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Mohammad Al Hawajri’s watercolour on paper Image Credit: Supplied

The myriad cultural and visual arts organisations in Palestine have, individually and over the years, worked passionately to highlight their plight under occupation, but since 2012 a group of like-minded institutions have joined hands to form links across a fragmented geography, to not only showcase their work but also to provide a platform for artists to express themselves with greater freedom and imagination.

Qalandiya International (Qi) is a biennial event that features a programme of cultural events across Palestinian cities, towns and villages featuring exhibitions, film screenings, workshops, symposia, walks, talks and performances.

The obvious question, why Qalandiya?

Rana Anani, the media coordinator for Qi, says, “Qalandiya is the infamous Israeli checkpoint that disconnects the West Bank from occupied Jerusalem. It has had much media focus and continues to maintain a significant presence in the visual and literary works produced in and about Palestine.

“In essence, it is the setting for countless memories of daily suffering and its stories abound with sad but true glimpses of the oppressive nature of the regime of occupation”.

Qalandiya, Anani says, also has other connotations and contradictions. Until 1967, when its airport was taken over by Israel, it was the West Bank’s key link to the rest of the world, but since the construction of the checkpoint in 2000 it has become a symbol of disconnection, isolation, segregation and fragmentation.

So Qi uses the name Qalandiya and its many meanings to stage a series of events designed to present a better picture of Palestine to audience both international and local to share in the contradictory experiences embedded in the symbolic paradox of the ill-reputed checkpoint.

Anani explains, “Over two weeks in November 2012, Qi launched its first event with ‘Art and Life in Palestine’, and featured over 50 contemporary Palestinian and international artists. All in all, over 250 artists, curators, conference and symposium speakers, musicians, photographers and technicians participated in a range of events across Palestine.”

Venues in occupied Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nazareth, Gaza and some historic West Bank villages hosted artworks, artists-in-residence, speakers and performers as well as collaborative projects with and for members of the public and local communities.

“It included exhibitions, performances, new commissions, artists’ residences, talks, discussions, book launches, a symposium, artists’ portfolio reviews, guided walks and tours — in spaces and buildings ranging from the organisers’ own centres to artist-run- galleries and community centres; from businesses, workshops and studios to abandoned architectural sites in villages; and iconic buildings in the old city of Jerusalem.

“A hundred independent critics and representatives of international press, culture journals and art magazines attended. More than 6,500 visitors experienced the exhibitions and attended the performances, film screenings, book launches, workshops, symposia and other events. All in all, we collectively forged new links and built on existing ones. The events provided opportunities for new encounters: for Palestinian communities to engage at a local level with art and culture, and for the international artists and critics it was a chance to experience contemporary art in Palestine and contribute to the growing network of international links and associations,” Anani said.

This year’s event will highlight the role of archives in shaping Palestine’s past and present. Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, Director of the Culture and Arts Programme at the A.M. Qattan Foundation, explains that Qi 2014 is a means of encouraging creative and critical engagement with archives in Palestine.

“We are proposing an engagement with archives in Palestine that is creative as well as critical: their role in preserving and shaping national identity, and the importance of public access to them, will serve as the theme and inspiration for this year’s events. Along the way, we hope to address some of the more problematic ways in which archives have previously been discussed and dealt with.”

This year’s event will feature works by around 100 Palestinian and international artists, making it bigger — and the organisers hope better — collated in a series of newly commissioned art projects under the theme ‘Archives, lived and shared’.

Anani adds, “The Palestinian legacy of dispossession has meant that for decades, the question of what archives to preserve, and to whom they belong, has been an essential one. Archiving has a key part to play in the collective search to make sense of the past and present Palestine, and shape its future”.

The etymology of the word “archive” can be traced to the Greek arkheion, meaning the public dwelling of the Archon, in which official documents were stored and interpreted. Archives were then a source of authority, and as such were kept safe and inaccessible. In a sense, not much has changed since.

Anani passionately explains, “Qi, by contrast, seeks to explore ways in which archives, public and personal alike, are the property and the responsibility of those whose history they preserve. Proposing new modalities of participation and of sharing, it will make engagement with archives in Palestine, a communal and creative act.”

When artists, writers, thinkers and curators come together at this year’s Qalandiya International, they will be beginning the process of rewriting Palestinian histories, and in their new narrative, archives shall not be a repository of knowledge but a tool with which to shape a better understanding of the past, present and shared future.

Anani wraps it up by explaining an overarching vision, “Criss-crossing the Palestinian landscape in a series of exhibitions, performances, talks and interventions, we will be part of a movement in which archives are opened up and questioned and their content becomes once more a lived and debated experience”.

Palestinian cultural and visual arts bodies, by working together and sharing their resources, have reached wider audiences within all the disjointed parts of the West Bank, and thus transcended the restrictions on movement manifest in the Qalandiya Checkpoint, which is also designed to impact negatively on culture and art. And in taking possession of the name for a collaborative and interdisciplinary project with an international profile, Qalandiya is truly a fitting name for Qalandiya International, re-associating it with a positive and forward-looking venture. In short, it is a creative step in restoring Palestine’s status in the world of arts and culture.

Teamwork and partnerships with shared costs and responsibilities for organising events lends meaning to the dictum “together, everyone, achieves, more!”

And together, their achievements are more significant, with broader results and greater impact than as individual organisations with specific histories and remits.

Arts and culture as a means to resist the occupation has shown that in strength lies in unity, if only all Palestinians take their lead from their arts and culture compatriots and follow suit!

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Qalandiya International (QI) is a biennial event that takes place across Palestinian cities, towns and villages. It focuses on exhibiting contemporary Palestinian and international art, highlighting valuable architectural sites, and includes talks, walks and performances.

QI, in its first take, is a collaboration between A. M. Qattan Foundation, the House of Culture and Art, International Art Academy - Palestine, Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, Al-Ma’mal Foundation, Palestinian Art Gallery Al Hoash, and Riwaq in an attempt to pool resources and work towards showcasing and promoting contemporary culture in Palestine, locally and internationally. It is an attempt to engage the local public in programmes that are not straitjacketed by realpolitik, and to allow them to look at art in a more imaginative and open manner. It is an attempt to join forces and resources and form links across a fragmented geography; a take on unity. This year, Qalandiya International will be held from October 22 to November 15.

Rafique Gangat, author of Ye shall bowl on Grass, is based in occupied Jerusalem.