Khaled Hourani, the renowned Palestinian artist, curator and art critic, recently presented his first retrospective exhibition at Darat Al Funun in Amman.
I meet him at a Ramallah coffee shop, and I am immediately charmed by his calm demeanour and words as he talks and paints pictures while he strokes his grey hair.
“Retrospective exhibition is when you get old,” he says with a huge smile. “I brought old projects back to life including Picasso in Palestiene when, in 2009, I arranged to bring an original masterpiece to the West Bank. We borrowed it from the Netherlands, it took two years to get it here, into a war zone, and we then exhibited it for one month. Today, all we have left of it is the story, but not the object.
“Interestingly, Picasso in Palestine was covered extensively by the local newspapers, and a Palestinian prisoner in an Israeli jail followed the story. He then sent me a postcard, which was really touching, as it showed the reach of art. I had no other way to communicate with him but through the local newspaper that he read in his prison. In this way, we used the newspaper for art, even publishing his postcard with my reply.”
Getting back to the exhibition in Amman, Hourani points out, it included paintings, installations and conceptual work, 60 per cent old stuff and the rest made up of new works.
“I exhibited Zebra Card (2009) which reflected on life under Occupation through the surreal story of a Gaza zoo that transformed two donkeys into zebras, and The Story of the Watermelon (2007), a series of silkscreens using the once-forbidden colours of the Palestinian flag”
His new exhibition has an installation that uses the neutral blue figures at the heart of the UNHCR logo to give thought to refugees of the past, present and future.
“I am a refugee myself,” he says, adding the United Nations is dealing with food and tents and is not solving the problem.
“Refugees are creating more refugees,” he says. “After the Palestinian Nakba, half a million became refugees and today they have multiplied to seven million. The UN logo represents a figure providing protection, but the reality is that refugees are dying all over the place and drowning in the seas.”
Hourani says the refugee has become a multifaceted symbol, the most prominent political figure of our time. “Not just because it is so claimed by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (Unwra), and other relevant humanitarian organisations, but because of the reality of the refugee’s existence throughout the world,” he says.
“In this interpretive project, I make an attempt at deciphering this blue figure, removing it from the custody of its logo, and liberating it not only from its vulnerability and loneliness, but also placing it in other contexts,” he explains. “Taking the blue figure out of its logo brings back its humanity. Freed, the figure is turned from being a symbol or icon to a normal human being, thus revealing new horizons. We are all refugees until proven otherwise.”
On his iPhone, Hourani shows me something else. “I did a huge painting on the wall of the gallery. It is of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey who was assassinated in the art gallery in Ankara on December 19. This is the heart of my exhibition. The institution argued about it. I painted it on the wall and it stays there with the quote from Burhan Ozbillici, the Turkish photographer who recorded the incident, ‘I was stunned and thought it was a theatrical flourish’.”
Without commenting on the act or motives behind the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara, the work draws attention to the fact that the incident occurred at a gallery — a cultural space presumably safe and neutral. “The sounds of gunfire, the words ‘God is Great’ and ‘Aleppo’, and the frantic gesturing of the perpetrator turned the scene from a typical exhibition opening to a spectacle of performance art where the focus became the now iconic image of the ambassador’s corpse,” Hourani notes.
Historically, art always had an intimate relationship with politics, and here was an instance of art being at the centre of events — not as an allegory, but as a real political episode.
Confronted with this violence that has engulfed the world, Hourani’s work asks questions. Can exhibition spaces still be considered sanctuaries for cultural activity? Where are aesthetics found in such strenuous circumstances? Are there still any boundaries between the actual and the imaginary? And, can art exist without an artist, as the mere theatre of reality?
“What can art do in such a crazy situation we live in?” Hourani ponders. “Art is in competition with reality. Sometimes reality creates things like the ambassador’s example — nobody remembers the exhibition — as the image of the ambassador lying down stays in the mind. It became an icon.”
Hourani then philosophically reflects on the last Gaza War to make his point.
“We artists are human but we were speechless. Art is more important than the artist. The morgues in Gaza City had no space left for corpses and they had no alternative but to use ice cream fridges to place bodies of children as their temporary graves. This is real, the image speaks volumes. What can an artist add? Consider it fantasy, dark and sad, but it is real.” He says the challenge is find something that art can add.
To get Hourani to talk about himself is rather difficult, as he maintains: “I am my art.” Reluctantly he finally concedes, “I am from Hebron, where I studied history at the local university. As a kid, I didn’t play football, instead I expressed myself through calligraphy and painting. My family encouraged me, as I played with boundaries in art. For me, the issue was, what to say after the painting is done — like language does not give you the skills of thinking. Living in time, I am always moving, for a while it was visual art, meaning painting, photographs and sculpture. Nowadays it is more about concepts.”
Hourani is one of the founders and at present the director of the International Academy of Art in Palestine. At some time in his artistic journey, he taught art at the gallery. He nevertheless continues to play a major role in the local art scene.
A storyteller at heart, Hourani places the process of art at the heart of his practice, using it to exchange ideas, collaborate and engage in dialogue with his audience.
Rafique Gangat, author of Bending the Rules, is based in Occupied Jerusalem.