Biennale seeks to boost Palestinian art

Qalandiya International aims to unite a geographically severed Palestine by creating sphere for self-expression.

Qalandiya village
The biennale is named for a village that shares its name with an infamous Israeli checkpoint [Dalia Hatuqa/Al Jazeera]

Qalandiya, West Bank – Just a stone’s throw away from Jerusalem lies a sleepy town with an infamous name. Qalandiya, a village bordering the holy city but divided from it by the Israeli separation wall, shares the same name as the hulking Israeli checkpoint between the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

This week, the town of almost 1,000 came into the limelight for hosting the inauguration of the Palestinian Occupied Territory’s largest biennale to date.

Following in the footsteps of previous biennials, Qalandiya International (QI) will be held every two years.

Taking place from November 1 until November 15, the proceedings feature events in Palestinian cities and villages across various divides, including the Gaza Strip in the southwest and Nazareth in the north.

New associations

Put together by seven Palestinian institutions focusing on art, architecture and cultural heritage, the event will include installations, book launches, movies, musical performances and museum openings.

An entire generation doesn’t know that Qalandiya is actually a village. They think it’s just a checkpoint.”

– Mahmoud Abu Hashhash

“We all have programmes that aim at highlighting and supporting cultural life in Palestine. So we thought, ‘Why not create a larger umbrella under which all these institutions can consolidate their creativity to bring some much-needed international attention to this place’,” said Sahar Qawasmi, the event’s coordinator.

For the past decade, Qalandiya has been associated with the Israeli checkpoint dividing West Bank Palestinians from Jerusalem. Naming the biennale after an area tied to infamous checkpoint was a bold move intending to change people’s associations with the name, according to the coalition of institutions hosting the event.

“An entire generation doesn’t know that Qalandiya is actually a village. They think it’s just a checkpoint,” said Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, director of the arts programme at AM Qattan Foundation, one of the hosting institutions. Many are unaware, he said, that Qalandiya is also a refugee camp and a now-defunct airport built during the British Mandate. “The place that used to link Palestine to the rest of the world has become a tool dividing it. That’s the grand irony,” Abu Hashhash said.

The partner organisations stressed that the idea behind Qalandiya International is also to garner international attention, in addition to creating a sphere for Palestinian self-expression and exploring popular consciousness.

“The political and economic path has reached a dead-end and the Palestinian future seems bleak,” said Jack Persekian, the artistic director of the biennale. “From this premise came the idea of creating a cultural event that could unite a geographically severed Palestine. In today’s Palestine, art does not reflect politics; art is politics and they meet at Qalandiya International.”

The interdisciplinary event will feature the work of 50 Palestinian and international artists from Australia, Italy, Mexico and Switzerland, among others, and will highlight architectural sites, guided visits and conferences on urban design.

Opening night

On the opening night at an old stone home built in the 1880s near the village’s entrance, Palestinians and foreigners alike, art aficionados and architects, gathered for the event’s showcasing of an audio-visual performance, a film screening and an art exhibit.

In one of the rooms, a concrete football was showcased while in the background, a projector flickered in the darkness, showing a man using a chisel and hammer to chip off bits of the concrete wall built by Israel to separate the West Bank from its environs.

Khaled Jarrar, the artist behind the installation “Concrete”, said he wanted to “repurpose” the wall.

The installation “Concrete”, a ball made out of bits of the Israeli separation wall [Dalia Hatuqa/Al Jazeera]

“I’m against the beautification of this wall, but I am for using it,” Jarrar said. “My idea is to use parts of this ugly thing to create something more beautiful,” he said, adding that he spent several weeks mixing parts of the wall with cement and creating soccer and volley balls, among other objects. “As I spent more time by the wall, I met a few children who told me that in the past, they used to have a huge playground. Then the wall was built and it left them with a small space to play in. That’s what inspired me to focus on the soccer balls.”

On the sidelines of the biennale, a group of Palestinian architects will be showcasing a series of furniture pieces built from discarded construction waste. The group is using natural and renewable materials as well as found and discarded objects to create a range of public seats and children’s slides to be used throughout Qalandiya International.

One of the events taking place is a retrospective exhibition and movie on Mustafa Hallaj, a late Palestinian artist who fled to Syria with his family during the 1948 Nakba. His artwork includes paintings, murals and illustrations inspired by ancient Canaanite folk stories and culture.

Other events include an exhibition called “Gestures in Time”, which entails public art projects in four historic centres in the West Bank, in addition to public talks and a symposium on urban design and modernist architecture in the Arab world. As part of this collaboration, a Cypriot artist will showcase “A Cave in Dhahiriya”, a West Bank village cave turned into a permanent museum featuring the life and history of Palestinians living in the area.

Future plans for the biennale include inviting more institutions to participate and to work more inclusively with the Palestinian Diaspora and refugees.

Khalid Hourani, director of the International Academy of Art, said he hopes the event will boost Palestine’s position in the international art scene. “We hope that the next time you hear the word Qalandiya, you’ll think of this biennale, not the checkpoint.”

Follow her on Twitter: @daliahatuqa

Source: Al Jazeera