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October 18, 2017
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Al-Mahatta Gallery. Source: picasaweb.google.com.

"In today's Palestine, art does not reflect politics, art is politics," contends Jack Persekian, artistic director of the Qalandiya International biennial art festival. In the eyes of the international community, Qalandiya marks the conflict-ravaged gateway between East Jerusalem and the West Bank. 

"Concrete 2012" by Khaled Jarrar; a soccer ball
made from crushed pieces of the separation wall.
Photograph courtesy of Qalandiya International.

In such a fragmented landscape, the real success of the inaugural festival, held from November 1 to 15, was that for the first time, numerous Palestinian institutions collaborated to produce an event that, as a collective voice, spoke about culture, unity and freedom. "Being Palestinian artists and professionals living and working in the occupied territory with limited means and resources, the only way we had to create our own biennial art festival was coming together, pooling our financial, cultural and human resources," Persekian explains.

Organised by seven institutions, the festival is making Palestinian contemporary art and architecture more visible locally and internationally through a two week program of art shows, music performances, films, tours and cultural activities stretched across towns and remote villages of the fragmented region.

The biennale attracted local residents and art critics as well as over 50 artists from Palestine, Australia, Mexico, Italy and Switzerland, among others. It was billed as a chance to restore Qalandiya's reputation as a cultural hub for Palestinian artists; an image which has eroded over the last decade in the face of ceaseless conflict. "An entire generation doesn't know that Qalandiya is actually a village. They think it's just a checkpoint," said Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, director of the arts programme at A.M. Qattan Foundation, one of the hosting institutions.

In 2002, the Israeli government decided to build a separation barrier running through the northern districts of Jenin, Tulkarem and Qalqiliya until Ramallah (the administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority) extending to either sides of Jerusalem as well as a section in the Jordan Valley. Most of the approximately 760 kilometre structure is made up of a five metre high barbed wire fencing, while about 30 kilometres is comprised of an eight metre high concrete wall. For the Palestinians, the barrier is an obstacle that makes daily life more difficult, but for the Israelis, it's a defense against terrorism.

A.M. Qattan Foundation launched the Young Artist of the Year Award twice - in Ramallah and in Gaza. No one from the West Bank could physically go to Gaza to see the exhibition and no one from Gaza could attend the exhibitions in the West Bank, including artists.

The wall's effect was to divide West Bank Palestinians from Jerusalem. Many Palestinian farmers and traders lost their land and houses, which were confiscated to build the barrier, while the current system of permit-based access to different districts has made it hard for Palestinians to move within the region. 

The fact that movement is restricted and closely monitored within the territory had some consequences on attendance levels at the festival. It was held not only in Qalandiya, but also in different places across the region from Jerusalem and Nazareth to the Gaza Strip and Ramallah, Al-Bireh and Birzeit.

"Obstacles were numerous, starting from the unpredictability of guests being granted a visa to enter the country as they flew into Ben Gurion airport to the ridiculousness of getting around between Jerusalem and the West Bank due to the checkpoints. Some Palestinian guests could not attend 'Gestures in Time' - the Jerusalem Show exhibition in the old city of Jerusalem - because they were denied or had no permits. A.M. Qattan Foundation launched the Young Artist of the Year Award twice - in Ramallah and in Gaza. No one from the West Bank could physically go to Gaza to see the exhibition and no one from Gaza could attend the exhibitions in the West Bank, including artists. The exhibitions in Nazareth on the other hand were off limits to Palestinians from the West Bank," explains Persekian.

Despite such challenges, the festival still has the potential of becoming a creative symbol that represents the Palestinian struggle for dignity and self-expression. "Palestine is a place where life is so absurd and where it seems the only normal thing is to be alive. Art opens a window to the world where one can look outside to enjoy, learn and breathe fresh air in a time of siege and confrontation, and at the same time where people from the outside can peek in, explore and engage with the local scene," says Persekian.

Of course the social, economic and cultural context had a major impact on the work produced and exhibited. One such attention-grabbing piece was Concrete 2012 by Khaled Jarrar, a soccer ball made out of crushed pieces of the separation wall and presented as part of the Disarming Design From Palestine show organised by the International Academy of Art - Palestine.

"Funnel" by Nardeen Srouji.
Photograph courtesy of Qalandiya International.

Artist Jumana Manna won the Young Artist of the Year Award sponsored by A.M. Qattan Foundation which promotes emerging talents. In her video entitled Imagined Cities, she underlined an uncommon side of life in Palestine by re-staging the dinners and masquerade parties that took place in Jaffa during the '20s and '30s at Alfred Roch's house, a member of the Palestinian National League.

Presenting his work, Funnel, in the village of Abwein, in the north of Ramallah, artist Nardeen Srouji turned a small kitchen utensil into a 3 x 3.5 meter funnel ready to be forced into a tiny bottle, so highlighting Palestinians' feelings of distress and anxiety when constrained into the separation wall.

The next Qalandiya International biennial is expected to take place in October 2014. Persekian hopes that through the joint efforts of Palestinian cultural institutions, Qalandiya will become an art hub for the nation, as well as a destination imprinted on the international art calendar. "The visiting artists and guests on their part would become our ambassadors in the world after having had the experience of being here, not merely as observers of the situation but as people who were implicated, got involved and engaged with the country and its people."

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