An Art Exhibition Without Art
Rarely, if ever, does an art exhibition not actually have any art on display, yet such is the case with the exhibition Past Disquiet, which was on display at Beirut’s Sursock Museum during August and September.
Past Disquiet is an unconventional exhibition because it is essentially a display of research about a former exhibition, the International Art Exhibition for Palestine, which took place in Beirut in 1978 at the height of the Lebanese Civil War.
Past Disquiet is not a restaging, but rather an exploration of the history of the 1978 event to highlight the practices of artists who grouped together to participate in political causes. The exhibition’s title refers to the unsettled history of revolutions and resistance efforts around the world, including the Palestinian struggle.
The International Art Exhibition for Palestine was organized by the Plastic Arts Section of the information office of the Palestinian Liberation Organization as a seed exhibition of works that would form the beginning of a collection for a planned “museum in exile” expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
Over 200 artworks were given by artists from 30 countries, including drawings, paintings, prints, sculpture and lithographs. Contributions from notable artists included posters designed by the Iraqi painter and sculptor Dia Azzawi and works by internationally celebrated modernists such as Jean Cocteau and Roy Lichtenstein.
The recent exhibition at the Sursock Museum was conceived and curated by Rasha Salti, a Lebanese-Palestinian writer and art and film researcher, and Kristine Khouri, a Lebanese researcher whose interest is in archives and documents of Arab art institutions and collections.
Past Disquiet was born from a chance encounter on their part. “We fell on the catalog for the International Art Exhibition for Palestine by pure coincidence almost ten years ago,” says Salti. “We were intrigued to have never heard of the exhibition taking place, even though its scale and scope has rarely, if ever, been matched in the Arab world.”
Past Disquiet’s lack of actual works from the 1978 event is a novel departure for an exhibition about art. “The focus on the objects was not the goal of our project,” says Khouri.
The whereabouts of many of the 200 works today are unknown. The building that stored most of the collection was bombed during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon of 1982, and some works exhibited in Tehran have not returned owing to airport closures at the time. “There are rumors of what happened to other works,” explains Khouri. “The collection grew during and after the exhibition, so the catalog is not a final reference for the collection.”
The exhibition assembled by Khouri and Salti is an exercise in research. Their research enabled them to reconstruct the narrative of the 1978 movement based not on art objects but on the writings that remain, and on oral narratives of participants that the curators recorded.
“Patience and perseverance” over the course of nearly ten years allowed the curators to unearth traces of the 1978 exhibition in private archives around the world, says Salti.
By choosing to focus on two central points—the impulse to create a museum in exile, and the formation of a museum as an act of solidarity and the networks that formed in response to it—they were able to articulate the powerful motive of the 1978 exhibition, and ultimately its success.
Supplementing the curators’ research are newspaper clippings, letters, photographs and images detailing the contributions of artist-led solidarity movements in other countries.
One of those organizations was the Japan Asian African Latin American Artists’ Association, which supported the engagement of Japanese and Palestinian artists with one another in coordination with the support of the PLO, which helped arrange artistic exchanges.
Another was the Italian artists’ collective L’Alzaia, whose artists participated in several festivals and initiatives to express solidarity with the Chilean people or to denounce the military dictatorship that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974.
The project came with many challenges, primarily the lack of immediate support. As independent researchers, Khouri and Salti couldn’t initially depend on the resources or connections of an institution or academic environment. Funding was difficult to come by, yet they overcame this obstacle with the gradual support of contributors.
“The more we delved into the research, the bigger the stories that were surfacing, the more we found answers, and the more questions were raised,” says Salti. “In the beginning, we thought it would be enough to conduct research in Beirut and Amman, and that we would end up writing an article. After a few interviews, we realized that we had opened a can of worms, so to speak. At some point, we even thought we might write a book.”
The two realized they needed to settle on what the product of their research would be before they could apply for funding.
“It is only after we were invited by Bartomeu Marī, who was then director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona, to present the research as an exhibition that we could effectively apply for grants,” explains Salti.
Khouri and Salti’s effort serves as an example of how much stronger art exhibitions can be when underpinned with research of academic rigor. Their commitment to their research enabled them to contribute to the construction of an Arab art canon—a canon not yet fully complete because of a lack of proper archiving and record-keeping by artists and critics in the region.
Says Khouri: “We have found that indeed research is often neglected, and we chose to present only research, our findings, the links we drew, and conclusions we came to, but no artworks. I think the passion that we felt, and inspiration from these practices sustained us on one level.”
“The catalog for the 1978 exhibition in Beirut listed 30 countries,” Khouri says, “but the highest number of artists participating included those from France, Italy, Japan, Poland and Iraq. So we focused our attention specifically on these countries, to understand what lay behind this high level of participation. This required traveling to meet people, recording interviews, photographing documents, scanning photos and a lot of translation.”
They also traveled to countries as far away as Chile and Nicaragua to better understand the intersection between the 1978 exhibition and similar collections and exhibitions organized in solidarity with the struggles of the people of those nations.
Three initiatives were of particular interest: the Museo Internacional de la Resistencia Salvador Allende, organized in 1973 by exiled Chileans and their supporters after the 1973 coup d’etat in Chile; the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano Contemporáneo de Managua, assembled in solidarity with the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua; and the Artists Against Apartheid collection, which toured internationally in the years leading up to the dissolution of apartheid in South Africa.
These movements were also supported by artists from around the world.
Khouri and Salti divided the research and documentary work among themselves according to their individual interests and strengths.
“We complemented one another as much as possible,” says Salti. “Kristine is a compulsive researcher, and I am more familiar with intellectual and artistic debates in the Arab world in the 1960s and 1970s.” Limited funds for travel prevented the two from traveling together to conduct interviews, but the work was shared equally.
“One thing that resonated for me personally,” says Khouri, “was perhaps the research trip to Nicaragua this past December that I was able to do with Daniela Berger,” curator of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Chile. “We uncovered incredible stories we had been looking for for years, and met important figures we couldn’t have imagined we would have the opportunity to meet.”
A book has been published based on this exhibition. Titled Past Disquiet: Artists, International Solidarity and Museums in Exile, it includes contributions by art historians, critics and other art practitioners whose writings shed light on this unique landmark in modern Middle Eastern art history.
After the much-visited exhibition in Beirut, which ran from July 30 to October 1, Khouri and Salti are considering creating an online platform to host information related to this project, or perhaps making a film. They hope to take this story to France or Palestine in the near future, where figures and artists who played a role in the 1978 exhibition could be recognized and celebrated.