Concrete Tent, 2015, Design by DAAR Image Credit: Supplied

NYU Abu Dhabi: Art Gallery is presenting a retrospective of the work of Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti in an exhibition titled Permanent Temporariness. Hilal and Petti are award-winning architects, artists, activists and researchers who have been engaged with Palestinian refugees for over a decade and now also work with Syrian refugees in Sweden. Their work explores how human experiences and identities are shaped by the permanence or impermanence of the environment. It is focused on Palestinian refugees trapped in the limbo of ‘permanent temporariness’ but also relates to the millions of people who have been forcibly displaced due to political turmoil or natural calamities. In the context of the UAE, their work is also relevant to the many expatriates who have made this country their temporary but often long-term home.

The show is curated by Salwa Mikdadi, well-known art historian, writer and associate professor of Art History at NYUAD, along with the gallery’s curator Bana Kattan. “The curatorial premise for this show questions the state of ‘refugeeness’, a condition that is meant to be temporary but can become a permanent state of being. Hilal and Petti are presenting conceptual speculations that examine the state of impermanence and ‘refugeeness’ beyond victimhood and beyond charitable gestures, offering viewers new ways of engaging with this critical and timely topic. After presenting their work at the Venice Biennial almost a decade ago I am delighted to be working with them again on a show that is both locally relevant and internationally significant,” Mikdadi says.

Hilal, who is Palestinian, studied architecture and urban planning in Italy. She has served as the head of the Infrastructure and Camp Improvement Program in the UNRWA West Bank (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) from 2008 to 2014 and now works with Syrian refugee communities in Sweden.

Petti, who is Italian, is currently a professor of Architecture and Social Justice at the Royal Institute of Art in Stockholm and was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University from 2016 to 2017. Over the last 15 years they have been involved in researching the spatial politics of refugee camps in Palestine and have initiated various projects in collaboration with the camp inhabitants and others.

In 2007, they founded DAAR (Decolonising Architecture Art Residency) in Palestine — a programme that combines an architectural studio and art residency bringing together architects, artists, activists, urbanists, curators and filmmakers to work collectively on subjects of politics and architecture. In 2012, they founded Campus in Camps, an experimental educational programme in Palestinian refugee camps that aims to overcome conventional educational structures by creating a space for critical and grounded knowledge production. In 2013, they co-authored with Eyal Weizman a book titled, Architecture After Revolution.

The duo has developed a research-project based artistic practice that is engaged in the struggle for justice and equality. Their art exhibitions are a site of display, material production, research and political imagination with works that delve into public and private impermanent spaces examining the social, economic and political consequences of exile and displacement. They have exhibited at prestigious museums, exhibitions and biennales, and have won several awards for their art, architecture and activism.

“Through our work we want to question the idea of a refugee camp and to unpack the preconceived notions about it. People generally think a camp is a temporary residence with movable tents, but in Palestine camps have been in existence for 70 years and have grown to become like cities. Generations of Palestinians have grown up in camps not knowing any other place as home. We want to initiate a discussion about this permanent temporariness and to imagine what the future could look like. In a world full of conflict this is a subject that relates to everyone,” Petti says.

For this show, which is their first institutional retrospective, the artists have reactivated significant installations in various media created by them over the last 15 years and developed two new works based on their current research projects.

Refugee Heritage, an installation featuring photographs of the Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem is a new work commissioned by NYU Abu Dhabi. Dheisheh is the oldest refugee camp in the world and in 2016 Hilal and Petti along with their collaborators at DAAR made a proposal for it to be included on the Unesco World Heritage List as a living archive of displacement and dispossession. As part of the dossier they prepared for the nomination, the artists commissioned an official Unesco photographer to take pictures of the camp.

For this show they have mounted the monumental photographs in lightboxes and arranged them to give visitors a feel of walking along the narrow alleyways of the camp. The photographs, all shot at night are devoid of people, ensuring they are different from the stereotypical media images of the camp, and perhaps visualising a time when the camp’s residents will have left. The artists have also included an image of Venice taken by the photographer for a Unesco project to highlight the similarities and differences between the historic European town and the Palestinian refugee camp.

“This project is a difficult and delicate entry point to a tough discussion not only for politicians and humanitarian agencies but for the refugees themselves. Nobody wants to acknowledge that there is a refugee heritage, and the refugees fear that it might undermine their right of return. But for the younger generation who were born in this camp and have lived here all their life this place is the home that has shaped their memories and identities. It is important to recognise and document the history and what has been built despite the suffering, and to discuss what happens to the physical structures, social networks and way of life that have been built here when the right to return can be exercised. Through this project we initiated discussions in refugee camps and other forums across the world about what constitutes heritage, what is a camp, and what will be the future of the camp. This was also discussed at a symposium held at this university in conjunction with the exhibition. The goal of this project is not Unesco’s approval, but to start a needed conversation about the permanent temporariness of camps, and the connection between rights and space. This new installation continues this discussion,” Petti says.

In an architectural installation stretching across the gallery, titled Common Assembly, the artists have recreated a portion of a building that was meant to house the Palestinian Parliament. This includes a part of the concrete floor and stepping platforms on either side. The installation is surrounded by videos showing borders being drawn on the map of Palestine and Palestinians speaking about how their lives have been affected by these borders that sometimes run right through their homes and fields.

“The map of Palestine has been changed many times with lines drawn by generals, who treat land and buildings like a carpet that can be pulled out from under your feet. On the ground these lines can be hundreds of metres wide, so we questioned who owns the thickness of the line and we started collecting stories about the lines that have been drawn and how they have affected people. The line in this work is the Israeli imposed border line of Jerusalem which passes through this building, which means that the building sits in three political zones — territories controlled by Israel and Palestine and the narrow strip of the line itself. This unfinished, abandoned building in a suburb of Jerusalem is a relic of the euphoria resulting from the Oslo Accord of 1993, which promised the establishment of a Palestinian State while postponing the status of East Jerusalem. The accord failed to reach a peaceful settlement leading to the second intifada (uprising) followed by the construction of a separation wall a few metres from the building. We want people to look at such lines of separation as territorial cracks that could potentially be inhabited and could bring together a community beyond the nation state. We called this work Common Assembly because we want to invite viewers to consider the potential for an alternative form of parliament that can represent all Palestinians including those living in exile,” Petti says.

“We were inspired by the protestors in Tahrir square, who claimed state property as common public space by the act of cleaning the square. We did the same and are displaying a video showing us sweeping the border line in the building,” he adds.

A sound installation, Ramallah Syndrome, is the result of informal discussions that the artists had with various people about the rise of Ramallah as the de facto capital of a future Palestine State. Visitors are invited to enter a dark, soundproofed room where they hear snippets of the conversations.

“The people of Ramallah tend to live in a kind of bubble where they feel they can forget about checkpoints and the occupation and live a normal life. This hallucinatory behaviour is often called Ramallah Syndrome. We invited people from Ramallah to Bethlehem and recorded these conversations. This work presents many different views reflecting the normalisation of occupation, confiscation, displacement and perpetual suffering in Israeli occupied territories of Palestine. It speaks about the failure of peace agreements to create a long-term resolution for Palestinians as they continue to dream of a normal existence that is unattainable under occupation,” Petti says.

The Tree School is both an installation and an educational artistic practice. It is based on the principles of the Campus in Camps educational programme initiated by the artists at the Dheisheh refugee camp. The initiative aims to decolonise learning with participants gathering around a tree for experiential, communal learning that encourages everyone to contribute equally in open discussions. The work was originally initiated by the artists in collaboration with a Brazilian art collective for the Sao Paulo Biennial in 2015. In Brazil, the participants gathered around a baobab tree, but the installation in an outdoor area of NYU Abu Dhabi art gallery features a ghaf tree as a symbol of the tree of knowledge. Students are being invited to gather around the tree and participate in community learning through sharing of personal and group experiences.

“After the first intifada when Palestinian schools and universities were closed by Israel, people transformed their living rooms into schools and universities. I myself studied in a living room school and learnt that mine and my neighbors’ lives and experiences can be a source of knowledge. This is the inspiration behind Campus in Camps and The Tree School,” Hilal says.

An installation that embodies the paradox of permanent temporariness is The Concrete Tent, located on the outskirts of the university campus. The tent made from concrete was originally conceived and built by the artists in the Dheisheh refugee camp as a venue for Campus in Camps, but today it has become a gathering place for the whole community.

“After more than seven decades of existence, Palestinian refugee camps are no longer made of fragile structures. They are complex urban and social environments that challenge the common notion of a refugee camp. This tent commemorates the story of the Nakba — the expulsion of Palestinians from their communities in 1948 and reframes the urgency of their right of return. It enables visitors to experience the paradox of permanent temporariness and reflect on the current political condition of exile for millions of people,” Petti says.

On the university campus, the concrete tent has become a meeting place for students, faculty and visitors of all ages and nationalities. As temporary residents on campus, the students can relate to the idea of the concrete tent as can the many long-term expatriate residents of Abu Dhabi. The mobile tent solidified in concrete also resonates with the changes in the traditional nomadic Bedouin culture of the UAE.

Another work located outside the gallery is The Book of Exile, a performative work happening in the university’s library. The book contains stories of refugee life in Palestinian camps since the Nakba (Catastrophe) in 1948. These were collected from refugees in various camps and express the vital culture that has emerged in exile, asserting the refusal of refugees to be victims of stereotypes and claiming their right to make and write their history. The book, which was originally created for the Marrakesh Biennial in 2016, is being copied by Emirati Calligrapher Mohammed Bin Yehya, symbolising the continuation of the age-old tradition of preserving and communicating knowledge from the Arab and Islamic civilisations to the rest of the world.

Al Madafa/The Living Room is a performance created for this show by Hilal. The work addresses the barriers that displaced refugees encounter in their host countries and ways of breaking those down. It is inspired by Yasmeen and Ibrahim, a Syrian couple who have made the living room in their home in the city of Boden a gathering place for diverse people, changing their role from being passive guests of a refugee camp to active hosts. Hilal replicated the gatherings in their living room by inviting groups of students, faculty and visitors for informal conversations in the living room of her temporary apartment on the campus during her visit.

“In Arab culture, the living room is the part of the home that opens itself to guests, foreigners or outsiders. It is the best decorated part of the house and always kept ready with fruits, nuts and coffee to welcome unexpected guests, even in a refugee camp. In a foreign country refugees are expected to constantly perform the role of the perfect guest to gain acceptance. By claiming the ‘right to host’ refugees like this couple have been able to blend their lost life in Syria with their new life in Sweden and integrate better in their new environment,” Hilal says.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.

Permanent Temporariness will run at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery until June 9. For details of the public programme during Ramadan, visit http://www.nyuad-artgallery.org/