Curatorial Expeditions The Ramallah Safari

Curatorial Expeditions

The Ramallah Safari

by Tina Sherwell

Globalisation is only possible in a world that has been previously re-organised by colonialism.[1]

The last twenty-five years have witnessed significant transformation in the geopolitics of Palestinian art.[2] From the outset, we need to consider a definition of Palestinian art by recognizing that it is not art that is specifically created in one place, but that, owing to the history of dispossession and diaspora, Palestinian artists can be found all over the world. Therefore, Palestinian art necessarily starts from multiple sites of enunciation and is inevitably influenced by site and location. As Stuart Hall suggests, “identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.”[3] For the purposes of this paper, I will mainly be focusing on the art of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, while touching on the production of artists based in various other locations around the globe. I will first provide some context to the development of art practices, before specifically going on to speak about curatorial practices in relation to how the work of Palestinian artists is curated by international curators.

If we briefly cast our eyes back to the period of the 1980s in the Occupied Territories, artists’ testimonies[4] suggest that their main preoccupation was the articulation of cultural identity and its reaffirmation to their public (my generalization). Art was deeply intertwined with the defensive stance and protection of national identity in the face of occupation. Artists held the deep-seated belief in their role as the vanguard of cultural identity, and that their responsibility was to support the people in remaining steadfast to traditions. This materialized in artworks and imagery that provided the public with identifiable symbols of the homeland.[5] This ethos that dominated art-making took place in the face of an alienating modernity that was transforming the landscape of Palestine and the structures of society, for example, as Palestinian historian Salim Tamari has explained in various texts, as the need for livelihood drew villagers into becoming a pool of manual labor in Israel. While this was taking place, Palestinian artists were creating utopian images of the rural hinterland, in which women became important icons of the bearers of the traditional way of village life.[6] The stringent laws of occupation came to bear heavily upon art production, as the underlying policies of occupation were the denial and erasure of Palestinian cultural identity. This was a time when holding up the Palestinian flag would lead to imprisonment, when artworks came under the same jurisdiction as political leaflets, and when exhibitions would be closed by the occupying military authority. Military order 101, article 6,

Prohibits residents of the West Bank from printing and publishing “any publication, advertisement proclamation or picture, or any other document which contains any article with a political significance” except after obtaining a license from the Military Commander. Printing is defined in the order to include “carving on stone, typing on a typewriter, copying or photographing, or any other manner of representation or of communicating expressions, numbers, symbols, pictures, maps, paintings, decoration or any other similar material, Amendment no. 3 to the order widened its scope by prohibiting publication or possession of all other forms of audiovisual material including cassettes and videos.[7]

In this context, art exhibitions were temporary and makeshift, and were often held in schools or local community halls. Participation by the public was taken as a sign of national patriotism and an affirmation of identity, and by artists’ accounts audiences were large in size. The audience, too, had its expectations: that art was to present to them a celebration of their national identity, and the sorrows and plight of the Palestinian people. As Sliman Mansour also proposes,

People here do not esteem art for the sake of art. If I was to create something purely decorative, I do not think this would find a response…. Art for the people here means to make a picture exposing the problems of their life in a straightforward way and at the same time to give them a certain pride about their culture their people, their land.[8]

While few people could afford to purchase and collect art, it nevertheless circulated through posters, which enabled its dissemination across the community. Artists of an older generation speak of the sanctity with which posters were held among the community, with one of the most famous being of the painting Camel of Hardships (1974) by Sliman Mansour. Posters functioned in a way not dissimilar to Benedict Anderson’s discussion of the importance of print culture in fostering the formation of the “imagined community” of a dispersed nation of Palestinians, living both under occupation and as part of the diaspora. The focus was predominantly on the Palestinian audience and on showing an international public the other side to the political struggle, in order to gain support and recognition of Palestinian identity. Many exhibitions were organized by the main body that represented artists in the occupied territories, the League of Palestinian Artists, which would at times receive support indirectly from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Their work was characterized by group exhibitions wherein less emphasis was placed upon the individual artist; rather, it was placed upon the importance of encouraging cultural production, in which many “untrained” artists exhibited. Artists themselves were often the curators, and curatorial themes were tied to celebrations of labor day, mother’s day, and so forth.[9] As Jack Persekian claims, “Cultural production’s relevance was gauged against its popularity and outreach, not against its intrinsic creativity and artistic merit.”[10]

During this time, there was little interest in Palestinian art by international curators, and Palestinian art was perceived predominantly as being poster art, which is probably most evident in the absence of articles in European journals on Palestinian art in the 1980s. Palestinian art, therefore, was not deeply embedded or implicated in global art market. Artists and the League attempted to build bridges to the “outside” through exhibitions that were predominantly in political solidarity with Palestinian artists and group exhibitions of Palestinian Art held in cultural centers rather than celebrated international museums.[11] Palestinian artists also attempted to build relations with Middle Eastern countries for similar purposes, as well as to support their practice.

The other geopolitical aspect was relations with Israeli museums, galleries, and artists. The majority of artists under occupation declined to be represented by Israeli galleries or participate in museum exhibitions, although in many cases this could have been a highway to success. Of significance was series of annual exhibitions jointly organized by Palestinian and Israeli artists with a supporting manifesto calling for an end to occupation. While Palestinian and Israeli artists did join forces in public outcry against occupation,[12] these initiatives slowly dwindled as they were increasingly hijacked and capitalized upon for political cosmetics, and in which the artists and artworks became secondary to the events.

If we fast-forward to the present-day situation, we find a very different context being played out in the Palestinian Territories. What is significant to consider are three main questions in relation to the transformations: What facilitates the production and circulation (implicated here is visibility) of art and, in tandem with this, what have been the changing modalities of art practice? In particular, how has the global art market come to bear influence on this, and international curators in particular? Today, Palestine is on the international curatorial trail of the Middle East, with Ramallah being one of the main stopovers. As spring breeze fills the air, the trail of curators comes into full blossom.

Before addressing these questions specifically, it is noteworthy to point to the changes in the cultural landscape of Palestine that took place during the early 1990s. This decade saw the establishment of several NGOs whose specific remit was to work in the field of culture and the visual arts, and which in various cases were in fact founded by artists themselves.[13] In addition, universities also developed programs for the study of art and exhibiting spaces.[14] In retrospect, these organizations, which have grown in number over the past decade, provided a marked shift in the cultural landscape. They took on different roles, hosting solo shows for artists, documenting Palestinian art, creating websites, producing publications, promoting contemporary and avant-garde practices, creating bridges between Palestinian artists living in Israel and in diaspora, and creating links between international artists and Palestine by organizing international exhibitions of Palestinian art, hosting international artists, creating residency programs, and facilitating the work of international curators.[15] In time, these institutions have become cultural mediators and gatekeepers, particularly in relation to contact between international curators and Palestinian artists, and in turn set the agenda for cultural activities through their strategies and programs. In the early stages – and from my personal readings, having worked in this sector since 1997 – these fledgling institutions were accountable to the artistic community and perceived it as an important counterpart. Significantly, what has shifted with time and, more specifically, with international funding, is the demise of this accountability. Here, we can see how the Palestinian art context is drawn into a wider geopolitics of the cultural policy of international relations, “soft diplomacy,” and human rights advocacy. These NGO organizations are predominantly reliant on donor funding for their sustainability, and must inevitably contour their programs to meet donor priorities. This has a domino effect on the programs run by the organizations, and further still on the production and circulation of art and its visibility. According to Salwa Mikdadi, “funding from Western organizations is project-based and is a function of policies that focus on developing young leadership through short term rather than long term institutional funding. These policies, which are characteristic of globalization of new market economies, abrogate the regional governments of their responsibilities.”[16] Various NGOs, therefore, fill the gaps of work that is not addressed by the government, each with their own programs and initiatives, as observed in the recent study “Tracking Funding to the Visual and Performing Arts in the oPt A Quantitative and Qualitative Analysis,” prepared for the A.M. Qattan Foundation by Joseph DeVoir and Louise Boo Jespersen. According to the PNA’s Culture Sector Strategy for 2011-2013, the budget for culture has not and will not exceed 0.003 percent of the total.[17] The Ministry of Culture therefore exists as ghost institution, having little bearing on the visual art and cultural scene.

What, then, enables production, and what are the changing modalities of art-making? Art production has always existed in the hardest and most complex of circumstances – in the aftermath of war, in times of instability, and in the absence of art infrastructures common in Europe today – and therefore is not limited to the parameters of funding. However, the geopolitics of funding does factor into the transformation. Since local and international exhibitions have production costs of varying size, this provides local and international artists with the opportunity to make work that may otherwise not be possible to realize and/or to realize works around particular curatorial concepts of exhibitions, as well as to have their work seen. The opposite, of course, is the case for artists who are not chosen to participate. So curatorial practices and their trajectories factor into the production and visibility of art. However, it is not the case that all art is reliant on this avenue, since numerous artists continue to make work without production costs and without visibility in exhibitions. Yet it is key to note that these funding opportunities, whether through curated exhibitions, or applications for different grants now available to artists from the Middle East, have significantly factored into enabling the production and visibility of the work of both Palestinian artists and international artists making works in Palestine.[18] This has also affected the way artists conceive and think about the production of their work: whereas we could argue that, under occupation, artists were engaged in making art as a “resistance strategy” (with, in some cases, financial support from political parties) or as part of their own personal research, their work predominantly existed outside of the grant and production circuit.

A pivotal factor of change has been the role of curators. Interest in art from the Middle East has grown extensively over the last decade, with Palestine being one of the important stops on the “international curators trail” in the region. Curators specifically come to “discover,” seek out, and see firsthand the work of Palestinian artists in the territories, or to be more specific, Ramallah in particular, rather than Jerusalem or neighboring cities. As Anton Vinokle posits, curators “administer the experience of art by selecting what is made visible, contextualize and frame the production of artists, and oversee the distribution of production funds, fees, and prizes that artists compete for. Curators also court collectors, sponsors, and museum trustees, entertain corporate executives, and collaborate with the press, politicians, and government bureaucrats; in other words, they act as intermediaries between producers of art and the power structure of our society.”[19]

Numerous curators make their way to Ramallah to “discover” for themselves the contemporary art scene, meeting artists in trendy cafés and contemporary institutions. According to Omar Kholeif, “historical processes of selection, even from a postcolonial position, continue to require that artists be framed within a curatorial context that is easily digestible and one that often accentuates difference. And while the act of fetishizing Orientalist stereotypes is no longer as unsophisticated as it used to be, a common set of rigid principles continues to be put forward. Namely, one can argue that both cinema and the visual arts in the Arab world continue to emphasize work that bears an Oriental aesthetic quality, coupled with both a critical and documentary sense of introspection from the artist, to illustrate that they are aware of their socio-political condition.”[20]

My position as Director of the International Academy of Art, Palestine, has afforded me the opportunity to discern particular patterns – a lexicon of how visiting curators work and the parameters of what I term the “curatorial safari.” Curators often ask institutions to function as filters in the selection process of which artists to interview. In their short visits, curators come into Ramallah for a day, do not undertake studio visits, and see artists one after the other in what is not dissimilar to a doctors clinic, with artists going in and out, each presenting their work on MacBook Pros, while portable hard drives enable curators to carry away with them the artists’ practices in small black boxes.

What they are looking for, and the criteria by which they select, however, remains opaque. What they are researching is ambiguous, and often they are just coming to “view” works, as though they will intuitively and innately know the work of art when they “discover” it and the artist. A certain exoticism and neo-orientalism prevails in this approach; the curator is on a curatorial expedition in “unknown” and “dangerous” terrain and “discovers” the artist, thereafter bringing them forth onto the international art stage. In so doing, the curator furthers his or her own recognition, showing their aptitude as curators in finding treasures in unknown territory.

In this equation, Palestinians are often drawn into marketing their “Palestinian-ness,” which becomes the determining criteria for selection by curators. Artists are pitted against each other in a “primitive” contest of authenticity spoken in an international art language, while trajectories and histories of art practice, the nuances of artworks, and resonance in relation to their contexts are flattened out to meet this ever shifting criteria of Palestinian-ness, as determined by the curators. The curators see Palestine as a site of authenticity: Palestinian artists working from there are more authentic, exciting, undiscovered. The artists themselves, in turn, and the gatekeepers, are savvy and deeply aware of the marketability and capital of their location.[21]

However, this safari model has the underlying problematic in which the curator is positioned as an “agent” – the bearer of knowledge of the contemporary art world – judging works on a privileged, opaque value system in which the local cultural, social, and political context of art production takes second place, unless it serves a particular curatorial paradigm. It is as though a particular aesthetic quality and subject matter is being looked for, as Mosquera argues, “the ‘cultured’ art of the Third World is not a result of the evolution of pre-colonial cultures whose trajectories were dramatically modified by colonialism. As contemporary art, it forms part of the universalization of the Western concept and practice of art as a self-sufficient activity based on ‘disinterested’ contemplation and driven to the production of very specialized aesthetic-symbolic messages.” I would go so far as to argue that a certain “look” is required of the artwork, videos, c-prints, documentation, etc., all pervading with a particular gloss or sheen; there are no rough edges to contemporary art – all traces of the handmade are seemingly erased.

As Palestine is brought into the geopolitics of the art world, these factors start to shape and influence the internal dynamics of the art community and art-making, wherein the Palestinian context is given over to being an exotic peripheral space that is drawn into the influences of the global art circuit and economy, as Mosquera argues: “The new attraction of the centers towards alterity has allowed greater circulation and legitimization of the peripheries’ art. However, with excessive frequency the art that explicitly manifests difference has been valued, or rather it satisfies the expectations of the ‘other’ in postmodern neo-exoticism.”[22] Artists are not passive receptors but glean an understanding of content, aesthetic form, and the narratives that “curators” are searching to discover, and thereby cater and contour their work to these expectations. “This attitude has encouraged the ‘self-ostracization’ of the peripheries whereby some artists, consciously or unconsciously, have leaned toward a paradoxical self-exoticism.”[23]

Participation in biennales, exhibitions, residencies, and gallery representation has become the determining criteria of success.[24] As Palestinian artists are drawn into the geopolitics of the international art market, this has significant bearing upon the status of those artists. They are predominantly judged by their international participation: receiving acclaim outside of Palestine is now a prerequisite for local recognition, and in turn factors into being put on “the list” to meet visiting curators, or not. Too much fame leads organizations to function as gatekeepers – judge and jury of which artists visiting curators should meet. Ramallah is perceived as an “authentic” location of Palestinian art practitioners; here and there is a marked distinction between those in the “interior,” to draw on Edward Said’s phrase from his book, After the Last Sky, and those who practice in diaspora, who are rarely afforded opportunities or remembered when curators come to town, in the sense that those living in diaspora are left to fend for themselves and are seen to have already “made it” abroad.

The absence of an internal critical discourse, in particular, one documented in critical writing, has given free run to the rise of this value system. The pitfalls, of course, are the lack of deconstruction of the driving forces of the neoliberal art market and the continued manifestation of deep-seated orientalism and relation to the South, which Irmgard Emmelhainz describes:

Evidently the global art world, the market, and political engagement are not at odds with each other but rather, they coexist for mutual benefit. In this schema, much politicized artwork sits within the confines established by liberal ideology that, on the one hand, reduces the political to culture by institutionalizing dissent and staging antagonism. (On the other hand, the model of aesthetic practice that predominates mirrors corporate ideology… as the exploited class appears as a “social issue” and as subject of direct intervention and of denunciation, for example: the oppression of Muslim women, religious fundamentalist violence, the exploitation of immigrants, humanitarian crises, conditions of life in the slums, etc.) As politicized work, aesthetic interventions and politicized gestures are shadow-theater battles that fail to address the new realities of capitalism.[25]

The types of exhibitions in which Palestinians are invited to participate (or not, as curators are often just on expedition because they have the resources to be able to do so) are thematic or group exhibitions specific to Palestinian or Middle Eastern artists, or international artists. In each case, the work needs to pre-determinably fit into the curatorial concept, which again is often ambiguous and full of contemporary buzzwords (as suggested in the recent article “International Art English” by Alix Rule and David Levine), but inevitably caters to pre-held stereotypes of Palestine, as seen through the lens of the media. When one artist is selected, all the others sit around trying to figure out on what basis the selection took place, highlighting the opaqueness of what level of Palestinian-ness is required. Sometimes there is opportunity for production of new work, however, and as curators already find work in existence this provides further capital benefits for the curator in showing work from the region or, as Anton Vidokle describes in “Art without Artists”: “As an artist, how do you exactly say no to the curator who invited you to participate in a show, but seems to want to credit herself as a collaborator or co-author, when you risk not being invited the next time?”[26]

As the artistic gaze turns towards the “west” and, more recently, to the Gulf countries, whose interest in the visual arts has given rise to increasing opportunities for exhibitions, sales to collectors, and galleries, and artists see themselves as freed from “national” obligation, Mahmoud Abu Hashash argues, “Unlike the past, the need to battle for the survival of Palestinian identity has lessened and loosened the bonds that had tied artists to the national cause at the expense of their individual expression. While art may not be seen by as many people when it is removed from the political flag pole, those who do see it, do so for art’s sake, not politics.”[27]

On the international stage, artists engage in performing as cultural ambassadors for Palestine, in which Palestinians are interpolated into questions and answers on the political context. Curators also make their lives easy for themselves; increasingly, particular artists are identified with Middle Eastern countries, while the representation of countries is conveniently reduced to the work of several artists who circulate on the international track of biennales and exhibitions, as curators choose from a pool of a recognized few. However, the other side to this is that a lot of work being produced by artists in these countries remains unseen.

A Palestinian artist once told me, the formula for the exhibition is to take a young, undiscovered artist from the territories and a well-established artist from the diaspora… This suggests that the territories are sites of discovery for artists who exist in a different “time zone,” in an authentic, “primitive” site of practice. It would appear that many of the underlying presumptions of modernism – around authenticity, the privileged position of the bearer of knowledge, and the native practitioner – are underlying these curatorial expeditions.

With all this focus on the international art scene, it is worth remembering Mosquera’s words: “What we call the international art circuit only reaches a reduced part of the world’s population. It is necessary to pay attention to the problem of abandoned publics that constitute the majority of humanity.” [28]