Can art help create a better future for Palestinians?

Friday 18/09/2015
James Morris photograph from the That Still Remains series on Gaza destruction.

London - “Palestinian artists should not be pressurised to turn their work into a political narrative.”

This was the message conveyed by Arab and British artists during a discussion entitled Art as intervention — Can art help create a better future for Palestinians?

The London meeting was organ­ised at the end of August by Gaze on Gaza, a group of artists who came together in August 2014 to raise awareness of the humanitarian cri­sis in Gaza Strip and campaign to end its root causes and give a plat­form to Gazan artists.

Speakers focused on how artists can create beauty when the blood of children is running in the streets.

Describing art as a free imagina­tive space that cannot be closed by occupation, London-based Pales­tinian writer Selma Dabbagh point­ed out that sometimes the work being produced is not going to get much further than the artist who produced it while other work gets published.

In both cases, art has a beneficial value, as there is a catharsis in the process of writing and narrating. “The mental health statistics from the Occupied Territories are so dev­astating and anything that is able to create a sense or a pattern has an extreme value not just to the indi­vidual but to society as well,” said Dabbagh, author of Out of It, a novel moving between Gaza and London.

“The idea is that Palestinian art should be resisted as just a way of communicating a message to the West, while other artistic considera­tions have to be taken into account as political concerns can implode the art form.”

Kareem Samara, co-founder of the Multicultural Collective for Arts, noted that Palestinian art has been largely exploited by politicians and people in power, especially since the first Palestinian intifada against Israeli occupation in 1987.

“They took the joke of the Pales­tinian villager with his donkey, a man who does not read or write, and used that to foster the concept of a Palestinian identity,” Samara said.

“They use the art narrative — folk­lore and music to build resistance and suddenly the person who was the butt of jokes is asking what does it mean to be Palestinian… This can be good for the Palestinian cause but there is a danger it will ruin art.”

James Walmsley, a curator from Manchester, quoted a statement by Palestinian artist Rana Bishara from the West Bank town of Beit Jala, about the role of art in activism.

“The tradition of political art has taught us that it contributes to mo­bilising the public. For me the per­sonal is political and vice versa, as every aspect of our lives is affected by political decisions,” Bishara’s statement read.

She said: “In Occupied Palestine the ongoing ethnic cleansing, theft of land, building illegal settlements and imprisoning a whole population in ghettoes affects every Palestin­ian. I am most interested in integrat­ing art with the Palestinians’ daily resistance against Israel’s colonial­ism.

“Artists should express the grave violations of human rights and the dreams of the people by being pre­sent in the midst of their daily strug­gles.”

Miranda Pennell, a film-maker and member of Artists for Pales­tine, UK, lambasted Israeli attempts to scuttle Palestinian art and urged artists to sign a simple statement re­fusing to work under “conditions of apartheid” in the occupied Palestin­ian territories until things change.

“A very serious problem encoun­tered in Britain is that pro-Israel groups were fighting events that contradict the Israeli narrative by accusing them of anti-Semitism or being unbalanced. Such pressure led to the removal of captions from the photographs of James Morris of the sites of destroyed villages in Pales­tine, for instance,” Pennell said.

Audience members stressed the importance of art in building self-confidence. Summer theatre work­shops have helped scores of chil­dren in the Palestinian territories to describe their feelings and vent anger in a positive way.

But the projects of foreign non-government organisations may not fit into what is needed in Palestinian communities, said Aimee Shalan, co-director of Pressure Cooker Arts, an arts advocacy organisation focus­ing on the Middle East.

She expressed concern about the rush of money after a conflict, trans­lated into small arts projects that are not sustainable. “The money dries up and comes back when there is another conflict which means noth­ing really meaningful is being built,” she said.

Aladin Aladin, a visiting professor of Strategy and Innovation at Cran­field University, in England, stressed the need for “breaking away from the polarisation of us/them, good/ bad, Palestinian and non-Palestini­an”.

“Art and culture does not need to take sides; it can make realities vis­ible. Rebranding and refreshing the idea of Palestine is necessary. Artists from Palestine coming to Britain and British artists reflecting and repre­senting Palestine in its complexity is important,” he said.

However important cultural and arts exchange is, members of Gaze on Gaza have been complaining that they were not able to bring a single Palestinian artist to London. “It is very difficult to convince the British authorities that these (artists) would not remain in the country,” they say.