A Garden of Possibilities at the Palestinian Museum
The new museum explores the living culture of Jerusalem, which curator Reem Fadda sees as a city that exemplifies the beginning and end of globalism.
The Palestinian Museum with an unfinished work by Yazan Khalili atop the museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
BIRZEIT, Palestinian Territories — The fact that the Palestinian Museum even exists may surprise some people, not because of the wealth of talent that clearly exists in these lands, but because it suggests a type of normalcy to life in an area that continues to be under occupation. When the project was first announced there were conversations about creating a museum that would reflect the reality of Palestinian life, recognizing that not all Palestinians would be able to even visit it because of Israeli border restrictions against people of Palestinian origin. Then the roughly $30-million transnational museum opened without a major “exhibition,” or at least the type of exhibition we typically envision in art museums. It was a more low-key affair, focusing on objects we often associate with historical displays, but that was also because of the real problems of occupation.
“Until Israel recognize[s] most of the Unesco protocols which protect imported goods in the museum world,” Museum Chairperson Omar Al Qattan told The National, “we can’t really bring anything in except under consular or ambassadorial cover, which means it’s always going to be a problem borrowing or exchanging exhibition objects.”
The colorful map of the gardens at the Palestinian Museum (download a complete garden guide here)
Speaking to Leah Sandals at Canadian Art magazine, Hourani outlined the serious issues he faced when he brought a Picasso painting to Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority. “How do you bring an artwork into a war zone? Normally this kind of artwork is supposed to go between two states that have clear borders, and it might normally take five months for that, from a museum to a museum,” Hourani explained. “In our situation, you couldn’t guarantee the safety of the artwork. So that was also an obstacle. It was not possible to insure the work 100%. And it took two years, rather than five months, to get the artwork from Eindhoven to Ramallah.” The institution making the loan, the Van Abbemuseum, had to sign off on many of the strict insurance issues.
A view of the gardens and the surrounding landscape from the museum terrace
Yet this Museum is not hindered by its reality and it has decided to source many of its materials and talent from outside Israel, which is clearly a political and conceptual statement. That means the architects (Heneghan Peng) are Dublin-based, the landscape architect (Lara Zureikat) is Jordanian, the exit signs were from Austria (but the Israeli authorities rejected them for import and the builders had to adapt to the bureaucratic hurdle), and all other elements are sourced from elsewhere. It’s hard not to see the very existence of the Palestinian Museum as part of a conceptual project in exploring what is even possible here.
The building itself is a beautiful and stark structure that echoes the taste for minimal elegance in the art world. There is no groundbreaking architecture though, even if the terraced gardens really differentiate the institution from other art venues of this type. Labeled with names that would make a hipster’s head explode with envy — including “Aromatic Garden,” “Medicinal Garden,” and “Olive Garden” (*cue hipsters giggles*) — the gardens are hard to differentiate when on-site because they visually blend into one another, though a veteran gardener may spot these easily.
Rain Wu and Eric Chen, “Threshold of Being” (2017)
The Museum’s new exhibition, Jerusalem Lives, is curated by Reem Fadda (with assistant curators Fawz Kabra and Yara Abbas) and features 48 artists, including 18 commissions. While the galleries inside include works by Mona Hatoum, Khaled Hourani, Khaled Jarrar, and other modern and contemporary artists, the outdoor work is a major attraction in its own right.
Emily Jacir’s “Untitled (servees)” (2008) uses the voices of ride-sharing taxi drivers calling out their intended destinations from Jerusalem. It plays on loudspeakers in the museum’s parking lot, and from a distance it can even sound like a muezzin’s call to prayer. In a place where transportation is a hassle, particularly for those with identity papers that limit mobility, the call is both absurd and nostalgic, reminding many of a time when a trip from Jerusalem was far less difficult and could even be done in roughly 30 minutes (it’s only 25 miles away).
Athar Jaber’s “Stone – Opus 15” (2017) with Yazan Khalili’s “Falling Stone, Flying Stone” (2017) in the background.
These works, like all the others, point to Fadda’s bigger thesis: that Jerusalem is the beginning and end point of globalism. It’s a provocative idea, but one that checks out when you think of the city as a continuous and contentious metropolis, one that has been at the center of pilgrimage, power, and intrigue for centuries — in medieval Christian tradition, Jerusalem is home to the “navel of the world” (aka Omphalos); in Jewish, tradition it is considered the center of the world.
Adrián Villar Rojas’s “The Theater of Disappearance” (2017)
Khalil Rabah’s “48%, 67%,” which is a part of the artist’s Palestine after Palestine New Sites for the Museum Department (2017) project
Bob Gramsma’s “facts on the ground, OI#17241” (2017) with the Palestinian Museum in the background
But the most powerful work in the Gardens is Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s “We know what it is for/we who have used it” (2017), which builds on the artist duo’s research into the use of political narratives. Composed of 3D-printed marble masks and a five-channel sound installation, the work focuses on 13 Neolithic masks that may be the oldest known masks in the world. Removed from the West Bank with mysterious provenance, most are currently held in private collections, though two are in the permanent collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where all 13 were brought together for a 2014 exhibition. According to the artist duo, that exhibition instrumentalized the masks as part of Israel’s Zionist ideology.
Detail of Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s “We know what it is for/we who have used it” (2017)
The sound component of “We know what it is for/we who have used it” illuminates the objects with stories of the destroyed Palestinian villages in the region. Abbas and Abou-Rahme seem eager to symbolically ‘free’ the masks, but they look more burdened here, like shadows that flicker in and out of focus, objects that seem trapped between the worlds of the living and the dead. In that way, they epitomize the Palestinian Museum’s mission to tell new stories, ones that free history to live, breath, and renew itself through the ritual of storytelling. History in a place like Palestine can sometimes feel insurmountable, but in chimerical works like Abbas and Abou-Rahme’s, it comes alive with possibilities.
Yazan Khalili’s “Falling stone, Flying stone” (2017) is the most visible piece in the show — it sits atop the museum. I had to ask if it was a work at all since it looked so well placed up there, like it was part of the architect’s design for the building. The curator told me the work was incomplete for the opening because the glow-in-the-dark paint that is supposed to cover the surface never cleared Israeli customs. The stone itself references so many parts of Jerusalem’s history: the ancient quarries that continue to thrive today; the stone in the Dome of the Rock where the prophet Muhammad reputedly ascended into heaven; the stone from which a heavenly angel will trumpet out the arrival of Resurrection Day according to Christian lore; and the foundational stone of Judaism for those who believe the patriarch Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac for his monotheism. Khalili’s rock looks like it could topple at any moment, which points to the quixotic nature of national identity, a sense of self that can be burdened or liberated by history, and which feels precarious at all times.
A view of the Museum’s terrace with Sultan bin Fahad’s “Directions” (2017) in the left foreground
When the Israeli border official questioned me about as to why I was in Ramallah, I was frank. “I was there yesterday to see the Palestinian Museum,” I said. “What kind of art do they show there?” he asked. I replied: “International contemporary artists.” He seemed perplexed. He had never heard of the museum and looked at me blankly until I saw his mind slowly form the thought into something more concrete, and it was obviously something that he had never thought of before.
“Wow, I had no idea” he said. “You should check it out,” I replied, in a manner that was probably too friendly for a border interaction. But he didn’t dismiss the idea like other Israelis I had met on this and a previous trip; the typical reaction to my suggestion is a stern, “I’m not allowed to go there as an Israeli.” That prohibition is only partly true, since no one would check, and many Israelis flaunt the law openly by crossing into lands that on paper appear to be prohibited. But the fact that the border official didn’t fall on that rote answer suggested I had jostled him into imagining something else. I felt the potential of such a museum in that moment.
A portion of the author’s travel and accommodation expenses were paid for by the Palestinian Museum.
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