Picasso in Palestine

Taking a modern masterpiece to Ramallah

Last week I returned from a five-day visit to the West Bank. I was there for the opening of ‘Picasso in Palestine’ and the subsequent ‘Picasso Talks’ – two days of papers and discussions held in Ramallah, East Jerusalem, and Gaza. Outset, the London-based funding body I work for, was supporting the talks, which I learnt about when I first visited Ramallah seven months ago.

‘Picasso in Palestine’ has been well over two years in the making. It is a collaboration between the International Art Academy Palestine and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, and is the brainchild of Khaled Hourani, an artist and the artistic director of the Academy. In one respect it does what is says on the tin: the Van Abbe’s Buste de Femme (1943), by arguably the world’s most famous artist, is brought to Ramallah and exhibited to a Palestinian audience – the first time a Modernist masterpiece has made such a journey. Yet this is a project that plays out on many fronts. What would normally be a standard loan procedure between two institutions had to be rethought due to the exceptional nature of the Palestinian reality; protocols had to be adjusted and legal frameworks re-set relating to insurance, transportation and imports into the West Bank. Equally, at a time when western artistic hegemony has been contested it brings an icon of European Modernism to a Palestinian public and asks what relationship the two might have – or want – with one another. It gives Ramallah, briefly, a modern art museum and questions what type of institutions the city would like in the future and it tests new ways in which a Western museum could or should engage meaningfully in such politically volatile terrain.

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Qalandia checkpoint

My travel companion for the trip was Lynda Morris, the art historian and curator of Tate Liverpool’s ‘Picasso: Peace and Freedom’, held last year, whom I had asked to speak at the talks. On arrival at Ben Gurion Airport we embarked on the 45-minute drive to Ramallah. We crossed one of the quieter Israeli checkpoints, driving past a lone IDF soldier and through the jagged Palestinian hills. Our hotel, set in a developing part of Ramallah – that Lynda likened to the subject of Robert Smithson’s Hotel Palenque (1969–72) for its dilapidated charm – housed the visiting artists, academics and the Van Abbe team. By the time we arrived, the painting had made the 24-hour journey from the Netherlands, landing in Israel, passing through the main Qalandia checkpoint and onward to the Academy. There it had been inspected and installed by the Van Abbe’s head conservator, Louis Baltussen, who was monitoring humidity levels and instructing the Academy’s technicians on meter readings. He seemed nervous.

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The following day, 24th June, the opening of the exhibition was awash with international media – sound booms and cameras scanned the academy’s courtyard, the crowd a mix of Palestinian intelligentsia, Israelis who had illegally travelled across checkpoints, local friends of the Academy and those of us who had flown in. Kalashnikov-laden guards, offered by the Palestinian Authority following a requirement from the Van Abbemuseum, stood outside the Academy as a queue of people formed to see, two-by-two, Picasso’s painting. It was an extraordinary scene. At the press conference Khaled Hourani introduced the exhibition in Arabic before Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbe, gave a characteristically impassioned address, placing the project within the context of the Palestinian struggle for statehood, the Arab Spring, the fall of the old guard in Europe and arts ability, as the Van Abbe puts it, to allow us ‘to imagine the world otherwise’. There was a pointed reference to recent Dutch cultural funding cuts, a decision that will see a number of leading museums and academies closing their doors within the next few years. Yet the atmosphere was one of defiant optimism – if Picasso can come to Palestine, side-stepping seemingly insurmountable hurdles, then art, museums and new publics still have an important role to play.

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Louis Baltussen, the Van Abbemuseum’s head conservator

Towards the end of the press conference, a large fanfare bought in Salam Fayyad, Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, who was led through the crowds surrounded by dancers and bag-pipes, the soundtrack a reminder of the British Mandate and the UK’s formative role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His short speech, given first in Arabic and then English, was equally optimistic – there was no mention of Israel or of occupation – just an acknowledgment that this was a remarkable occasion for the Palestinians and a moment to be savoured.

Day three saw us head to Beirzet University Campus, a short car ride form Ramallah, for the first of two days of ‘Picasso Talks’. After the commotion of the opening evening some contextualization and analysis of the project was needed. Following an eloquent introduction by Remco de Blaaij, curator at the Van Abbe, Lynda Morris opened the event, expanding on her research for ‘Picasso: Peace and Freedom’, detailing the artist’s political involvement in a number of causes that spanned Latin America, Africa and the Middle East as well as his 39-year membership of the French Communist Party. Her exhaustive archival research, taken from the Musée Picasso, makes important steps in redressing the misconception of Picasso as an artist who merely dipped his toe in political causes – a version of events, Morris argues, written by a largely postwar American clique who would rather the Spaniard was deemed apolitical. Shaker Luibi, a professor from Gabès University in Tunisia, then gave a fascinating paper on the Mozarabic influences on Picasso’s work (a talk that was unfortunately somewhat stilted due to translating problems). The session ended with an address from the novelist and journalist Atef Abu Seif, who talked to us via skype from Gaza. He spoke stirringly about art’s transformative role, summing up that ‘art is not thinking for its people, it is pushing them to think’. The sometimes-scattered connection exposed the gulf between Gaza and the West Bank – just 100 kilometres apart, the political and practical differences are vast; Ramallah is an economically and culturally prosperous bubble compared to the isolated, fractured and inhospitable Gaza.

That evening we travelled en masse to the Al Ma’Mal Foundation in East Jerusalem. Crossing Qalandia checkpoint – half-cattle farm, half-high security prison entrance – put the reality of the situation in focus. Lynda pointed out that when she visited East Germany in the mid 1980s the Western, ‘free’ side of the wall was covered in graffiti whereas the East remained untouched. By contrast, at Qalandia vast murals of Yasser Arafat and Arabic slogans adorned the Palestinian side whereas the wall running along the road into Jerusalem is stony grey.

At Al Ma’Mal there was an exhibition of documentation relating to the project, including reproductions of letters relating to Buste de Femme and the original loan request from Hourani: ‘Our aim’, the letter reads, ‘is to show the Picasso work to Palestinian students, youth and the general public.’ It is vital for the project’s integrity, one feels, that the request came from the Academy – that this was not a project orchestrated from a European museum, a Saadiyat Island for the West Bank as one journalist rather simplistically put it at the press conference. Alongside the letters was documentation relating to the original acquisition of the painting in the mid-1950s, which, students protested, was an unjustified expense for postwar Eindhoven. The exhibition also included two interpretations of Buste de Femme by students of the Academy, photographs of the works transportation and a reproduction of frieze’s Ramallah city report, written in October last year and which includes an interview with Hourani where he discusses the aims and challenges of the project. Jack Persekian, the director of Al Ma’Mal addressed a full gallery; Israelis attended in numbers but, as Palestinians are unable to leave the West Bank without a permit, students of the Academy and Hourani himself remained in Ramallah.

Day four took us to Sakakini Cultural Centre, an influential non-governmental organization in Ramallah. I introduced the day, attempting to outline our motivations for supporting the talks and the unique questions it had posed us as a funding body, not least the fact we have an affiliated – though independently financed and administered – organization in Israel. Andrew Conio, a Deleuzian academic who had delivered a daunting series of nine three-hour lectures on the French theorist to students of the Academy the previous year, examined the project in its entirety as a work of art. Read within the framework of the Deluzian ‘diagram’ he identified it as an alternative model for political practice, what he described as a new type of ‘strategic interventionist art work’ that goes beyond representation to encroach into other fields such as legislative procedures and legal frameworks. Conio’s analysis was impressive, delivered as it was just days after the project’s realization. His paper, alongside a number of contributions and artist’s commissions, will be included in an edition of A Prior dedicated to the project to be published in the autumn.

Yazid Anani, a professor at Birziet University, curator and part of the Decolonising Architecture project, then posed a series of much-needed questions about the political and cultural implications of the project: were Picasso and Buste de Femme relevant to a Palestinian public? Indeed, was the painting itself, beyond its iconic status, significant, or was the main thrust of the project the loan procedure and the subsequent negotiations between different institutions, organizations and parties? If so, was this a project, Anani asked, for a Western audience and a few culturally informed Palestinians? Furthermore, if ‘Picasso in Palestine’ was as much about the temporary formation of a modern art museum what type of museum did Ramallah want? Surely, he stated, Palestinians need their own institutional model, not one imported from Western Europe. The lively discussion that followed, conducted by major Palestinian cultural players, felt like a long overdue interrogation of what the project meant for its various audiences and participants. If this project was to be built on and carried forward, there are varied opinions on how best to proceed.

That evening we headed back through the turnstiles of Qalandia to East Jerusalem, where a party was held at the Sabreen Association for Artistic Development. Formed in 1979, as a music band, it has gained cult status for Palestinian and Arabic musicians. Housing a recording studio and offices, it has seen hundreds of artists pass through its doors over the past 30 years whilst offering a training programme for young sound engineers. As we ate kofta and drank Arak, a digger in the next-door garden was noisily shoveling dirt late into the night, preparing the ground for a road that will join two settlements.

On our final morning we returned to the Academy where they were frantically preparing for their next milestone – the first degree show since the Academy took its inaugural group of students in 2007. The work by the six artists was immaculately presented and installed; the standard is incredibly high for a BA course. In some respects, though, these are some of the most well-taught and experienced art students anywhere in the world. Artists and intellectuals regularly visit and give lectures whilst curators from all over the world descend on the Academy. This September, Bisan Abu Eishe , a third-year student, will present a major body of work at the Istanbul Biennial. Next year, Khaled Jarrar, one of this year’s graduates, will carry out a performance at Checkpoint Charlie where he will stamp passports with ‘State of Palestine’ as part of Artur Zmijewski’s Berlin Biennale (Jarrar has stamped a number of passports already – I declined and opted for a T-shirt instead). The Academy itself is in discussions regarding an ambitious collaborative project with the Biennale, though the specifics remain unclear. So, whilst Ramallah and the West Bank is defined by restrictions and hurdles, the Academy provides its students with an immediate exposure to the international art world. That exposure should be seen as largely positive but there are of course dangers, for the students and the Academy that will need to be managed and contained.

Back at the notoriously heavy-handed Ben Gurion Airport security I was asked a series of questions after a pile of ‘Picasso in Palestine’ T-shirts and a mug were found in my suitcase. Seemingly unsatisfied with my version of events and after a rather intimate body search, a more senior security guard came over. I told him the reason for my visit. ‘Ah’, he said, ‘the famous Picasso that went to Ramallah. I saw it on TV.’ And with that, I packed my bags and was escorted through passport control. It was a fitting end to an extraordinary few days.

Nick Aikens is a curator at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven

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