrubbed the slippery stone streets that have seen millions of tourists pass by: but this week it is art pilgrims on the move as they take in the show’s venues. There is the Ma’amal Foundation, which Persekian directs; a former Lutheran school, which hung its artworks among maps and chalkboard scribbles; and a storefront by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The exhibition is part of the just-opened Qalandiya International that runs until the end of the month. The biennial event brings together art spaces across Jerusalem and Ramallah. Qalandiya was established in 2012, growing out of the Jerusalem Show, and is now a focal point for the city’s art scene. Budgets aren’t large, and because few artworks can be shipped in, it has developed a certain aesthetic: work feels local, a lot of it made or printed in situ.

At the Lutheran school, the Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili, who is also co-curating a participating show, scrawled his contribution on a chalkboard in a now disused classroom. The American artist Blake Shaw, showing work in the Interlude exhibition, made his video onsite: visitors watched through glass panels as a female presenter stood in front of a green screen, and then ducked into a room to watch the developing product.

The American artist Blake Shaw's work that shows a female presenter stood in front of a green screen. Courtesy of Palestinian Art Court - Alhoash
American artist Blake Shaw's work shows a female presenter stood in front of a green screen. Courtesy of Palestinian Art Court - Alhoash

Over the next few days, the Qalandiya will open further exhibitions, most of them in Ramallah, the centre of Palestine’s art scene. Many of the Ramallah artists were not able to make it to the Jerusalem Show last night because they did not have the right permits; the bus of art visitors heading there was largely filled with visitors from the west. The National, in a special focus on Palestine's art scene, will be reporting on the events.

The Jerusalem Show iX, curated by Persekian and Kirsten Scheid, a professor at the American University of Beirut, used archives as a way to frustrate the present. Arguing that historical events are cherry-picked to justify a status quo, Persekian and Scheid worked with artists to re-investigate the past.

A series of late Ottoman-era photographs flick by in a slide projector, displaying an archive of Armenian photography amassed by Joseph Malikian: Bedouin Palestinians, Palestinians in native dress, European tourists in Bedouin dress, Turks, Armenians, and others. Some — both Arabs and tourists — posed with water jugs, balancing them on their shoulders. A suite of the photos were hand-tinted by the mother of the children depicted: one daughter stood among flowers in a Jerusalem garden in a pink-crocheted sweater; in another photo she balanced her head on a kooky-looking doll. We watched this child grow up. It is a deftly put together performance of the joys of documentation, particularly of the obliterated Palestinian past, and the squeamishness of enjoying such obvious Orientalist tropes.

And then the work was complicated further — playing in the same room is a video by Palestinian artist Essa Grayeb, who filmed young contemporary Jerusalem photographers discussing these same images and their unintended messages: photography started out as Western, one of them points out, and remains so today.

The Ma’amal Foundation initiated a follow-up project to Emily Jacir's well-known Ex Libris from 2012, in which she documented the 30,000 books that the Israelis confiscated from the Palestinians in 1948 and kept inaccessible in the Jewish National Library.

At the Lutheran School, the Foundation made a card catalogue stocked with different libraries in Jerusalem, with information on what they contain, such as Quranic manuscripts from the Mamluk period in the Islamic Museum, or twelfth-century manuscripts from the Is’af al-Nashashibi Library. They also include, crucially, information for how to access the holdings.

The Palestinian author Adania Shibli similarly seeks to facilitate access by a kind of crowd-sourcing: the important Daughers’ and Sons' Manuscript from the time of Saladin is held in a Jerusalem library under lock and key because of security reasons. She created a copying station that will move among different libraries in the city, with residents invited into the role of ancient calligraphers to create a new, publically accessible version.