Diary of an art competition (under occupation)

Omar al-Qattan
21 November 2002

Three years ago, with support from the family foundation that my parents set up in 1994, we launched an ambitious and wide-ranging programme of support for the arts and sciences in Palestine. The foundation’s aims were principally focused on education and culture, but from the start we were working beneath a daunting and ominous shadow: the realities of the continuing Israeli occupation, and the potential violence of Palestinian resistance to it.

The programme was an urgent enterprise in the sense that, with the economic demands exacted upon both the civilian population and the Palestinian Authority, as well as the latter’s lack of clear and sustained policies in these areas, there was – and is – a profound need to support independent, creative and critical thinking among a population (especially young people) emerging from more than six decades of trauma – dispossession, social fragmentation and then three decades of occupation in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. But ever since we began, the realities around us continuously returned either to disrupt or question the validity of our work.

From the Bereavement series by Ra'ed Issa (2002 competition)

One module, which we initiated in 2000, was a visual arts competition for young artists in their twenties. Candidates had to submit a detailed project. The best twelve artists were then chosen by a jury for the final phase, when they were to present their completed works in a public exhibition. The jury then awarded three prizes, and a book of the finalists’ work was published in both Arabic and English.

The first show took place at the end of August 2000, a few weeks before Ariel Sharon’s now infamous ‘visit’ to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The jury was composed of Palestinian artists, including the British–Palestinian Turner Prize finalist, Mona Hatoum. It was a very exciting and revealing event, not least because it brought together young artists from all over the country (including inside Israel), some of whom had never met before. As part of the contest, the jury was asked to discuss their decisions with the artists; the result was a fascinating and often heated debate, which reflected the contrasting experiences of all involved.

Ra’eda Sa’adeh: the first night of marriage

One interesting trend among this first group of participants was a move away from the directness and symbolic representation of much Palestinian art in the last three decades of the 20th century, and a noticeable interest in more intimate, more suggestive and experimental expression.

The first prizewinner, for example, Ra’eda Sa’adeh from Um El-Fahem (a small Arab town inside Israel), created an installation of extraordinary lucidity and violence around the theme of the first night of marriage. Yet her work was also full of humour. ‘Visitors’ were invited into the exhibition space as into a house, then led into a darkened bathroom in which a short film was projected from the ceiling into the barely-filled bath.

The bridal bedroom
Ra’eda Sa’adeh's bridal bedroom

The film was a long sequence in which the artist, dressed in her bride’s dress, slowly turns in an undefined landscape until she finally spits blood from her mouth, filling the screen with its gory colour.

The loss of the bride’s virginity, so fetishised in our Mediterranean imagination, is thus represented both as an act of violence yet also as a game, in which the bride/artist artificially takes control of her sexual destiny by spitting the blood at the spectator.

Next, the ‘visitor’ is led to the bridal bedroom. Here the bed is stuck vertically to a wall, creating a vertiginous effect, which is reinforced by the tens of gloved women’s hands sticking out on each side of the adjacent walls, strong and rigid, while on the wall opposite, tens of men’s ties hung mockingly, limp and almost bewildered.

Hearts of glass and longing

Other artists in the competition addressed the wider realities of Palestinian life. The photographer, Noëlle Jabbour, presented a series of moving portraits of bereaved families, beautifully composed images of mourning for the victims of the continuing occupation. Palestine’s territorial fragmentation was the theme of a series of delicate, half-shredded maps of the country, made out of thin, fragile layers of tissue, by the British–Palestinian artist Tina Sherwell.

Hassan Hourani
Installation by Hassan Hourani

The works in the 2000 show were full of vitality, irony and wit, and above all an imaginative readiness to experiment with form and material. Hassan Hourani, a young artist from Hebron, created a stunning installation of cubes made out of earth and a combination of herbs, a sensuous feast of colour and smell. Rana Bishara, from Tarshiha in the Galilee, composed a map of Palestine in large coloured shapes, which were put together like a puzzle.

Even the darker themes were expressed in remarkable form. Mohammad Hawajri, from the Bureij Camp in Gaza, remodelled animal bones into strange, eerie sculptures on which he wrote verses from various Arab poets. Ashraf Fawakhri, from Mazra’a in the Galilee, presented a series of red-coloured glass hearts inlaid with objects which, as he writes in his notes, could have been found in any abandoned village – testimony to the 450 or so villages in Palestine from which their inhabitants were expelled or fled in 1948.

Hani Zu’rub: truth, art and violence

But this wonderful creative energy – and particularly the artists’ clear desire to look inwardly and find more intimate forms of expression – was soon to be overshadowed by the onset of the second Intifada. The contest was originally programmed to take place every two years so the second was due in 2002. At the beginning of January of this year, we decided to go ahead with the event despite the increasingly unstable security and political situation. In February, ten artists were chosen for the final phase. But then Israel’s incursions into Palestinian cities began.

If I say no...
From Hani Zu'rub's installation If I say no I mean no

In April, one of the ten finalists, Hani Zu’rub, was arrested, along with his roommates, and taken from his home. Although he was released a few weeks later, his experience is a sobering and haunting one. At first, he was interrogated and accused of belonging to ‘terrorist’ organisations. But when it became clear that these accusations were baseless, the Israeli military judge ordered his release. The Shin Beth (the internal intelligence service) officer told him that he would have liked to keep him in prison for a little longer. Then he wondered whether Hani would draw him a little picture as a souvenir, and asked, by the by, which hand he drew with. Hani immediately realised that the officer was going to hurt him, so he lied and told him that he drew with his left hand, which he then used to do a quick sketch of the officer. As Hani handed the drawing to him, the officer said: ‘Aren’t you going to sign it? I want to put it on the wall behind me.’ Hani refused: ‘Even when you’re about to release me, you wish me harm.’ As he stood up to leave, the officer whacked Hani’s left arm with his machine gun, inflicting on him a fracture that took two months to heal.

But Hani, like the other nine artists, went on to produce his work, despite the situation. In light of the disruption, the curfews and the closures, we postponed the opening of the event to late September to allow the artists more time.

An exhibition under curfew

Then, about a week before the opening of the exhibition, the Israeli Army re-entered Yasser Arafat’s compound in Ramallah and completely destroyed it with the exception of parts of the old, British-built structure in which he sleeps. Curfew was imposed on Ramallah almost every day for the following week, making it extremely difficult for both artists and members of the jury to move.

Five of the artists were coming from inside Israel, one from England; three members of the jury were due to arrive from abroad. It was looking increasingly unlikely that we would be able to hold the event and we began to contact the participants to discuss the possibility of postponement with them. But all the artists were adamant: the show had to go on, whatever the situation. As for our foreign guests, they too were determined to come, including the eminent Cuban curator and writer Gerardo Mosquera and the distinguished Palestinian artist Kamal Boullata, who was travelling from France.

faceless Mona Lisa installation
Ashraf Fawakhri with jury

Among the participating artists was Manal Mahameed, a young woman from the Arab village of Mu’awiyah inside Israel who was eight months pregnant. Despite this, she managed to break the curfew and build her complicated installation on time. Mikhaïl Hallaq, from Fassouta in the north, had never set foot in the West Bank. Only the three finalists from Gaza could not make it, since it is impossible for them to leave the huge concentration camp, which the Gaza Strip has become. Instead, they sent their works through the good offices of the British Council and the French Cultural Centre.

The exhibition finally opened and the deliberations began on 28 September, despite the curfew. In many ways, the very fact that this had happened at all is a remarkable testimony to the artists’ courage and their determination to work in spite of the continuing war, but I could not help thinking about the waste of energy that had been unnecessarily expended ducking the humiliating restrictions imposed by Israel on Palestinian civilian life. On the other hand, there was a real sense of elation because of this small triumph. In situations like this, every act of defiance, however small, acquires importance.

Intifada and imagination

Much of the work presented this year showed the marks of the events of the last two years, though it is heartening to note that most of the artists resisted the temptation of direct treatment of the violence around them.

Boxing ring installation
Manal Mahameed's boxing ring

Indeed, some were totally removed from those realities. Rosalind Nashashibi, who is half British and half Palestinian, made a short film about her grandfather’s neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, a contemplative study of lawlessness and chaos.

Ashraf Fawakhri, who was taking part for the second time, created a satirical installation using a faceless Mona Lisa and a video-clip of a Palestinian wedding, around the theme of sexual violence. Manal Mahameed, erected a real-sized boxing ring near which was projected a short film of two young men in a scuffle, edited together with an idyllic scene of children playing in a field – a study of masculinity which was remarkably elegiac. (‘I’ve always found men both violent and somehow beautiful,’ she told me, not without a hint of irony.)

Steve Sabella’s stunning photographs of Palestinian landscape were moving and poetic.

Photographs by Steve Sabella. Visit his website

Mohammad Hawajri, who had participated two years ago with his series of sculpted animal bones, this time presented a series of abstract works on mixed media (photography and painting), based on the physical composition of trees.

But the darker themes of oppression and violence were also there. Abdel Nasser Amer presented a number of haunting charcoal drawings of faces and figures in pain.

Oil on canvas by Re'ed Issa

In an extraordinary moving series of ninety-nine sketches and six oil paintings, his Gazan colleague Ra’ed Issa presented portraits of the mutilated bodies of people killed in the Intifada. At first sight, these works emit a deceptive serenity and can easily be read as portraits of people asleep. Yet their haunting facelessness and the quiet absence of movement creep up on the spectator and create a devastating effect.

Hani Zu’rub, the artist who had been imprisoned, chose to narrate his imprisonment through a mixture of painting and installation on the theme of his relationship with the ‘other’ – in this instance, the Israeli. An interrogation table marked with two hands and decorated with a gun is placed underneath the paintings, while on the wall opposite two love birds in a cage watch on. ‘I ask myself: how can I love “him” – the Israeli – when he will not give me reason to…and feel that unless both of us have a right to live and to be buried side by side on this land, I can never love him.’

Four paintings by Mikhail Hallaq were heavily resonant with political symbols. Painted in the Classical style (‘I was brought up by nuns,’ he told me), they are strange, technically accomplished works which disturb because of the contrast between style and theme: two naked figures fighting with Jerusalem in the background, a Christ-like figure lying in his mother’s arms – in clear reference to Michelangelo’s Pietà – with his loins covered by a Palestinian keffiyeh (the chequered head-dress).

Untitled by Abdel Nasser Amer
Untitled by Abdel Nasser Amer

Finally, Iman Abu Hmeid’s beautiful installation, Kites, resounds with pain and longing. During the last year or so, kite flying has become something of a national pastime among the besieged children of Palestine. Echoing this, the artist erected a series of black kites, inscribed with short fragments of poetry and single words, on thin metal poles that were stuck in the ground. ‘There is something dead about them, they are black and immobilised and cannot fly, yet they are also full of life and yearning for freedom,’ she said.

And in the middle of the work, she erected a delicate structure shrouded in white, ‘because for me, coming from the martyr town of Akka’ – Acre, part of Israel now, with a sizeable Arab minority living as third-class citizens – ‘home is something vulnerable, like this shroud, a beautiful but delicate place which the wind can carry and destroy.’

<i>Kites</i> installation

Kites, by Iman Abu Hmeid

Paths to homeland and humanity

But reality was to penetrate these events in a different, more direct and dramatic way. As the names of the prizewinners were being read out, the army surrounded a nearby house in which it claimed a wanted man was hiding. The audience at the ceremony became restless and began to leave, worried by the shooting. When the announcements were finally over, some of us rushed down the road to see what was going on. In the valley below us, the army had closed off a whole neighbourhood. The Palestinian jury secretary, Karma Abu Sharif, and a British friend of hers decided to brave the closure and drove down to confront the soldiers. From a distance, we could see them arguing, until Karma was finally arrested. (She was released an hour later.)

Photo by Noëlle Jabbour
Portrait by Noëlle Jabbour

When the army finally pulled out, having found no one in the house, we drove to see what they had done. The soldiers had fired into the house, sent in sniffer dogs and then proceeded to ransack it.

Later, I asked Gerardo Mosquera, our Cuban guest, whether he thought it still made sense to organise an arts event when down the road the army was ransacking somebody’s house and there was nothing any of us could do about it. ‘On the contrary,’ he said. ‘In situations like this, you need more art, because it is clear from the work of the artists here, and I have always believed this, that art is not a luxury which you create when you have everything else, but a necessary means of survival.’

Kamal Boullata, another member of the jury, wondered why no Israeli artists had joined many of their academic compatriots in protesting against the Sharon government. ‘In the 1980s and 1990s, I often took the risk of exhibiting with Israeli artists. But now they all seem to have gone silent.’

by  Mohammad Hawajri
From The story of a tree, by Mohammad Hawajri

But it was another remark by Gerardo Mosquera which has stuck with me ever since. I had asked him if it would not be better to spend the money and effort expended on the exhibition to buy weapons instead. ‘No, because that way you would be too much like your enemy…and create a military society, when in your situation you need instead to explore every possible avenue of human development.’

So in the end, we were overtaken by the grim realities around us. It is perhaps difficult to understand, in countries where stability, security and freedom are taken for granted, that an artistic exhibition of this kind can mean so much. But in Palestine, where Israeli politicians have been talking about the prospect of ‘transferring’ (i.e. expelling) the Palestinians in order to get rid of what the new Israeli Army Chief of Staff, Moshe Ya’alon, so memorably called the Palestinian cancer, such events represent more than defiance; they are testimony to a people’s desire and determination to continue their struggle for a free and dignified life, against all odds.

Detail from the installation, If I Say No I Mean No, by Hani Zu'rub

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