Nisa Ari: Turning the Soil: Situating Institutions within Artistic Practice in the Middle East

Nisa Ari: Turning the Soil: Situating Institutions within Artistic Practice in the Middle East

  • 20 May 2020
  • Nisa Ari is Lecturer in Art History at the Katherine G. McGovern College of the Arts, University of Houston. She studies late-19th and 20th century visual practices, with a focus on artwork from the Middle East. Her research explores the relationships between cultural politics and the development of art institutions, specifically in Palestine and in Turkey. Her current book project, Cultural Mandates, Artistic Missions, and “The Welfare of Palestine,” 1876–1948, explores how radical political transformations from the last decades of Ottoman rule until the establishment of the State of Israel changed the nature of artistic production in Palestine. Her research has been published in Third TextArab Studies Journal, and Thresholds, and she has recently curated exhibitions at the Qalandiya International Art Biennial (Jerusalem/Ramallah) and the Keller Gallery at MIT. She received her Ph.D. in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture program at MIT.

Click the image above to watch the recording.

Hello everyone, I'm Nisa Ari and I'm an art historian specializing in histories of art and cultural production in the Middle East, specifically Palestine in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I am very pleased to be here with you all, even it be virtually today, to present this talk that is actually part of a text that will be published soon, about the ways in which knowledge is, and has been produced about art in the modern and contemporary Arab world and the Middle East more broadly.

Now in this talk I draw on some of my research experiences working at, and doing research at, non-profit art institutions over the past decade, in Palestine, in Turkey and in Jordan.

To reflect on how I believe starting ones study of art works from an understanding of the social spaces in which they were produced, like institutions, instead of always starting with the art or the artists alone, or crucially as I'm going to be arguing the artists nationality, may provide new directions in art historical research. What I found in doing my own research on early 20th century Palestinian art is that this artistic material that I've been looking at has actually demanded that I look beyond some of the more standard art historical methodologies. So, I'm going to be talking about how these experiences I've had have very much informed my own research. Now I presented parts of this text to specialists in Middle Eastern and Arab art, and I really look forward to sharing these ideas in this forum and with a broader audience of artists, art historians, curators, even maybe some arts administrators out there, to start to also learn how these ideas might resonate with those working across different fields.

So without further ado, I'm going to go ahead and actually read my talk today, but I will try and stay connected to you all as well over there. I should also just mention that I will not be talking about every image I'm showing on the screen in depth, but I hope you'll take some time to look at those more closely if they're of interest to you.

So at present, only a handful of canonical narratives about the history of Palestinian visual art in the 20th century exist. Beginning with Kamal Boullata’s essays from the 1970s, and followed by book length studies now in English by Boullata, Ismail Shammout, Gannit Ankori and Bashir Makhoul and Gordon Hon. Each discourse contends with the history of Palestinian visual art, as one forcefully divided between the time before and after the Nakba. The Nakba, or catastrophe in Arabic, which culminated in Israel's declaration as an independent state in 1948 and the forced exile of more than 700,000 Palestinians, inevitably became the most significant historical pivot in the narration of modern Palestinian art history. Both for its effects on the conditions for the production and dissemination of art, as you would imagine, and also as an implied catalyst for most artistic subject matter. Discussions of Palestinian art tend to then revolve around themes of displacement, division and loss, as symptomatic of the continuing Nakba. While I cannot, and do not disagree with the understanding of the Nakba as the most disruptive and influential force in the shaping of modern Palestinian identity and also cultural practice, it has been my aim as a second-generation scholar of Palestinian art to be attentive to secondary narratives. Such as the peculiar relationship between cultural production and religious humanitarianism in Palestine, because of course we're talking about the so-called holy land. Or the impact of Palestinian communist groups from the 1930s on Palestinian artists of the liberation generations of the 1960s and 70s. However, I found that these types of histories have tend to remain somewhat trapped beneath the hard surface of an art history resolutely, and also necessarily I should add, in the service of affirming a national identity for which there is still as yet no internationally recognized nation-state.

Now I first became aware of the need for alternative histories of Palestinian art when I spent a summer inside the archives of Gallery Anadiel. Located inside the new gate in Jerusalem's Old City, Anadiel opened its doors in 1992. Founded and directed by Jack Persekian, Anadiel grew throughout the 1990s and Persekian then opened a second non-profit institution, the Al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, in a refurbished tile factory nearby in 1998. These two organizations, Anadiel and Al-Ma’mal, they continue to operate simultaneously today. Alongside a handful of Palestinian galleries and non-profits, Anadiel and Al-Ma’mal were vital initiatives among the swell of Palestinian cultural institutions supporting, and I believe even altering, the character of contemporary Palestinian art from the 1990s forward.

So in the summer of 2013, Persekian handed me the keys to Anadiel. The gallery stood empty, as almost all exhibitions and programming at this time were being held Al-Ma’mal. Each morning I opened those colossal green metal gates that you see on the left-hand side there guarding the gallery, and took my post at a solitary table in the middle of the room, which you are privy to seeing now. I spent the remainder of the day looking through boxes, which detailed Anadiel’s, and later also Al-Ma’mal’s activities from 1992 until about 2004. The old exhibition publications, newspaper clippings, emails and memos exchanged between staff members, curators and artists, brought to life the history of the gallery and the non-profit institution. The archives also provided a glimpse of how the long decade of the 1990s in Palestine, which I would say beginning with the wave of optimism generated by the peace talks after the First Intifada and ending with the tensions that they rise to the Second Intifada, assured in a dynamic arts community and cultural infrastructure of unprecedented scale.

Fostered by a demand for cultural cooperation within the precarious scaffolds of the Oslo Accords, and largely driven by the influx of foreign funds as part of the explosion of NGOs in the region, artistic projects produced by Palestinians in the 1990s found financial support and an audience that extended well beyond the disconnected enclaves of Palestine. Persekian, and by extension Anadiel and Al-Ma’mal, were significant participants in this field. During this period of relative peace in Palestine's history, the archives that I was reading through document the euphoria, precarity, successes and also of course failures, which marked Palestinian arts emergence into a globalized market. Which as we know paradoxically hungers for huge international superstars, with very definitively local credentials.

Now it was at, and through gallery Anadiel that many of the most famous contemporary art projects highlighted in Boullata, Ankori, Makhoul and Hon seminal books on Palestinian art first took shape. Which is to say, the main projects that populate these early books we have about the Canon of Palestinian art, many of them were created right there and gallery Anadiel. Anadiel was where of Khalil Rabah had his first show in Palestine in 1992, which you are seeing in the bottom left hand corner of the screen. Anadiel was where the prominent Druze artist, Asad Azi, showed his work in the early 1990s. Anadiel was where the superstar artist Mona Hatoum first artwork created inside Palestine, present tense, from 1996 made of Nablus soap cubes and blood-red coloured glass beads, was neatly arranged and left to gradually melt on the old tile floor and in the image on the right, is archival image, you're seeing her actually create that piece. Even for Rabah’s 1995 work Grafting, another well-known Palestinian art piece Anadiel was present. For this work Rabah uprooted olive trees from a field near his home in Ramallah, wrapped their branches and multi-coloured embroidery threads and planted them in the lush lawns of the United Nations Ariana Park in Geneva. Transplanted here into new soil, the work alluded to the displacement and alienation of the Palestinian trees, and by extension perhaps the Palestinian artists. Grafting was part of an exhibition sponsored by the UN entitled Dialogues of Peace, and it was through Anadiel that Rabah was commissioned to participate. While this artwork appears in the three most recent books on Palestinian art and our historians of course debate its many meanings, none of them actually questioned how it relates to the particular art world in which it was created. During a time in Palestine’s history when welfare, culture and politics were inextricably intertwined, Grafting took shape through a partnership between a local Palestinian cultural institution, Anadiel, and an international conglomerate ostensibly devoted to peace, the UN.

Now to say that an institutions director like Persekian, or institutional mission statements like those proffered by the UN, are solely responsible for the outcomes of artistic works is certainly not the argument that I want to make here today. However, looking seriously at the ways in which the institution acts as an incubator, or even at times an artistic collaborator, provides another lens for understanding art production from a particular region, that displaces at least momentarily the dominant one of national identity. If we are to think about Rabah's Grafting, alongside Hatoum’s Present Tense, not solely because both artists are Palestinian but because Anadiel acted as a type of institutional collaborator on both pieces, we might enrich our understanding of how cultural institutions like a shared national identity or we might say native soil shaped the internal fibres. Meaning the structures, processes, content even of both Palestinian art and the Palestinian art world.

Observing the degree to which Anadiel, and then later Al-Ma’mal, were responsible for shepherding and mediating artistic production among Palestinian artists in the 1990s, I recalled earlier research I had conducted at a Contemporary Art Centre in Istanbul in 2007. Under the direction of Vasif Kortun, the Centre was name Platform at the time, and was renamed Salt in 2011. So, those of you who are interested in Turkish art or know anything about the Istanbul art scene will know it as Salt. Like Al-Ma’mal, Platform began in the 1990s and officially opened its doors in 2001. Part archive, part gallery, part studio, part school, and part social forum for local and international artists, Platform offered a complex institutional structure, which mirrored those of other non-profit art institutions opened in the 1990s across the region. Some of which include Darat al Funun in Amman, Jordan established in 1998. Ashkal Alwan in Beirut, which was established in 1993, and also Townhouse Gallery established in Cairo in 1998.

Istanbul, a location long treasured for its hybrid “east-meets-west identity”, I put that in quotations, Platform strove to foster an environment that critiqued identity driven art, even as it worked to help Turkish artists negotiate their place in the global art world. A world in which they were legitimized precisely because of their identities. In an interview I conducted with Platform's director Vasif Kortun, he fumed about the blind spots created by the pressures for Turkish artists to perform their identities on a global stage. Asserting he was “much more interested about how issues of identity and hybridization and all of that, obfuscates the real issues of class and access”.

On the heels of the international art market boom of the 1980s, Turkey's neoliberal turn, massive urban renewal projects and gentrification, Platforms tenacious director endeavoured to steer the institution's focus toward local economic and social issues, and away from identity politics, while at the same time inviting an international community of artists to join in on that discussion. After interviewing many of the artists, both Turkish and non-Turkish, who spent a significant time in residence at Platform in the early 2000s, I was struck by the ways in which their artwork reflected and, I might say, refracted Kortun’s, and thereby the institution's mission.

For instance, photographs taken by Juul Hondius, who was a residency artist in 2006 and Laurence Bonvin, who visited Istanbul periodically from 2005-2006, shown jointly together in an exhibition at Platform in 2007, their work was suggestive of these discussions about politics and questions of social mobility, class and immigration circulating in Turkey at the time, and those that Kortun himself expressed interest in. Ahmet Ögüt, a Kurdish-Turkish artist who maintained a close connection with Platform in the early years of his career, and who spoke about the institution as alternately a school, a home and a place to develop his international networking skills. He excelled in producing artworks in the early stages of his career, which explored how viewers responded to deliberate and exploitative displays of identity. Colouring Book from 2004, which I have for you on the screen here, a book of black and white line drawings Ögüt created in collaboration with another Kurdish-Turkish artist Şener Özmen, juxtaposed images of luxury, violence, nationalism and rural custom, to nuanced seemingly clear-cut snapshots of Turkish society.

Platforms community of our artists appeared to draw from a shared vocabulary and set of interests promoted by the institution. Often using humour and irony to comment a local politico-economic topics such as housing and unemployment, whether or not the artists identified as nationally or ethnically Turkish. Similarly, when interviewing Persekian at Al-Ma’mal back in Jerusalem, or later in Jerusalem in my career actually, he revealed that among the many artists who came through the institution, Palestinian and otherwise, one central theme dominated the work that they produced while they were there: mobility. On a practical level Persekian and other staff members were responsible for shovelling residency artists to the villages and cities across the occupied areas of Palestine that they desire to visit. As a result, Persekian became a conduit through which the history of borders, migrations and movements in the region was explained, contextualized and sometimes even complicated for the visiting artists. He admitted that despite the many more fine-grained local issues he would discuss or reveal to artists during their stay, it was nearly impossible for artists not to subsequently make work that confronted the limits of mobility in the region, due to the Israeli occupation.

The inability to move freely was the most overwhelming and poignant experience defining their time in Palestine, and as guests of an Anadiel. Mona Hatoum’s powerful or masterful work, Present Tense, when seen in concert with these other works conceived of Anadiel, like the ones I was just showing you… like this one by Jean-Marc Bustamante, his exhibition which featured live birds in cages a very deliberate discussion about mobility they're titled Something is Missing, or also this other piece I was showing you Shuji Ariyoshi's unrealized proposal for Palestine Airlines. When we see Hatoum’s work in concert with some of these works we can see how it is one among many artworks in Anadiels history to comment on movement and access. What's interesting is that prior to arriving in Palestine, Hatoum actually submitted three proposals for her work to be presented in Anadiels small gallery space. Drawing on notions of danger and the unheimlich present in her previous, the unholiness or the danger of things at home. The proposals that she submitted featured things like a cracked glass floor, walls with a million sharp pins like a porcupine back, and caged interiors. It was only after visiting Palestine, hosted by Anadiel, that she came to compose a deliberate map, one showing the territorial divisions arrived at under the Oslo Accords, one who's very contours appeared detached and randomized, a map she noted that was “about dividing and controlling”. After Hatoum's own body was subjected to the constrictions and discomforts of manmade boarders, she worked with a pliable material, olive oil, soap, which registered the presence of the glass beaded borders she pressed into its slick exterior. Shifting and slumping as the beads descended into its surface, spreading like a skin disease. Hatoum’s unnavigable and ephemeral map, like Bustamante’s caged birds, Ariyoshi's grounded airplanes and even I would contend, Rabah grafted trees, spoke to a very particular Palestinian preoccupation with the concept of mobility.

Now reflecting on the ways in which artworks in Palestine were shaped by Persekian / Anadiel’s focus on mobility and art making in Turkey responded to Kortun / Platforms insistence on issues of class, provides a brief blueprint for how paying attention to institutional influences may lead us to a reconsideration of national art formations. Analysing the role of an art institutions administrative staff in the process of highlighting or even obfuscating particular regional histories and contemporary challenges, adds depth to this approach. One of Platform's residency artists from 2005, Minna Henriksson, created an artwork which captured I think quite nicely, how the social aspects of the art institution provided a distraction, and also obstructed her view of the actual city of Istanbul and the realities of Turkey in the early 2000s. Weekend Istanbul Map January - March 2005, the title of this work, is a rhizomatic, nonlinear and multi temporal mapping of gossip about people in the Istanbul art scene, told directly to Henriksson during her stay. The seemingly trivial exercise of writing and mapping gossip, Henriksson clarified for me, was actually response to the heavy burden a residency artist carries when expected to comment on local issues. When I spoke with her in 2007, she recalled “it is very difficult for a residency artist to do work about the city or about the political situation in Turkey, without being severely criticized by the local art scene as being ignorant, falling into clichés, or jumping in too fast superficial conclusions. So intentionally I was staying aside from that, and instead decided to make an analysis of the scene itself”. Henriksson critiqued the intense social aspects of the residency through a celebration of its features. Quite deliberately in this piece, the art institution displaced Istanbul’s geography altogether, and became in itself the terrain for the artists to interrogate.

While my current research has moved away from this epic of the 1990s that I've been talking about so far, instead focusing on early 20th century art production and Palestine, meaning from the last decades of Ottoman rule until the Nakba in 1948. My research methodology is really inflected with the questions about institutional frameworks and social networks, that I developed from these experiences at Platform and Al-Ma’mal. I wondered if it would be possible to draw a map, as Henriksson had done, of the nascent Palestinian art world around 1900 and I will share with you my very rudimentary version of this map.

Right, who was connected to whom in my research, which people, or proto institutions guided artistic production and display and to what effect?

Why did certain actors engage in supporting art and culture in Palestine, and what did they hope to gain from doing so?

Which institutions and agents would become critical actors in the narrating of Palestinian art history?

What episodes, and which relationships would be lost to a history, that unfortunately remains mired in contemporary realities of occupation and war, despite the fact that at this early juncture, that I study, there were no codified notions of Palestinian or Israeli art?

What I found is that there was no single institution through which Palestinian artists flowed in the early 20th century. Even during the British Mandate period which lasted from around 1920 to 1948, no central institutions for the study, making or display of the visual arts, manifested themselves as they did in other European colonial territories such as India and Tunisia. Annual state-sponsored salons and even counter-salons like those prominent in the recently independent Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s, had not surfaced either in Palestine. The processes by which artistic experiments transformed into common artistic practices, seemed haphazard and elusive. Looking at the Palestinian art world around 1900 rhizomatically, like Henriksson did, and with an emphasis on tracing social relationships and institutions, has eventually led me to identify people, discourses and even institutional types… crucially institutional types which contributed to the development of Palestinian art prior to the Nakba, but have often remained peripheral within history, emphasizing only watershed political events or histories that narrate Palestinian art only through individual artists.

So, I'm just going to give you an example of what I mean by that. So for instance the current literature on Palestinian art, consistently documents these very powerful, intimate portraits of Pan-Arab leaders by the Palestinian artists Zulfa al-Sa'di, which filled one of the rooms at the First National Arab Fair in Jerusalem in 1933. This is a trade fair, featuring mostly agricultural and industrial exhibits and also artwork. Now rarely included in the literature about Palestinian art however, is a historical discussion of the prevalence of trade fairs during the British Mandate, which transformed the market for artisanal wares, and kindled changes in artistic production, nor in this literature is there a specific discussion about the fact that the ArabFair, where these paintings were shown was actually staged as a direct response to the 1932 Levant Fair in Tel Aviv. Sorry, here's an image showing the opening of the First National Arab Fair and here's an image about the opening of the Arab Fair on the left from a newspaper, contrasted with an image about this Levant Fair and Tel Aviv from 1932. Which had been started by a Zionist trade organization, with the goal of becoming the first international trade fair in the Levant, their words. So the Arab Fair organizers, of the Arab Fair, saw the Levant Fair as epitomizing in the economic and cultural colonization of Palestine and summoned an internationalism of a different sort, which was Pan-Arabism, as the basis for their all-Arab trade fair. In the context of these competing trade wars therefore, the display of al-Sa'di’s portraits of Pan-Arab leaders betrayed that - not only in commerce, but also in culture and art. In the pressing of olive oil, as in the brushing of oil paints, Palestine industrial and artistic products were instrumental in establishing a new politics that aimed to sculpt economic achievement, international independence.

One can trace a longer history of trade fairs and industrial and crafts exhibitions in Palestine from one-room exhibitions hosted by Christian missionaries in Palestine in the late 1800s and early 1900s, to those assembled by British bureaucrats in the 1920s, both at home in Palestine and abroad, and finally to these explicitly political fairs organized by Zionists and Arab economic associations in the 1930s, the Arab Fair, and the Levant Fair I was just discussing. Such a survey of the trade fair over time in Palestine history, reveals how an examination of the institutional type of the fair itself, and not just al-Sa'di’s paintings alone, is crucial for understanding the development of Palestinian art prior to 1948.

So, just a brief thought or conclusion here. Most recently, I was Research Fellow in this beautiful location, in residence at Darat al Funun in Amman, Jordan. One of those institutions that popped up in the 1990s in the Middle East that I referenced earlier. While surveying the many ground-breaking events which occurred over its three decades of history, I found myself particularly moved by one. One which reminded me to always keep my eye on the institution. In 1992, Darat al Funun’s founders Suha Shoman, organised an exhibition of seven Palestinian artists. Featuring works by members of Palestines New Visions Group, during the First Intifada. The New Visions Group worked only with natural materials from the ground, such as clay, straw and minerals, as a form of protest against the importation or importing of art supplies from Israel while Palestine and Palestinians were at the time, in the midst of an uprising against Israel.

When Shoman brought their works to Darat al Funun, the institution offered the artists not only a temporary safe haven for their works, which of course was very important at this moment, but a new audience, a new geography and vitally, a new and unoccupied soil in which their artistic visions could take root, grow and eventually spread. Just as I think it would be imprudent to interpret these works and their place within Palestinian art history without considering the formative role played by the institution, Darat al Funun in their framing and dissemination. So I continue to seek to understand how Palestine's earliest modern art institutions, provided rich soil for which to grow a new artistic tradition, in a land whose identity was at the time and is never quite fixed.

Thank you so much for joining me for this talk today, I hope you enjoyed it and I hope that I will actually get to come and discuss this someday with all of you in Melbourne. Thanks very much.