2 biennials in Palestine are testing the boundaries of what a biennial can be.
The Riwaq Biennale and Qalandiya International in Palestine are subverting the standard formats of international contemporary biennials. Challenging aspects like location, duration and participation, the two events re-adapt the biennale in the context of a country in a perpetual state of conflict and transformation.
Art is politics
Palestine usually makes international headlines for the conflict-prone situation of the Occupation, but not as much filters through about its fervently active art scene – except for news of some internationally known Palestinian artists such as Khaled Jarrar, Emily Jacir, Khaled Hourani, Larissa Sansour and Mona Hatoum. Nonetheless, it is through art that Palestine communicates its situation in the most meaningful way.
The organisers of Qalandiya International told Art Radar:
Politically and economically, Palestinians are at an impasse, with no resolution to the Israeli occupation of their land and no possible alleviation of their dire economic conditions in sight. From these perspectives, the Palestinian present and future are bleak. It is from the perspectives of art and culture, however, that we find some hope. Through art and culture we can find some of the most meaningful messages and poignant gestures that speak of the Palestinian struggle for dignity and self-respect, for self-expression. In today’s Palestine, art does not reflect politics; art is politics.
Art without borders
Apart from efforts at home, organisations abroad, like New York-based Art Palestine International, also seek to promote Palestinian contemporary art on the global stage. They do so through collaborations and partnerships with museums, galleries and non-profits to produce exhibitions, events and publications.
Surprisingly, Palestine’s museums are numerous as well. Jack Persekian, Director and Head Curator of the Palestinian Museum, which is slated to open in 2016 in the occupied town of Birzeit in the West Bank, started mapping the museums in Palestine. He is building networks among them, as part of the future museum’s effort to become a “museum without borders”. Persekian told Electronic Intifada:
We mapped the museums in Palestine. We looked at what’s out there and discovered there are 51 museums. Not all of them functioning — some closed, some not as visible as others. Nonetheless, we decided that we’re part of this community, and we would like to create a network amongst these museums so we can help each other. […] This will help us integrate and help all of us to raise the capacity and the performance of museum work in Palestine.
This approach of “cross-border” collaboration and expansion across the country to a variety of locations is the ideology of the Riwaq Biennale and the Qalandiya International as well.
In constant mutation
The Riwaq Biennale (RB), established in 2005, does not take its name from its location, as most biennale events do. Rather, it is named after the nonprofit organisation behind it. Riwaq, founded in 1991, seeks to protect, utilise and promote cultural heritage through tangible and intangible projects of rehabilitation and revitalisation. The organisation took on the task of mapping the location of historic buildings throughout Palestine, which resulted in the Riwaq’s National Register of Historic Buildings (2007) and revealed that such buildings are situated in about 50 villages and towns around Palestine.
The Riwaq Biennale attempts to expand and advance the aims of Riwaq in revitalising such historic centres. Its format is highly unconformist and experimental, without actual large-scale, central exhibitions, and scattered in various locations around Palestine. The third edition in 2009 based itself on the 50 historic villages that were found, and comprised
a series of trails, curated conversations and interactions in fragmented and disparate locations, reflecting on and moving through the fractured territory of Palestine.
The fourth edition in 2012 took place within the framework of Qalandiya International.
A chronic condition
In its fifth edition in 2014, the Riwaq Biennale continues to challenge traditional biennial models:
With its concrete political outlook and its durational, discursive approach, Riwaq has always challenged what a biennale can be. This time, the 5th Riwaq Biennale (RB5) will span an entire two years, beginning in June 2014 and ending in May 2016. Its condition is chronic, as opposed to sporadic. A “chronic” condition – from the Greek chronos (time) – is persistent and enduring. There’s something about a two-year cycle that strikes a chord. Two years is the part of a relationship before things get harder, but it is also the standard warranty for consumer products.
Along with the clarification of the “growing political and epistemic significance of architectural heritage in local towns and villages”, the Biennale also addresses diversity of representation and produces tensions between autonomy and history, art and language in a context of colonialism, ethnic cleansing and conflict. RB5 structures itself throughout various locations and around various existing public events in Ramallah and other cities.
Qalandiya International (QI), launched in 2012, also takes place in various cities, towns and villages across Palestine. Originally, QI was the culmination of the work and ideas of seven prominent cultural institutions focused on Palestine’s contemporary art and cultural landscape. These institutions included:
- Al Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art
- A. M. Qattan Foundation
- Palestinian Art Court – Al Hoash
- International Art Academy – Palestine
- Sakakini Cultural Center
- The House of Culture Arts – Nazareth
Speaking to Art Radar about the evolution of the Biennial, QI highlights the increase in number of organisations involved in the second edition of the event in 2014: “[…] this year; there are 13 organisations, including a municipality as well as an organisation from the diaspora.”
Additionally, this year sees the introduction of Qalandiya Encounters, a three-day symposium centred around the question of archives. The events will take place in nine partner institutions across Palestine.
From a checkpoint to a new definition
The cross-border and collaborative spirit of QI is already embedded in its name: Qalandiya International. As QI explains to Art Radar:
Qalandiya International is the name of the biennale. Qalandiya is most commonly known for its checkpoint and as a place on the map of segregation; however, Qalandiya has a long history [of] being a village, refugee camp as well as airport. The naming of the biennale “Qalandiya” operates as a way to create alternative representations […] and give Qalandiya new meaning and definitions.
The Huffington Post commented on the endeavour of Qalandiya International and the scope of its event:
It’s one thing to mount an exhibition of this nature in exile, in London, Paris, or New York. There, it’s about the work and the context in which it was made. To mount such an exhibition in what amounts to a war zone is unique and heroic.
A kaleidoscope of perspectives
This year’s edition, themed “Archives, Lived and Shared”, brings the focus on archives and their role in shaping Palestine’s past and present. Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, Director of the Culture and the Arts Programme at the A. M. Qattan Foundation, sheds light on the role of QI2014 in encouraging new approaches and interactions with archives:
We are proposing an engagement with archives that is creative as well as critical; their role in preserving and shaping national identity, and the importance of public access to them, will serve as the theme and inspiration for this year’s events. Along the way, we also hope to address some of the more problematic ways in which archives have previously been discussed and dealt with.
QI tells Art Radar that “the theme of archives is being explored through a kaleidoscope of perspectives”. This is seen in the expansion of the Biennale to a greater number of locations throughout historic Palestine, and the participation of more than 100 artists, including several of international renown, such as:
Several artists from Gaza are also participating, including Shareef Sarhan, Mohammad Musallam and Mohammad Harb.
Contributing to Palestine’s future
Asked about the expectations and hope in QI’s contribution to Palestine’s art scene, QI told Art Radar:
In the context of occupation, Qalandiya International aims to show the vitality and rich diversity of the art scene in Palestine, through the work of practitioners of various generations – such as with the Young Artist of the Year Award and other exhibitions. It enables international artists and curators to engage with the location, as with the Jerusalem Show, creating space for creative dialogues and new relationships to place. Through the work of institutions, innovative programmes and the resilient practice of Palestinian artists in the face of the complex contexts in which they work, Palestine takes its place on the international art scene.
QI hopes that it will “generate further international, regional and local interest in the works of artists”.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
- Curating the contemporary biennial: Ranjit Hoskote at Experimenter Curators’ Hub 2014 – video – October 2014 – Indian cultural theorist, poet and curator talks about curating contemporary art at the Experimenter Curators’ Hub (ECH) 2014
- Palestinian photographer Steve Sabella declares independence through mental images – book review – September 2014 – a Palestinian photographer in exile, is releasing a monograph documenting an innovative body of work
- Traces and Revelations: Identity, home and diaspora in Palestinian art – in pictures – June 2014 – Palestinian Hazem Harb and Mohammed Joha explore the intersections between conflict and art through the notions of home, identity and diaspora
- “Putting me in jail would be their biggest mistake” – Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar talks to Art Radar – July 2014 – “Whole in the Wall” opens a dialogue between the visitors and the artist’s subjects living in Palestine behind the Separation Wall
- Palestinian artists use documentary tactics to sustain and subvert – ArtAsiaPacific – November 2011 – an article in Issue 74 of ArtAsiaPacific explores the adoption of documentary-based techniques by contemporary Palestinian artists
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