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The Palestinian Museum Hosts Its First Exhibit

BIRZEIT, West Bank—Sipping lemonade and orange juice, the crowd of local and international luminaries who attended the Palestinian Museum’s first exhibition this weekend hoped they were witnessing a new dawn for art and politics in the troubled region.

The museum’s director, Mahmoud Hawari, views the new institution and its first show, “Jerusalem Lives,” as a crucial step in fulfilling the Palestinian dream of an independent state asserting its rightful claims to Israeli-occupied territory.

“It is an act of solidarity that reinforces our existence in our land,” Hawari said.

Sitting on 40 acres of land 19 miles from Jerusalem, the museum’s design reflects the terraced hills of Birzeit, a Palestinian town north of Ramallah.

In addition to exhibition space, the complex contains an amphitheater, garden and classrooms where Palestinian culture can be taught.

“The museum is a transitional institution that attempts to overcome the geographical and political boundaries among Palestinians under the occupation and in diaspora,” said the chair of the board of directors, Zina Jardaneh, a pharmaceutical executive.

A view of the museum’s building, amphitheater and garden.

The museum was originally conceived by Jardaneh and other members of the Taawon-Welfare Association, a civil-society group founded in 1997 after the Oslo Accords, which sought to establish an independent Palestinian state. The museum cost about $28 million to build. A group of 30 wealthy Palestinian families and institutions, including the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development, the A.M. Qattan Foundation, the Asfari Foundation and the Bank of Palestine, provided funding.

Birzeit University, which is nearby, granted a long-term lease of land for the project. The two institutions have an agreement to share and promote interdisciplinary research, a library and other resources, and to host student interns.

“The museum aims to attract children, youth and students to enlist them in the museum’s vision in enhancing culture and art,” said Jardaneh.

The museum opened last summer but has not featured an exhibition until now. “Everything needs time to be accomplished, especially in a country like Palestine, with its unstable situation under the occupation,” she added.

“Jerusalem Lives” seeks to portray the cultural, political, economic, ideological and historical life of the holy city and its inhabitants. Curated by Reem Fadda, a Palestinian artist, the show features 48 Palestinian and international painters and sculptors.

One Palestinian artist, Mona Hatoum, used a map made of Nablus olive oil soap to show how Israeli settlements surrounding Jerusalem would someday melt and vanish.

A Palestinian-American artist, Emily Jacir, created a sound installation in the garden that broadcast taxi drivers chanting “Ramallah!” and “Hebron, Hebron, last passenger to Hebron!” and “Who is going to Gaza City?” The piece highlighted how those cities are disconnected from each other and the rest of the Middle East since the Six-Day War in 1967.

Another Palestinian, Vera Tamari, created a green stairway in a cage to evoke the connections between Palestinian houses in Jerusalem’s Old City that Israeli authorities have blocked, ostensibly to improve security.

Video scenes and other media depict how international journalists have covered Israeli violence in the region. Paintings and installations of the wall separating Israeli and Palestinian land and renditions of the Dome of the Rock, a contested site sacred to Jews and Muslims, are also a recurrent theme.

“The aim of the exhibition is to encourage Palestinians to think creatively in finding new ways to face the occupation with culture and art,” Fadda said.

Some of the art is not overtly political. A Dutch-Iraqi artist, Athar Jaber, created a stone pillar to evoke the holy stones that are common throughout Jerusalem. He invites onlookers to touch it in the same manner they might lay hands or walk upon ancient holy sites throughout the city.

A sculpture by Yazan Khalili, a Palestinian artist, is intended to reflect the political situation in Palestine.

In February, the museum is scheduled to open another exhibit, on Palestinian embroidery as a signifier of national identity. The museum first opened that exhibit in Beirut in May 2015, a move consistent with the museum’s vision of holding exhibitions inside and outside Palestine, as a way of breaking the borders between Palestine and the rest of the world. An exhibition in Switzerland is in the works, said Hawari.

The museum is also planning another show next year about the history of Palestinian fine art and another exhibition about the relationship between Palestinians and their lost land, under the title “Intimate Topographies.”

One of the Palestinian artists who contributed to the “Jerusalem Lives” exhibition, Yazan Khalili, said the success of the museum is in creating a collective identity among, and open culture for, Palestinians around the world. “Jerusalem is the lens that we can look through to see the general situation in Palestine,” he said.

A common reaction among some Palestinians to the museum was that the money and time could have been better spent on improving infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza.

Khalili rejects that view. Palestinians need institutions like the museum, he said. “Why do we complain about building educational and artistic places,” he asked, “but we don’t object to building large shopping centers and importing very expensive cars?”

Jardaneh agrees with that sentiment.

“Now is the time to spend money on cultural institutions and ideas,” she said. “Culture is the only available way to resist the Israeli occupation.”


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