Organising an art biennial can be a daunting task at the best of times. In the case of Qalandiya International (Qi), a collaborative art event taking place every two years across Palestinian cities and villages, it is nothing short of valiant. The systemic restriction of movement of Palestinians, enforced through Israel’s complex apparatus of checkpoints, roadblocks and a discriminatory ID card policy, mean that many of the biennial’s organisers have never visited their colleagues at participating institutions. For Palestinians living in the West Bank, for instance, travel to Gaza, Haifa and East Jerusalem is off-limits. Undeterred, Qalandiya International, which this year celebrated its third edition under the title The Sea Is Mine contemplating the subject of return for Palestinians, has grown from a partnership of seven art and cultural institutions when it first launched in 2012 to encompass sixteen organisations in Haifa, Gaza, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem, as well as satellite events in Amman, Beirut and London.
From the outset Qi was intended to forge ties across a deeply fragmented geography. Arguably one of the most devastating results of Israeli occupation has been the division of Palestinians into enclosed and segregated zones, each economically dependent on Israel. “The experience of someone living in Gaza is profoundly different to that of someone in Haifa or in the Galilee, and this can produce estrangement and division,” observes Vivian Ziherl, curator of the eighth edition of the Jerusalem Show. “In a sense Qi is demanding a connection between parts of the Palestinian population that have been separated from each other, providing a context in which they’re part of a shared story.”
Jerusalem Show VIII: Before and After Origins
Tom Nicholson. Comparative Monument (Shellal). 2016. On view at the Jerusalem Show VIII at the Al-Ma’mal Foundation
This impulse to form connections, not only in a Palestinian, but also broader global context, was one of the curatorial premises of the two part-exhibition Jerusalem Show VIII: Before and After Origins. While the first part of the exhibition (Before) was held in Jerusalem’s Al Ma’mal Foundation, the second part (After) was spread across a number of abandoned shops in the Old City, the dispersed presentations echoing the political map and its logic of division and isolation.
After drew from Ziherl’s research for Frontier Imaginaries, a curatorial project she initiated in 2015, and its examination of “settler regionalism.” Settler states such as Australia, New Zealand, Israel, the United States, Canada and South Africa all share a particular history of colonisation. While these states are connected at government level, social initiatives often remain localised. “One of the efforts of the project is to activate the inherent mobility and the resources of contemporary art in order to stage connections between these dispersed but deeply relevant struggles.”
Spanning both the Before and After sections of the exhibition was Christian Nyampeta’s film The Hereafter (2016). The work takes its cue from the Senegalese film Guelwaar by Ousmane Sembene, in which a Christian man is mistakenly buried in a Muslim grave. Nyampeta proposes the sequel to the film and imagines the main character Guelwaar, played by Palestinian artist Bissan Hussan Abu Eisheh, arriving in the wrong heaven. Lost in these unfamiliar surroundings, the visitor poses disarmingly naïve questions to ethereal figures that we hear but never see. Guelwaar wonders how he might return to his rightful heaven while trying to make sense of the one he’s in, offering a playful yet moving account of displacement and alienation.
Costume’s from Alice Creischer’s To Camille B. 2016. On view for the Jerusalem Show VIII at the Al-Ma’mal Foundation
While After formed possible constellations that transcend boundaries, Before aimed to unravel a narrative of origins that is often used to legitimise the creation of such borders in the first place. This was poignantly illustrated in Tom Nicholson’s work Comparative monument (Shellal) (2014-2016), an installation comprising a series of glass tesserae mosaics and a two-channel video that occupied the ground level of the Al Ma’mal Foundation, a beautiful converted tile factory near Jerusalem’s New Gate.
The original Shellal mosaic, an extraordinary example of Byzantine art dating from the 6th century, was discovered in 1917 near Gaza by Australian troops fighting for the British Empire. The soldiers excavated the mosaic and transported it to Australia, where it was embedded into the War Memorial in Canberra, one of the founding pillars of the independent Australian nation. In tracing a line between parallel stories of dispossession – the aboriginal Australian and the Palestinian – Nicholson seems to hint at the many narratives that have been displaced to make room for an origins narrative that seeks to lay authoritative claim to the land.
Oh Whale, Don’t Swallow Our Moon
Jumana Emil Abboud. When I Tasted Her. 2015. Gouache on paper
Lost, displaced or dormant stories are conjured up in the work of Palestinian artist Jumana Emil Abboud. The solo exhibition Oh Whale, Don’t Swallow Our Moon at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah brought together a selection of past and recent works by the artist that draw from the rich tradition of Palestinian folktales and myth. Photograms, objects, lucky charms and talismans, drawings, texts, video and sound installations occupied the graceful rooms of the Centre, mingling with Khalil Sakakini’s photographs and personal effects.
For the artist the ancient tales are a way of reconnecting with a lost or confiscated land. As the artist explains in the publication The Book of Restored Hands: “My relationship to the tales overall is one that deals greatly with a longing or desire. A desire to reconnect with a part in me, like a vital organ or a limb, that I have been disconnected from.” Yet Abboud appropriates these stories and adds new layers, creating a disorientating effect even amongst Palestinians who know the tales well. “Far from taking the position of the ethnographer, Jumana Emil Abboud uses folktales as a language to speak with,” says Lara Khaldi, the exhibition curator. “She creates a powerful coded language with which to talk not only about the past but also comment on present day realities.”
Jumana Emil Abboud (Detail) Taleteller, Talisman, Tree and Stone, Enchanted Creature, Fragmented Bone. 2016. Multimedia installation. Commissioned by Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center. Photography by Issa Freij
Elsewhere in Ramallah, the A.M. Qattan Foundation hosted the Young Artist of the Year Award (YAYA) exhibition, which showcases the work of young Palestinian artists under the age of 30. This year’s First Prize went to the film Mnemosyne by Inas Halabi, in which members of the artist’s family take it in turns to narrate a well-known family incident against a fixed tableau. Whilst the course of events stays more or less the same, each version accentuates a particular detail or nuance; every character delivers the story with a different degree of proximity. Using strategies of repetition, the work emphasises the inconsistency of memory and subtly challenges the authority of singular narratives.
Campus in Camps
The Concrete Tent. 2015. Design by DAAR
Amongst the countless stories of dispossession that exist in Palestine today, it is that of approximately 1.6 million refugees living in camps across the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon that the initiative Campus in Camps is seeking to tell anew. Founded by architects Alessandro Petti and Sandi Hilal, Campus in Camps is an experimental educational programme that involves students from refugee camps across the West Bank. The programme connects the students with external researchers and academics from local and international universities. But it also provides a framework for participants to develop practice-led initiatives that address the many social and spatial challenges that refugee communities face.
As part of the extensive programme of talks and events organised by Qalandiya International, Isshaq Al-Barbary and Aysar Al-Saifi from Campus in Camps gave an alternative tour of Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem. Like many other Palestinian camps, Dheisheh was founded to accommodate the thousands of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes during the exodus of 1948. Established as a temporary refuge for 3,400 Palestinians, following six decades of natural population growth it now houses more than 13,000 people, according to the UN Agency for Palestine Refuges (UNRWA). Tents and temporary structures have long given way to densely constructed homes and many of the streets are now paved. What was first conceived as a provisional solution has acquired the solidity of concrete.
Embracing these inherent contradictions, Campus in Camps decided to build a concrete tent in the premises of the camp. Conceived as a communal space to host cultural activities and informal social gatherings, the structure seems to embody the seemingly opposite notions of temporariness and permanence that define life in the camp.
The Daar Shufat school. 2014. The Shufat school in exile is part of the ongoing pedagogical and architectural interventions of Hilal and Petti in Palestinian refugee camps. Photography by Anna Sara for Campus in Camps
At first not everyone welcomed the construction of the tent. As Isshaq Al Barbary, programme coordinator of Campus in Camps, remarks, the project raised disturbing questions about the camp’s permanence and crucially, the right of its inhabitants to return to their original homes.
But what does return mean for the third generation of refugees, who grew up in the camps? “We are not farmers and would struggle in a rural village,” observes Al-Barbary. “Nor do we want to start from zero. Most importantly, we were born in the camps and give them value.”
In the fragmented landscape of present-day Palestine, there may be as many notions of return as there are stories of exile and dispossession. Importantly, Qalandiya International is creating a platform in which these diverging experiences can be shared and debated, and despite their differences, may serve as a reminder of that which they have in common. As Jumana Emil Abboud notes, “In the end, we live with a strong desire for a happy ending with the land.” Qalandiya International ran until 31 October 2016. qalandiyainternational.org
This article originally appears in the winter 2016 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art.