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January 26, 2017

Newcity Editor Relays Experience of Palestinian Art Biennial

This past Monday evening, Elliot Reichert, an art editor for Newcity magazine, spoke at the Cochrane-Woods Art Center about his recent experience traveling through Israel and Palestine. While there, he attended the 2016 Qalandiya International Arts Festival. The festival, was named after the largest checkpoint between Israel and the Palestinian territories, which serves as a daily reminder to travelers of the tense, constricting relationship between the two. Reichert took his opportunity at the University to explain to students how the artists featured in Qalandiya International both represented and rallied against the circumstances facing the Palestinian territories.

To provide context for the festival setting, Reichert explained some key events in the timeline leading up to the biennial. The city of Qalandiya, the site of the checkpoint for which the biennial is named, held the Jerusalem Airport until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, after which it was decommissioned. The airport’s shutdown, along with the idea that the checkpoint in Qalandiya effectively cut the city in half, signals the complex and changing relationship between the people of Israel and Palestine and the international world. The changes, according to Reichert, represent a “shift from the previously permeable international border to a brutal, secured one.” With this in mind, artists across the Palestinian territories set off to capture and reflect on their circumstances, as delicately captured in some of the pieces shown at the festival.

According to Reichert, the biennial events, despite being so geographically close to one another, were somewhat inaccessible for the average visitor. Trekking to every site would be nearly impossible without a diplomatically “powerful” passport, like an American one. The event’s isolation provided a potent analogy to life under tense regional circumstances. Many event-goers were even forced to attend the festival digitally, for fear of violence or governmental restriction. The biennial artworks served to make light of this precarious geopolitical situation in their own unique ways and to reflect on the encroaching problems of globalization in the region.

The show’s artwork, on the whole, touched on the Palestinian struggle over the past few decades, highlighting, both the growing Palestinian suspicion of the material object in the face of constant destruction and the people’s view of the kind of modern-day colonization in the region.

One of the event locations was called “The Jerusalem Show VIII,” set in a quiet part of the tourist-filled Old City of Jerusalem. This show featured works by Australian artist Tom Nicholson in the form of Palestinian glass mosaics, accompanied by video interviews. The videos describe how Australian soldiers in Gaza first discovered the glass mosaics and brought them back to Australia, where they were installed in a national war memorial, with their original mosaic tiles replaced with newer, art deco tiles. The artwork draws attention to how Australia, at the time still being colonized, launched its own program of colonization in places like Gaza.

“These works represent how we can think about globalization as trade-based colonization,” Reichert said.

One art piece—a 12-foot-high traditional Palestinian wedding dress made of currency notes—explored the psychological state of Palestinians, aiming to represent the Palestinian hesitance to invest money in buildings or property. The average Palestinian, the artwork suggests, would prefer to spend their money on immaterial events and experiences, like weddings, instead of material objects. According to Reichert, this is why one sees a thriving community of performance artists in Palestine, instead of more painters, sculptors, and other “material” artists.

The art did not directly address Israel, despite its central influence on the artists. Continuing with this intentional oversight, there was no Hebrew on the promotional materials or artworks. However, the works sometimes did address the effects of the Israeli conflicts, such as the possible ways to think about rebuilding Gaza.

“Some of the artists portray the complicated conditions of reconstructing under occupation,” Reichert said. “[To some Palestinians], it seems Sisyphus-like to reconstruct an area that’s under siege.”

Monday’s talk was co-sponsored by the University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the Department of Art History, along with the Research in Art and Visual Evidence workshop.

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