Reflections on The Sea is Mine: 2016 Qalandiya International in Palestineby Elliot J. Reichert
Multiple Locations | October 5 – 31, 2016
Among the many ironies of the ongoing Palestinian crisis, a salient one for visitors to this year’s Qalandiya International (Qi2016) was that no individual could have visited all of its sites. The third iteration of this promising young biennial stretched from the West Bank to the United Kingdom, with exhibitions in Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Gaza, Haifa, Amman, Beirut, and London. Besides showcasing broad international solidarity for the Palestinian cause, Qalandiya International’s multi-site itinerary demonstrated the obdurate reality that some borders are impassible. No matter the nationality of one’s papers, at least one of Qalandiya International’s locations likely represents deep political contention.
This year’s Qalandiya International does not gloss over the realities of occupation, but neither does it facilely leverage trauma. The biennial takes its name for a village between East Jerusalem, the future capital of a prospective Palestinian state, and Ramallah, a large city in the West Bank. Divided by the infamous separation barrier, the village of Qalandiya features one of the largest, most inhumane Israeli army checkpoints in all of Palestine. The biennial’s organizers seek to reclaim Qalandiya as a Palestinian village; as an emblem of the brutality of the occupation and its forced fragmentation of Palestinian society; and, ultimately, as a site of the myriad contradictions of the Palestinian struggle.
With this in mind, the most compelling achievement of Qalandiya International has been to bring together sixteen cultural Palestinian and foreign organizations to collaborate over borders that the partners often cannot themselves cross. The results were of mixed quality, but the sheer inclusiveness of the project spoke to a new ethos against the tired biennial model—so far gone as it is to the stale trope of franchise contemporary art.
The Jerusalem Show, now in its eighth edition, was among this year’s highlights. Centered at the Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in the Old City, the exhibition, Before and After Origins, spread over six venues on a winding street in the Armenian Quarter. The Foundation, housed in a beautifully restored tile factory, showcased works considering origins and myths with a touch of indigenous irony that drew on sharead cultural and symbolic economies. An installation by Tom Nicholson, comprised of reconstructed mosaics and two videos, told the story of an Australian archaeological expedition to Gaza undertaken in 1917, during which a 6th-century mosaic was excavated and spirited away to Australia to be installed in a national war memorial. In the basement, a collection of Bethlehem-made mother-of-pearl pendants was accompanied by a video interview with their collector, who spoke to the rise and decline of the Palestinian city’s once-robust icon-making industry—including the Australian importation of shellfish to the Holy Land to supplement the depletion of locally-sourced raw materials.
In the West Bank, the nine finalists of the A.M. Qattan Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year Award showed new work in the beautifully restored Beit Saa building in downtown Ramallah. Commissioned by the Foundation, these works benefited from the privilege of direct patronage. Inas Halabi’s video installation, Mnemosyne (2016), revisited the story of her grandfather’s scarred forehead, the result of a bullet graze from an Israeli soldier in 1948, through the recollections of myriad family members both younger and older than him. Watching from the couch featured in the video itself, the viewer became implicated in the political and personal dimensions of the story, which was as much about the transmission of family memory as it was about the globalized trauma of the Nakba.
Also in Ramallah, the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center hosted an extensive solo exhibition by Jumana Emil Abboud, who filled the many chambers of this late Ottoman house with paintings, drawings, ephemera, and installations relating a web of traditional Palestinian folktales collected in the 1920s by Palestinian ethnographer Tawfiq Canaan. The titular video, O Whale, Don’t Swallow Our Moon, presents an amateur play of children performing mythical archetypes and reciting the names of Palestinian wells and grottos believed to be haunted. The work describes a relationship between land and water that particularizes the experience of contemporary Palestine—which suffers from the appropriation and control of its water sources by the Israeli military—while speaking to the hope and fears of a generation whose children are growing up under the most extreme conditions of occupation to date.
At Birzeit University Museum, the fifth edition of the Cities Exhibition, Gaza – Reconstruction, took on the question of reconstruction in the wake of the 2014 Israeli invasion of Gaza. A short list of internationally recognized artists took on the subject of Gaza more obliquely, while art students at Birzeit and The International Academy of Art - Palestine addressed the question of reconstruction under the global, neoliberal political economy head-on. Some students touted an architectural grammar abstracted from the patterns wrought by the destruction itself, while others focused on the expression of a Gazan identity that is not aligned with either developers’ economic interests or narratives of dispossession and return. More than any other venue, this exhibition asserted a Palestinian future ripe with hope. Gaza remains inaccessible—to humanitarian aid, Western sympathy, global compassion, and much more—but it is apparently not remote to the insight of young Palestinian artists and designers in the West Bank, some of whom will ultimately be responsible for building the future of Palestine.
ContributorElliot J. Reichert