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The Virtual Gallery at Birzeit University

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 04.07.2008:

Braving Artistic Isolation

By Vera Tamari

What is Palestinian visual art? This question is very difficult to define. Is it the art produced by artists in the occupied territories? Is it the art created by those born of Palestinian parents but who have lived all their lives in the diaspora? What would make an artwork be categorised as Palestinian? Is it the art that carries at its heart the spirit and the essence of Palestine, its culture and its “cause”? Are themes like the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, a village landscape, an embroidery motif, an olive tree, a gun, a dove, a kuffiya, or a poem by Mahmoud Darwish enough to give an artwork its Palestinian attributes? How would an abstract painting express Palestine? What about the more contemporary trends such as conceptual art or media art? What is the relation of Palestinian art to global art?

All these and many more questions continue to be raised in order to find a definition for Palestinian art. In essence there is no one true Palestinian art since what has developed during the last 60 years is a rich amalgam of experiences, styles, and messages. The fragmentation and isolation of Palestinians within Palestine and the world at large, and decades of dispossession, occupation, destruction, war, and the continuous struggle to simply survive has created an art that is geared to reflect political complexity, but more so an art inspired by diversity and challenged by individual and collective attachment to Palestine.

Our objective in starting the Virtual Gallery at Birzeit University three years ago was primarily to create a specialised website, using the latest Web technology, in order to narrow obstacles of cultural communication and exposure to Palestinian visual arts. This became more pertinent as a consequence of the siege of recent years in Palestine and the erection of the partition Wall, which cut off individuals and whole communities from one another and the rest of the world. Thus the lack of mobility and the scarceness of opportunities to visit and travel to exhibitions, galleries, and art centres in other towns and villages and to conduct normal exchanges between artists and art creators, as would be the case in any other situation all over the world, became totally impossible. Our aim in the Virtual Gallery was to create exposure to Palestinian art through a rich, easily accessible, and friendly information resource on the latest developments and activities in contemporary Palestinian art – a resource that would challenge the cultural blackout imposed on Palestinians in the occupied territories and the world and offer a functional substitute to the measures of fragmentation and isolation.

Three years since its launch in 2005, the Virtual Gallery has been true to its mission and can proudly claim success. It has become the main reference on Palestinian visual arts and is consulted daily by thousands of viewers, artists, students, and people from all walks of life both locally and internationally. The features that are created monthly and bimonthly give a lively overview of the latest achievements in the Palestinian art milieu, thus bridging experiences of artists no matter where they are: Ramallah, Gaza, Jerusalem, Beirut, Paris, London, New York, and Tokyo, to name a few of the places where prominent Palestinian visual artists are practicing.

The exhibition section in the Virtual Gallery enables our website users to gain access to most of the recent Palestinian exhibitions and participations. During the last three years we have been able to host scores of exhibitions, often timing the feature with the actual opening dates. Our close cooperation with galleries, cultural centres, international curators, and sometimes major museums allowed us to host online, whenever there was Palestinian participation, several important exhibitions and even biennales. The Sydney Biennale 2006, the Sharjah Biennale 2005 and 2007, the Thessalonica Biennale 2007, etc.… all had their space in the Virtual Gallery. Last year we also featured Emily Jacir’s “Material for a Film,” for which she got a major prize at the Venice Biennale while her work was actually being shown there. We had exclusive collaboration in 2006 with the British Museum to host on our website “Word Into Art,” a major exhibition on the theme of Arabic calligraphy in contemporary art works.

To combat our seclusion and to ease the circulation of information, the Virtual Gallery regularly posts announcements in its News and Events section for exhibitions, competitions, residencies, workshops, seminars, etc. This section serves as a daily bulletin for anyone interested in seeking information on the latest developments in Palestinian visual arts.

The Virtual Gallery does not merely serve as an information resource. During the last two years we have adopted a policy to promote the educational service of the website. Introduction to Palestinian Contemporary Art is a new credited course being offered through the Department of Fine Arts at Birzeit University in conjunction with the Virtual Gallery. It is a semi-online course that gives students open access to all the published material on the website, whether images, articles, or videos. We are proud to have developed a comprehensive image library that archives thousands of contemporary Palestinian art works. This archive – an ongoing project – will become a national registry with its thousands of images and scores of artist interviews and published material.

In the educational sphere as well, we have also developed “Art for Schools,” a pioneering project for children. While still a pilot project, this interactive programme in the Virtual Gallery offers children between the ages of 12 and 14 a dynamic insight into the understanding of art, particularly Palestinian art. A teacher’s manual has also been prepared to complement this programme and to help art teachers develop a more creative approach to teaching. To introduce the Virtual Gallery website and the “Art for Schools” programme, several outreach activities and workshops have been conducted by the Virtual Gallery during the last year. These activities are being coordinated with the Ministry of Education and the National Curriculum Center.

Our aim in reaching schoolchildren through the Internet was to create opportunities for our young people to learn more about their art and culture and to take pride in it; to allow children to develop their talents and be given a margin for creative thinking, imagination, and exploration. To date “Art for Schools” is the first online art programme in Arabic for children. This programme does not and will not have any boundaries. It can be used by children wherever they are, in towns, villages, and refugee camps; in schools within or beyond the checkpoints and the Wall, within and beyond the Green Line; in Gaza as well as in Nablus or Bethlehem; in al-Am’ari Camp as well as in Khan Younis or Shatilla.

This is the beauty of defiance – to be able to experience both our versatility and our oneness despite the cruel separation.

Visit the Virtual Gallery at

Vera Tamari is director of the Virtual Gallery and the Ethnographic and Art Museum at Birzeit University and also a practicing visual artist.

This Week in Palerstine

July 2008

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