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  • Andy Valeri, Big Beef Productions


An absolutely profound interview and expose’ published in Adbusters on the role of art and culture today, especially in very challenging political times, with the world-renowned Palestinian artist Khaled Hourani. His Picaso In Palestine project is utterly brilliant, and even a bit resonant with the work of other favorites of mine, the Russian expats Komar & Melamid.

So many good insights here, on many related topics, not just on the struggles of creating art and culture in Palestine (and there are many), but including the role of institutions claiming to support culture actually blocking real change. Can’t encourage people enough to take a deeper dive into this….

Below are just some of the excerpts of this insightful discussion….

Working for the Ministry of Culture was like fiction. [Laughter.]

I was the general director of the Fine Arts department. It is a very big name for a small department. In the beginning, the Palestinian National Authority was the [Palestine Liberation Organization] institution, and the PLO was a revolutionary kind of institution; we were proud to be part of this institution, but it became old and corrupt very quickly. They were not into content, but rather institution-building itself. It attracted all kinds of artists, not only visual — a lot of musicians and writers got involved, too…….

I did a series of small works, a project called “Unnatural Landscape.” The work that you saw last week in Bethlehem is part of this. It started as a project about the landscape and the wall, and how this construction, this ugly concrete, yani, tries to cut, separate, and destroy the scene. What kind of effects does this wall have on the landscape, especially from a distance? I can see, when close to the wall, what kind of damage and social side-effects the wall has between the farmer and his land, the family and their relatives, between a city and a village. But also, from a distant view, for the one who wants to hike only, the landscape has a different meaning. We live in a high area here in Ramallah; when you look toward the sea, you can see different layers of mountains, but there is no empty landscape without settlement, without the wall……..

QUESTION: That’s an interesting point, to look at civilians as artists of the resistance, not the other way around — artists as political activists.

I was always arguing that — I did lecture on this in Lebanon — the First Intifada was an artistic performance or artistic action. The uprising was not only political, as everyone tried to read it in decision-making circles, academic institutions, and the Western media in particular. It was culture par excellence, and deep to the extent that it was not possible to understand with the usual tools of political analysis. At that time, the Palestinian cause was in constant decline, the people were frustrated, and the national movement was eroding. So, at an unfavorable political moment, if politics is impotent and the national movement is in decline, then only culture and art are left as the main engines. Where realism ended, the impossible began.

The uprising was like announcing a revolution not only against the occupation and its politics, but also against all its causes. People did not revolt only against the military machine and the barriers. They revolted against poor education and health care; they revolted to return to the land, and to home farming and solidarity; they revolted against the way of life that was denied them.

The beginning revealed that this uprising had no leadership. On the contrary, the movement its protests came from the bottom up. I am talking about the beginning of an uprising that challenged art and surpassed it. The uprising is an artistic event, and people are artists until proven otherwise……

Artists suffer; they get arrested, their work is destroyed, and some are not allowed to travel. I was allowed to travel, but I was arrested. I would like to be arrested for artistic reasons instead of political ones, but they do not consider you an artist; they consider you an activist if you do something encouraging or promoting a national issue. Our political issue is cultural-issue number one. No artist, no cultural institution can avoid this, even if they are not involved. But it is hard to think about art as separate from politics, anywhere. Art is sometimes more political than politics itself.

There was a lot of solidarity at the beginning, during the Arafat times. In 1967 and in the 1970s, after the war, they wanted to treat Palestinians as victims, and they wanted to hug them, to give support. This is not a bad thing; this is a human reaction: otherwise, it would be a catastrophe. It doesn’t mean that there was no good art at that time. For me, I prefer to be treated as a human being, not as a victim first; I don’t like to think of myself as a victim, or to portray victims in my artwork. Art is not about complaining; it is about being critical. It is about seeing things from a different perspective. It’s about witnessing, about encouraging, about longing for a better life…….

QUESTION: Yes, the famous “Picasso in Palestine” project. You wanted to bring one picture, one painting only, “Buste de Femme,” part of the collection of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, to be exhibited in Ramallah. I am not sure that readers, many of whom will have seen Picasso regularly exhibited in their home countries, know what kind of speculative thinking and action was needed for this project to come to fruition. So, could you please elaborate the impossibilities that you were facing in bringing Picasso to Palestine? And how challenging was the whole process for you personally?

It was a very challenging project, a very risky project. The main question was, how to bring an artwork from a museum in Europe to be exhibited in a war zone? And then, how to convince the museum, since it must have the guarantee that the artwork will be in a safe van, in safe keeping — this was the first thing the insurance company asked for. We had to build a museum because, at that time, 2009 to 2011, we didn’t have a museum. And we needed money. So, it was kind of a miracle, and we had to work in fiction, too.

For me, it was a project about this small museum, an empty museum after the work was returned. We were also questioning the solidarity part of art action, because a lot of things could be considered solidarity activities, but this doesn’t look like it. And we were questioning, of course, the relation between museums in Europe and the rules about the Third World and war zones, areas of conflict.

I was sure that it looked like a joke at the beginning, when I wrote a letter to a museum and said, “I want to officially borrow artwork from your collection and bring it to Ramallah, where we don’t have a state, we don’t have a museum — all these basic things — we don’t have an airport. We have nothing, but we want to try to satisfy all the criteria — except maybe the state.” [Laughs.]……..

Art is in a very critical moment everywhere, but good artwork will find its own way to exist. You can do a great project for zero budget. Some projects need fundraising and money to exist, but this is the magical thing: some don’t. Artists need to invest in their passion and creativity. If you have a great idea, it will convince others, and money will come.

I am not sure if the government or other official institutions are interested in what contemporary artists or young artists are doing, because it is also very critical work. They will not like what they produce, so they will never support them. And independent art institutions, NGO institutions, are worse than a government; they have their own censorship.

There are two big institutions in Palestine, bigger than the Ministry of Culture. The Qattan Foundation and the Palestinian Museum have a big budget and nice buildings; but for a while, they only work on certain topics, strange topics. They only want to work on the past and memory or the future, nothing about the present moment. They are ignoring what’s going on now. They talk about Palestinian life next to the sea, before 1948, which is good; but I am not sure this is a necessity now. When they invite you, they invite you to work on this or that concept, topic or theme. They don’t ask you as an artist, “What you are doing?” and then invite you to come and work with them. They tell you, “We are thinking about doing this exhibition about this book published in the ’80s — what’s your contribution?” That’s not my cup of tea.

They create their own themes, and even with this concern about the worries of the young generation, they are not actually worried about what they think. They invite them to ignore their issues and their life and to think according to their agenda. And their main issue is to keep going; their function is not art. They are employees in this machine called an institution. The artist is not about the institution; his or her concern is about art and the space for freedom.

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