Guest Post: Qalandiya International Art Biennial

Nisa Ari, a PhD student in the History, Theory and Criticism of Art and Architecture program, writes on her research trip to the Qalandiya International Art Biennial. – AK

Last October, I had the good fortune to be in attendance at the opening events of the Qalandiya International Art Biennial, which took place across Palestinian cities, towns, and villages. As anyone who has travelled in the West Bank can attest, just hearing the name Qalandiya can conjure anxious feelings and unpleasant memories, as it is the name of the most heavily trafficked checkpoint between the West Bank and Israel – it is the checkpoint that makes headlines in the international news for violent episodes, but also the mundane checkpoint, the dingy transit silo that Palestinians (only those with special permits) pass through on a daily basis for work, school, medical care, or religious purposes.

The first time I passed through Qalandiya checkpoint in January 2013, I went through on foot after a taxi driver dropped me off at a roundabout and I stood among a heap of cars packed tightly around me, seemingly idling on top of one another as they honked and revved their engines, nudging one another slowly toward the checkpoint awning. “Walk straight ahead,” my taxi driver told me through his window, “if you walk too far to the left or too far to the right you might get shot.” He didn’t exactly inspire confidence. I was on edge the whole way through, but stayed calm, being aware that I was choosing to go on this path, while the teenagers next to me, coming home from school, went out of necessity and countless others – both Palestinians and Israelis – would never be allowed to move like I could from one side of Qalandiya to the other. When interviewing a Palestinian architect/artist in Boston upon my return, he said off-handedly at the end of our interview: “You went through Qalandiya on your trip? Don’t you think that must be the worst place on earth? Between the cars, the busses, the shouting, and the soldiers you feel as if something is about to go wrong at every second.” He was right. It felt awful there. And for many Palestinians, Qalandiya remains a synecdoche for the oppression caused by Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza since the war of 1967.

Choosing “Qalandiya” as the name for this international biennial event, the arts organizers wished to reopen and reimagine the conversation on Qalandiya and by extension, on Palestine, by exhibiting contemporary Palestinian and international art, highlighting historic architectural sites, hosting public performances, talks, walks, seminars, film screenings and more. Conceived of as an event which would unify the myriad, and mostly small-scale, arts and cultural organizations in Palestine, Qalandiya International features the following the institutions: Al-Ma’mal, the A. M. Qattan Foundation, Arab Culture Association in Haifa, International Academy of Art Palestine, Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, Palestinian Art Court – Al Hoash, Ramallah Municipality, Riwaq, MinRASY PROJECTS, Windows and Iltiqa for Contemporary Art in Gaza, Al-Mashgal in Haifa, and the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit.

Opening on October 22, 2014 this was the second installment of Qalandiya International and it came with the attached theme of “Archives, Lived and Shared” – emphasizing the impact of historical narratives on the politics of the past and present and those tools which affect the collective memory of a nation.

From the exhibitions to the artworks contained within, the biennial stayed true to its theme and some of the most inspiring work opened up histories rarely discussed, such as the story of Palestinian refugees in Kuwait, which came to an abrupt end in 1990 when Yasser Arafat sided with Saddam Hussein in his invasion of the oil-rich country during the Gulf War, and consequently re-refugeed a Palestinian population which had called Kuwait home for decades. Nearly 200,000 Palestinians fled Kuwait within the year.

Of particular relevance to my research interests, and a marker of the self-conscious development of the Palestinian art community in recent years, was the plethora of artworks and exhibitions that chose to turn the biennial theme inward and pry open the archives of the art world. As I work on my dissertation prospectus about the rise and theorization of a so-called “cultural sector” (in NGO speak) in Palestine in the twentieth century, I found that these pieces revealed the deep contemplation of the Palestinian art world by several of its most vocal artists and arts administrators. Rather than celebrate the many advances made in the Palestinian art world in the past two decades (the opening of new museums and cultural institutions, recognition of Palestinian artists internationally, etc.) there was also much at the Qalandiya International which spoke to the art community’s concern that is was often stalled, spinning its wheels as each large scale military operation in the region (such as this summer’s 50-day war in Gaza) prompted a rehashing of the discussion about the responsibility of artists and art organizations in regards to politics. “I feel like I’m 90 years old,” said the artist Khaled Hourani during a forum discussion hosted by Al-Hoash about the fabric of the art environment in Palestine, “We keep having the same discussions.” Hourani was exasperated and exhausted. However, I felt hopeful when I saw this sentiment translated through the work of Bashar Khalaf, this year’s winner of the A.M. Qattan Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year Award, who performed painterly “make-overs” of Sliman Mansour’s revered nationalist artworks, treading lightly to critique the continued use of Mansour’s paintings in expressing the communal imaginary and to explore storytelling through (literal) shadows of a history.

A final thought on the “international” part of the Qalandiya International Art Biennial: the event is spread among the cities of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and Haifa – locations that most Palestinians cannot easily move between – and incorporates Palestinian artists in Palestine, from the diaspora, and international artists from abroad. It also relies heavily on the “international” audience members, the people who – like me – have passports that allow them to move easily between locations, through check-points, and into divided cities. Throughout the opening week, as I landed at each new exhibition or workshop location, I was surrounded by the same 30-40 viewers and we slowly began developing relationships, combining travel plans, sharing stories of crossing Qalandiya or getting lost as we discussed what it meant to treat the minutely carved landscape of “Israel/Palestine” like the environs for a massive scavenger hunt – searching out art day after day. The scavenger hunt feel only intensified in viewing the Jerusalem Show (7th edition), organized by Al-Ma’mal and curated this year by Basak Senova, which takes place in the nooks and crannies of the Old City of Jerusalem – sometimes locating the artwork seemed to be 90% of the whole experience. I started to feel how the international audience became an integral part of the circuitry which “turns on” Qalandiya International and the ethics of that role is something I continue to think on since my return.

Below, I’m including some images from the event and from my week traveling through the region.

– Nisa Ari

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