Qalandiya International 2016 poster/banner

Producing a multi-city, multi-venue, multimedia contemporary art event is a major undertaking anywhere, but doing so in the environment of Palestine today, and with a limited budget and resources, is fairly miraculous. But need and the right kind of ambition are great motivators, and ways of overcoming major obstacles can be found if the will is there.

What and where is even understood, and by whom, by “Palestine” anyway? With no clear answer to that question, the Qalandiya International project (Qi for short) was initiated in 2012 by a group of Palestinian cultural organizations and artists’ collectives in the West Bank and Gaza (the UN-designated Occupied Palestinian Territories) and the cities of Jerusalem, Haifa, and Nazareth. Rather than a scattered calendar of existing event programming across increasingly divided communities, it aimed to create a collaborative force for cultural practice in defiance of Israel’s longstanding military occupation. A counter-action to the consequent social, political, geographical, and cultural fragmentation, and a “take on unity” in a biennial format of exhibitions, screenings, performances, talks, symposia, and more, with artists, curators, and art-workers from elsewhere collaborating with their Palestinian counterparts in a project that would strengthen and energize cultural life and practice in the region and beyond. And, along the way, to insert Palestine onto the international maps of contemporary art events — although the project’s local relevance is, I would argue, of greater value.

Qi integrated programs that had already been taking place for some years into the same timeframe and thematic schema. The “situation” inevitably has an impact, but the aim was a collective venture that would strive to overcome some of the difficulties in a belief that culture can be a force for change and enlightenment, and not to be paralyzed by what can, at times, seem like an interminable and crushing weight of problems. Using the name Qalandiya is itself a deliberate act of reclamation: For Palestinians, this is the infamous checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah operated by the Israeli Defense Forces (who, in the occupation’s processes of overnaming and erasure, call it Atarot). It is a place of daily humiliation and subjugation for thousands, one which the majority of West Bank ID holders are not permitted to cross at all unless granted special permits. In the multilayering that is the norm here, it is also the site of a UN camp still housing refugees from the 1948 Nakba (the “catastrophe” that followed the creation of the state of Israel), an old village divided in two by the separation wall, and the site of the former Jerusalem International Airport that is now a derelict reminder of earlier freedoms and international connectivity.

In this profoundly exceptional context in which universal freedoms are not a given, with its distorted economics and political impasses, cultural practice has a special urgency. In October 2016, the third Qi was launched with the thematic title This Sea Is Mine, words from the poem “Mural” by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. “Mural” is a long meditation on death, time, loss, identity, and exile: “Sailors surround me, but there is no harbor,” he writes. “The sea is mine. The fresh air is mine… As for me, filled with every reason to leave, I am not mine.” The words opened up many potential paths of thought. The sea and loss, and the loss of the sea, resonate in Palestinian history and contemporary life, whether the memories of the forced displacements in 1947–48 from the coastal towns of Yaffa or Acre or Haifa for those who have not yet been able to return, or the current restrictions that do not allow West Bank residents to make the short trip to the Mediterranean coast or to most of the Dead Sea access points in the other direction. In Gaza, Israel’s navy patrols an invisible line in the sea a few miles off the coast, preventing any boat or swimmer from crossing it. And it wasn’t coincidental that the Mediterranean has been in the conscience and eyes of the world recently as the risky route of millions of desperate people trying to cross to the perceived safety and asylum of Europe, with hundreds of thousands of tragic consequences.

The phrase “this sea is mine” and its associations with refugees fleeing war, poverty, and societal collapse is also intimately connected to the idea of “return” that is part of the Palestinian psyche and political consciousness. For refugees from the Nakba (who, with their descendants, now number over 6.5 million worldwide), and for others exiled in the diaspora, the “right to return” to an original homeland for those “wishing to live at peace with their neighbors” was enshrined in UN resolution 194 from 1948. An increasingly remote possibility, many Palestinians now consider it nothing more than a hackneyed slogan. But for Qi 2016, “return” and “this sea is mine” were the inspiration behind many different interpretations in a month-long program of events, exhibitions, film screenings, workshops, and symposium talks in venues located across borderlines and distances, in the West Bank and Gaza, Amman, Beirut, Bethlehem, Haifa, and Jerusalem, as well as farther away in London.

Shareef Sarhan, photograph from the series “Sea Rejoice… Sad Sea” (2016), exhibited at “The Sea Is Mine” in Gaza and “The People of the Sea” in Haifa (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless noted)

In a deliberate and significant act for a diasporic community, Qi 2016 launched on October 5th with five exhibitions opening simultaneously in Haifa, Gaza, Beirut, Amman, and London — all places of significance in modern Palestinian history. The People of the Sea at the Arab Culture Centre in Haifa explored in photography and video works the relationships Palestinians have with the sea — as fishermen, as a site of play, but also one of tragedy. This Sea Is Mine in Gaza (organized by two of the artist collectives there) featured paintings and installations by Gaza-based artists that engaged directly with “return” and “the sea” in daily life. In the closed space of Gaza, the sea is a place for relaxation and air in the overcrowded strip; the original plan was to have site-specific works and performances along the sea front, but there were too many difficulties in negotiating with the Hamas-led authorities. In Beirut, at the recently opened Dar el Nimer for Arts and Culture, Sea of Stories examined “return” from the perspective of the Palestinian community in Lebanon. Like Haifa, Beirut is a coastal city, and sea routes from and back to Palestine are in its memory banks. Darat al Funun in Amman also commissioned artists in Jordan to respond to the theme (most of whom would also be from Palestinian refugee families). Both venues included talks and screenings in their programming, including films such as Annemarie Jacir’s Salt of the Sea, Kamal Aljafari’s Recollection, and Mauricio Misle’s Hamule, all of which deal with aspects of return, memory, and exile. London saw Moments of Possibilities: Air, Land and Sea at the University of Westminster, P21 Gallery, and the Mosaic Rooms, comprising an exhibition, screenings, and a symposium curated by a group of architects (Palestine Regeneration Team, or PART) around ideas of a Palestine not limited by physical borders and walls or the no-less-material barriers of permits and visas.

Mohammed Shaqdih, “The Fish of Hebron: Hebron, where no window overlooks the sea and no door opens onto the harbor. From its alleys came the Fish of Hebron, shaped by a craftsman haunted by his love of the sea and sold by a grandson on a day unseen by his grandfather” (2016), installation in “The Sea Is Mine,” Darat Al Funun, Amman

Other exhibitions were concentrated in the Ramallah area and Jerusalem, with a student photography show in Bethlehem. There were some interesting works on the Birzeit University campus in Gaza Reconstruction, a two-part exhibition curated by Yazid Anani and a collaboration with the International Academy of Art, architecture students, PART, and artists from Gaza, the West Bank, and elsewhere. This was actually the fifth of the Cities exhibitions, an ongoing, multilateral series of investigations into Palestine’s cities that Anani has been working on. Although the show lacked some of the connecting logic that might be expected in a single exhibition, there were many links in how the participants engaged in imaginative ways with the uniquely surreal (yet very real) situation of the besieged and isolated Gaza strip, where so many people still live with a hugely damaged infrastructure from the bombing and invasion in the summer of 2014 and continue to await repair and rebuilding. “Return” was tangentially interpreted here, but it is embedded in the very condition of Gaza, which is perhaps the largest, most crowded and confined refugee camp of all. A broadly collaborative project such as this, which reaches out over the short actual distance between the West Bank and Gaza, is an important investment in positive and creative action, and a refutation of the imposed divisions.

Manal Edeeb, “Singapore–Gaza” (2016), exhibited in the Qattan Child Centre, Gaza, as part of the “Gaza Reconstruction” project (photo courtesy of Mohammed Al Hawajri)

The Al Ma’mal Foundation’s eighth Jerusalem Show was curated by Netherlands-based Australian Vivien Ziherl in venues in Jerusalem’s Old City as one of the roaming platforms of her “Frontier Imaginaries” project. Originating earlier in 2016 in two exhibitions in Brisbane, Australia, the third platform in Jerusalem, Before and After Origins, teased out links between other settler colonialism conditions and histories and what has taken place in historical Palestine through works by artists from Palestine, the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan, indigenous and non-indigenous Australia, South Africa, and Europe. Earlier colonialisms are an indelible element of how things have played out in Palestine, as is the current settler version, but the comparisons that are sometimes made with indigenous North America or Australia don’t always hold up to deeper analysis. Comparisons can be drawn, for sure — with the theft of land and resources, abuse of human rights, and cultural genocide — but modern Palestine lives with the legacies of a particular history, and the current occupation is deeply ideological, insidious, and executed with impunity through a grotesque imbalance of power and military force. At a different point on its historical trajectory and deserving of more sophisticated analysis, it is also happening in very concentrated spatial parameters. The plan to stage part of the exhibition in the Shu’fat refugee camp in East Jerusalem that was a key part of the original curatorial proposal might have had some interesting outcomes — although using the camp as an exhibition venue without engaging with the camp’s own communities would have been highly problematic — but negotiations apparently failed at the last minute. This may have been why there was a confusing sense of how some of the works related to the conceptual framework, which can happen in any exhibition that is led predominantly by its curatorial ideologies (and often by its funding streams) rather than being informed by the artists themselves. There were moments of considered thought and research in some individual works, such as Tom Nicholson’s “Comparative Monument (Shellal)” and in Benji Boyagdian’s repetitive patterning, for example. The films of the Karrabing Film Collective were an interesting interjection, as were the perspectives from greater years of experience given by Australian/aboriginal artist and political activist Richard Bell in the discussions in his “Tent Embassy.” The inclusion of artists from the occupied Golan who identify as Palestinian, and Jawad Al Malhi’s images and recordings of daily activity from inside his personally known and closed world of Shu’fat, also added another dimension to the exhibition’s claims to narratives of belonging, origins, and return.

Tom Nicholson, “Comparative Monument (Shellal)” (2014–16), (detail), glass tesserae, wooden boxes, and two-channel video

Karrabing Film Collective, still from “Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams” (2016)

In Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority’s administrative base and the de facto Palestinian capital and cultural center, there were several smaller-scale exhibitions produced by various organizations. Pattern Recognition featured works by the nine finalists in the A. M. Qattan Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year program; these artists (under 30) from Palestine and the diaspora had worked closely over several months with curator Nat Muller on ideas of repetition, pattern, and rhythm in an interpretation of Qi 2016’s theme. First-prize-winner Inas Halabi’s video “Mnemosyne” explored a family memory of a bullet wound from 1948 and the scar that it left in a reflective return to a pivotal moment. Ramallah Municipality’s Sites of Return exhibition made use of some of the old city’s renovated houses to show recent and not so recent works by Basel Abbas and Rouanne Abou-Rahme, Rheim Alkhadi, DAAR (Decolonizing Art and Architecture), Samia A. Halaby, Basim Magdy, Mohammed Saleh, and Wafaa Yasin. The curators, Sahar Qawasmi and Beth Stryker, also commissioned Mirna Bamieh’s “Potato Talks” event in downtown Ramallah, and Nida Sinnokrot’s dusk spectacle of pigeons fitted with small LED lights being released from, and then returning to, the rooftops of the Jalazone refugee camp.

Inas Halabi, still from “Mnemosyne” (2016)

Mirna Bamieh, “Potato Talks: (Up)rooting – Ramallah Edition,” Al Manara Square, Ramallah, October 17, 2016.

Nida Sinnokrot, “Flight–Jalazone” (2016), homing pigeons fitted with LED lights returning to (or flying from) rooftops in the Jalazone refugee camp near Ramallah

Jumana Emil Abboud’s solo exhibition O Whale, Don’t Swallow Our Moon at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah was an example of something that doesn’t occur very often in Palestine: a well-curated show devoted to the work of an individual artist. Beautifully put together by Lara Khaldi, this opportunity for the artist to exhibit her work in a home venue, and for others to see it, was a highlight of Qi 2016. The drawings, videos, and installation works were inspired by the artist’s ongoing research into Palestinian folktales and sites of myth and folklore. Abboud reimagined these underlying and forgotten layers of culture and history in profoundly beautiful and complex work that echoes the lost stories and haunted places that have been subsumed beneath contemporary traumas. Whether in paintings and drawings, video and sound, or the talismanic aura of objects and images, Abboud’s work had its own distinctive pace, a quiet depth and level of reflection that left one changed after encountering it.

Jumana Emil Abboud, still from “Hide your water from the sun (chapter II)” (2016)

On the whole, Qi 2016’s exhibitions were of varying quality. I did not see what was in Beirut, Amman and London, or Bethlehem, but in Haifa the not-so-great installation in a dark, rough space meant The People of the Sea did not do justice to the artists and photographers whose work it featured. The Qi partners have variable funding and resource capabilities, which may explain why, despite the original ambitions and shared framework, the scattered projects organized by different individuals/organizations can seem less successful than they might be under a more cohesive orchestration, especially when production values and curatorial direction are uneven. But other biennales are probably also prey to this to a certain extent, although Qi does not call itself a biennale, and the expansive curated exhibition that is usually central to that format has not been the model here.

It was in the film screening programs, the tours and workshops and other events, and the “Qalandiya Encounters” symposium panels, talks, and discussions produced by each Qi partner that the most interesting seeds of information, future ideas, and urgent topics related to ecology, history, and current exigencies could be found — literally, in the case of Vivien Sansour’s “Seed Library” project. This all just needs to be imaginatively and skillfully translated into more exhibitionary formats. (Directors of organizations and curators, take note.)

Yet, all things considered, Qalandiya International must be credited as a significant achievement, and the results of the energy and dedication of the teams who produced This Sea Is Mine from within a complex situation deserve to be celebrated. There was also a circus festival and a month-long film festival going on at the same time as Qi — further proof (if it were needed) that there is a vibrant Palestinian cultural landscape. Qi 2016 will have spin-offs, and there will be future collaborations and events, and what greater results can there be than informing and shaping the culture that can and will happen in the future?

This Sea Is Mine, the third Qalandiya International (Qi), took place in multiple venues in Amman, Beirut, Bethlehem, Gaza, Haifa, Jerusalem, London, and Ramallah/Al Bireh from October 5 to 31. An online catalogue was published in collaboration with Ibraaz .