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Picasso in Palestine: The echo of an unending journey

Picasso in Palestine: The echo of an unending journey
Picasso in Palestine, 2011, installation view, photo credit: Khaled Jarar.

Khaled Hourani, artist, writer and Artistic Director of the International Academy of Art Palestine in Ramallah, talks to Myrto Katsimicha about 'Picasso in Palestine' an art project realised in 2011 and the state of contemporary art in Palestine four years later.


'Picasso in Palestine' exposes the dynamics of contemporary art to bridge borders and overcome issues of social and political upheaval. In a state of constant questioning addressed to Western art institutions, this interview provides a better understanding of a process that often remains latent while on the other hand revisits the current state of contemporary art in Palestine. 



MK: Tell us about 'Picasso in Palestine'. What was the initial aim of this project and what do you perceive as its greatest success in the end?


KH: 'Picasso in Palestine' was about bringing and showing an original painting by Pablo Picasso for the first time in history in Palestine and it was exhibited on June 24, 2011, at the International Academy of Art Palestine (IAAP) in Ramallah. The painting "Buste de Femme" (1943) is one of the most iconic works from the collection of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. It's a key work of Picasso’s expressionistic period—a period in which he spoke out in response to the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps through his work we are able to talk about and imagine conditions in relation to cultural rights and struggles in other places and times too. The exhibition was accompanied by the series, 'Picasso Talks', where international speakers responded to the artistic, political and social implications surrounding the exhibition, and by a parallel exhibition in East Jerusalem that documented its process, including letters, paperwork and students’ interpretations of "Buste de Femme". The initial aim of this project was to re-visit modernism through contemporary art practice and at the same time “it’s a re-quesitioning of the role of the Institution, the role of not only art institutions but institutions in general: customs institutions, border institutions, security institutions, museums as institutions, the art academy itself". It’s a long process to see what kind of flexibility there is for the artists, if they want to do such crazy or unusual projects. It was like an impossible mission. To get Picasso anywhere requires a museum, a state, security, everything. We don’t have a state, we don’t control our borders, so how to build something able to host such an important artwork?



Pablo Picasso, Buste de Femme, 1943, image courtesy of the Van Abbenmuseum (NL).


MK: Within the context of Palestinian struggle were you concerned about the way the public would perceive 'Picasso in Palestine'?


KH: Yes, I was concerned about how the public would respond, but the general response was generous. Around six thousand people attended the exhibition and the activities around in 24 days given the exceptional situation we have. I was concerned about how they will read it in relation to reality and art, the relation between the history of art in Palestine and images of the Palestinian struggle. For me it was a learning process, in a way.


Besides, highlighting these procedures and obstacles, the project questions what it means to bring an icon of European Modernism to a Palestinian public, in a time when the Western art history’s hegemony is contested? What could this gesture, and what could the painting possibly mean or do for its audience—in the context of the Palestinian struggle for statehood and the “Arab spring”? And what does the journey mean or do to the artwork and its future reception? What relationships could be established during the month of its exhibition, and what kind of institutions does a city like Ramallah need in the future? “The adventure starts when the artwork leaves for Palestine, but does not necessarily end when it safely arrives back home...



Picasso in Palestine, 2011, installation view, photo credit: Mamon Ishreteh.



MK: It took almost 2 years for Picasso to land in Palestine. By deliberately exposing this series of legislative procedures to secure the loan request from Europe what is the most surprising fact to know?


KH: It took two years to get the work to Palestine. If you have a state you have your own customs office, your own border. When you talk about security you can guarantee things, but even with the Palestinian Government and the Palestinian guards ready, you still have to convince the museum, and the ones who give you the support and the money. The main challenge was time — to be flexible enough to get the work when it’s ready. It’s not about the time that suits us. We will be ready to accept the painting when it’s ready, even if it only comes for one day.


The project operates on many fronts. What would normally be a standard loan procedure between two institutions had to be re-thought due to the exceptional nature of the Palestinian reality; and the absence of recognized borders, protocols had to be studied in detail, adjusted and legal frameworks re-set investigated relating to insurance, transportation and imports into the West Bank. On its journey, watched over by a delegation of museum experts from Eindhoven, the work passed Israeli military checkpoints, and during its exhibition in a custom-built room to provide appropriate temperature and humidity levels, Palestinian soldiers guarded it. 



Image courtesy of the Van Abbenmuseum (NL).


MK: One would see this journey of Picasso from the Netherlands to Ramallah as a colonial practice of the West. However, the project was initiated by the International Academy of Art Palestine and not by the Van Abbenmuseum, while the work was selected by the students themselves. Why is Picasso relevant?


KH: It's normal, the nature of art that will be received in different ways. As you can see  the question itself provides the answer. It’s the other way around but at the same time questioning the colonial history and not colonial practice, while Picasso is a global figure. 



Amjad Ghanam, Postcard, 2011, image courtesy of the artist.



MK: Earlier you stated that: “The adventure starts when the artwork leaves for Palestine but does not necessarily end when it safely arrives back home.” Do you perceive this journey as an artwork itself?


KH: Yes, the journey and the obstacles at checkpoints, airports, customs, borders and the creative isolations around all this with the Picasso coming through to a war zone. I also consider this interview as part of the artwork. It's not only the sound, but also the echo. The big challenge for the artist is what can be done after that.



Amjad Ghanam, Postcard, 2011, image courtesy of the artist.


MK: 'Picasso in Palestine' was not only about bringing a major artwork to the city but also about creating the infrastructure to host it. Two years later, what is the state of art institutions in Palestine?


KH: The art since in Palestine is very active. A lot of things are going on as the new generation voices. We are living in a very difficult situation and the art institutions have to work according to these exceptional circumstances. For many reasons "we start something and then we leave it, then start again and leave it and start again..." as Tolstoy once said.



Picasso in Palestine, 2011, installation view, photo credit: Khaled Jarar.


MK: As the Artistic Director of the International Academy of Art Palestine in Ramallah how would you describe the current state of contemporary art in Palestine?


KH: As I said before, the art scene is very active and art is more involved now in life in general. 



MK: What are the biggest challenges for young people practicing contemporary art in Palestine


KH: It’s the art itself with all the circumstances. It’s the life which is more important than art at the same time when life is defying art.



MK: The International Academy of Art Palestine was founded in 2006. Do you believe the Academy was a precondition for the young Palestinian art scene to thrive?


KH: It's important to have such an art academy. Teaching is one thing but the platform and the dialogue going through, the charring and the flexibility are also very important. Thank god there is art to think in different ways. I think the academy was an addition to the art scene and not a precondition.



MK: 3 young Palestinian artists to watch.


KH: Iyed Arafah, Amer Shomali and Dima Hourani.





Picasso in Palestine, 2011, installation view, photo credit: Khaled Hourani.



Initiated two years before its actual realisation 'Picasso in Palestine' is an art project with no beginning and no end. It reminds us that the aftermath of an experience holds an equal, not to say, greater importance of the experience itself. Contemporary art in Palestine existed before and continues to grow in parallel with the universal need of the artists to express themselves. 



Khaled Hourani (b. Hebron, Palestine, 1965). Artist, lives and works in Ramallah. He was the Artistic Director 2007-2010 and the Director of the International Academy of Art Palestine from 2010 to 2013. He previously worked as General Director of the Fine Arts Department in the Palestinian Ministry of Culture (2004-06). In 2014, he participated in the first retrospective exhibition at the CCA in Glasgow and Gallery One in Ramallah, the Times Museum, Guangzhou in China and in the 2nd CAFA Biennale Cafa Museum in Beijing. He has also exhibited in dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin and the Sharjah Biennial (2011). 


Hourani is the co-founder of the International Academy of Art Palestine in Ramallah and the initiator of the 'Picasso in Palestine' project (2011). He has curated and organised several exhibitions. He writes critically in the field of art and is an active member and founder of a number of cultural and art institutions. Recently he was awarded the Leonore Annenberg Prize, Creative Time for Art and Social Change in New York City.

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