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New Developments in Palestinian Art

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

New Developments in Palestinian Art

By Basil Ayish

This Week in Palestine

January 2005

Palestinian culture, that common thread which is distinctly Palestinian and ties Akka to Gaza to Jericho and everywhere else in between, has many forms. It is the maftoul, mansaf, msakhan, mjudarrah and karshat [popular Palestinian dishes] that we eat. It is the embroidered thobe [traditional dress] that we wear and the traditions of hospitality that we show. It expresses itself in the wedding ceremonies and mourning rituals we follow, and in the connection to the land that we share. While many cultural traditions are the same today as they were hundreds of years ago, not all aspects of culture are static.

Folkloric dance and music represent just two forms of Palestinian culture that have been handed down from generation to generation. Dabke has evolved from a predominantly male circle dance at weddings and celebrations to become dance theatre, incorporating themes and messages which represent life as Palestinians currently experience it. It has also been combined with Western and Latin styles of dance and music to become a performance which dance groups take on tour. Lyrics of old songs are being recomposed with new melodies and merged with international music movements such as hip-hop and rap.

The Nakba and the resulting 56-year-old Israeli occupation are prominently represented in all art forms by Palestinians. In dabke, for example, groups such as the Ibdaa troupe from the Dheishe refugee camp display life and death, Israeli soldiers and Palestinian prisoners, exile and home-coming. El-Funoun, perhaps the oldest folkloric dance troupe in Palestine, explores similar themes and combines modern European and traditional Palestinian dance styles to create something totally new yet recognizable.

One of the most rapidly changing forms of creative Palestinian expression is the visual arts. It is one manifestation of culture that is not easily defined, nor even always recognized. Its impact is not the same on everyone. No doubt there is a moment in everyone’s life when, looking at a painting, photo or video, the question “what is artistic about that?” gets asked. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Still, visual art in general has gone through a series of identifiable developments worldwide.

For many of us, personal attempts at visual art began, and may have ended, in drawing stick figures. The cave paintings of Lascaux represent humankind’s earliest effort at visual communication, perhaps even art, that we know about. While the intention of the Lascaux painters is debatable, the two-dimensional stags, bulls, and humans of 15,000 years ago which they left behind are defined as figurative drawings.

On the European art scene, it has taken hundreds of years for visual art to evolve from the figurative to the abstract (such as Picasso’s) to installations. Figurative and abstract art place images on canvas. Installations

take the image out of the canvas and make it a touchable, 3-dimensional object. This is just one of visual art’s latest evolutionary developments.

Palestinian artists have, in 100 years, bridged a gap in their creative branching-out that took European artists many times longer. Artists such as Khalil Rabah, Alexandra Handal, Emily Jacir and Mona Hatoum have become internationally known for their installations, taking Palestinian art in a new direction. As with other art forms pursued by Palestinians, their themes are often reflective of the collective Palestinian condition: identity, power, injustice and destruction. While other visual artists have also taken Palestinian art to new levels, installations in particular can have an intellectual, emotional and uniquely physical impact that is difficult for two-dimensional representations to attain.

These developments are all the more intriguing given the absence of collectors, galleries, museums and schools, which are well established in other parts of the world, to help artists develop. Part of the leap in this “branching out” of Palestinian visual art is due to the forced migration resulting from Zionism’s colonialism, and the intentional strangulation of opportunities for Palestinians to grow and develop in their own communities as a result of the Israeli occupation.

The internationalization of Palestinians, particularly of Palestinian artists, due to these externally imposed restrictions on movement and development, presents an interesting paradigm: greater exposure to various movements within the art world. Rabah, for example, studied fine arts in Texas, has been an artist-in-residence in Switzerland and France, and lived in England as a visiting artist. Handal identifies herself as being from the Dominican Republic and Bethlehem, and has studied in the U.S., Paris and Madrid. Jacir grew up in Saudi Arabia and Italy, studied in Texas and Tennessee, and now works in Ramallah and New York. Hatoum found herself stranded in England after Beirut’s airport closed down

during Lebanon’s civil war, studied and stayed there, and now spends considerable time in many other countries teaching, learning and creating.

Artists the world over find it a challenge to display their work for the public to see, let alone make a living of it. In many societies, galleries and public buildings fill the need in a symbiotic relationship. Artists get a space to display the result of their efforts in, so that consumers have a centralized place to view and purchase art, benefiting everyone involved. Public buildings are able to have their appearance, ambiance and connection to society, to which the buildings belong, enhanced by the works of local and international artists. Governments direct a community’s resources toward artistic and cultural development.

Palestinian artists trying to introduce their work to the community here are fortunate to have several popular venues available to them. In Bethlehem, Dar Annadwa and the Peace Centre regularly display paintings, photographs, sculptures and installations. The Ramallah area has been exposed to Palestinian art thanks to the Al-Hallaj Gallery, the Sakakini Centre and the A.M. Qattan Foundation. Now, with the opening of the Ramallah Cultural Palace (RCP), artists have a spectacular new national venue to show off their works. Built by the UNDP with funds from the people of Japan, the RCP is operated by the Ramallah Municipality. Perhaps for the first time ever, the Palestinian community has a building specifically designed to enhance the presentation and expand the possibilities of Palestinian artists, whether their concentration is dance, music or visual art, and enrich audiences’ lives.

Of all the places mentioned above, only the RCP is publicly owned. Culture is an entitlement for all to enjoy, but it does not come cheaply. While cultural centres in other parts of the world receive government subsidies, the RCP is at a disadvantage in this regard and it has to survive through the direct involvement of the community. While that participation can be financial, which is crucial, volunteering time and talent are, in some ways, even more important. Both methods of participation are investments in the future not only of the centre itself, but of cultural development in general. Parents can create a connection for their children to the RCP by bringing them to performances and for tours. Businesses and philanthropists can become sustaining supporters of the RCP. Artists can propose workshops, exhibitions and performances. The public at large can help with events and with the administration. Every individual can play a role in helping our Palestinian patrimony grow and leave its mark on the world stage.

Palestinian artists have demonstrated their ability to gain international recognition due to the strength of their work. They keep pace with international art movements by applying their talents in new directions. The changes have been dramatic. And now there is a place in Palestine that provides artists with a world-class venue where their art can be displayed. The RCP will achieve its potential by uniting the government, businesses and the private sector. It is a big responsibility but one that Palestinians are up to.

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