Art history doesn’t often get this exciting. When Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti presented research on ‘The International Art Exhibition for Palestine’ at the 2014 March Meeting in Sharjah, the audience was so enthralled that, in spite of the organizers trying to end the session by turning the lights on and off, nobody moved. Everyone needed to know how an exhibition of almost 200 works in Beirut in 1978 ‘disappeared’, both in substance and from memory. They heard how Salti fell in love with a ghost; sensed the drama of an artist saying, ‘I have been waiting for you for 30 years’; and encountered characters who claimed to have had no part in events but are clearly visible in related photographs.
For the last two-and-a-half years, Khouri and Salti have worked on transforming four years of research into ‘Past Disquiet: Narratives and Ghosts from The International Art Exhibition for Palestine, 1978’, an archival and documentary project occupying a large gallery at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona.
In the middle of the space, the image of a hand is projected, systematically turning the pages of the catalogue for the focus exhibition of 1978. An eclectic set of images flip by with titles including Sun for the Comrades, Legal Violence and many called Tel al-Zaatar, after the massacre that took place in 1976 during the Lebanese civil war. The surrounding walls are covered with copies of posters, letters and newspaper cuttings detailing artist-led solidarity movements, from The International Resistance Museum for Salvador Allende in Exile to the Japan Afro-Asian Latin American Artists Association. There are documents specific to the 1978 exhibition and subsequent manifestations in Japan, Iran and Norway; and, from the ceiling, hang columns of duplicated magazine covers and speakers emitting the chatter of interviews. Set back from the rest of the show is a shrine-like area dedicated to Ezzedine Kalak, who was director of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Paris from 1972 until his assassination in 1978, and a driving force behind international Palestinian-related cultural activity at the time.
The potential for nostalgia here was overwhelming, yet clean-edged design and the presentation of everything in the form of reproductions mean this is miraculously – and mercifully – avoided. There are no originals here, no yellowing pages in vitrines to peer into: the most precious things are the stories. In the absence of physical artworks, emphasis is placed on how art exists in a broader set of political, economic and cultural conditions.
The works in the 1978 exhibition were intended as a seed collection for a Palestinian museum, the possibility of which is still widely discussed. Numerous attempts to found one have failed, plagued by disagreement over what it should contain and how the story should be told: Palestine is never just about Palestine. In the words of Kalak: ‘Palestine is not strictly a geography, it is a symbol for a struggle that has not yet achieved its goal.’ As a subject, it always extends far beyond itself, as does this exhibition. ‘Past Disquiet’ is a catalyst for urgent museological questions about what kinds of museums and institutions are needed now, especially in places outside of the traditional art-historical centres of Europe and the US, what histories they should relay, and how.
The relationship between aesthetics and politics is also foregrounded. The 1978 exhibition is variously referred to as: ‘Art for Palestine’, ‘Solidarite des Artistes avec la Palestine’ (Artists’ Solidarity with Palestine) or ‘Künstler unterstützen Palästina’ (Artists in Support of Palestine). Sometimes including ‘art’, sometimes ‘artists’, the variations highlight the exhibition’s position at the crux of debates about engagement, art and politics, political support versus political action.
If the exhibition had fallen into a romanticized longing for the past, pinned to the recovery of artworks rather than stories, it would have denied the triumphs of the present as well as the promise of the future. The Palestinian solidarity movement might not be as militant as it once was, but it has greatly expanded, most recently in the form of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), in support of which over 1,000 UK artists have recently signed a petition. ‘Past Disquiet’ is an important contribution to reclaiming histories that anchor present-day thought and action.
First published in Issue 171