By Catherine Wilson – London
The 53rd Biennale of Venice, an international art exhibition and gathering of the global art world which has occurred in Italy every two years since 1895, opened on 7 June. This year the theme is Making Worlds, both worlds of today and worlds of tomorrow. According to Director, Daniel Birnbaum, ‘a work of art represents a vision of the world and if taken seriously it can be seen as a way of making a world.’ This year the program includes the first exhibition of Palestinian art, Palestine c/o Venice, in the Biennale’s history. Incorporating the diverse work and perspectives of Khalil Rabah, Jawad Al Malhi, Emily Jacir, Taysir Batniji, Shadi HabibAllah, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, it is a tribute to the achievements and vision of Palestinian artists, whether based in the occupied territories or diaspora, who have tenaciously employed creativity in their lives and work, and forged positive and productive avenues of exchange with artists and arts organizations around the world.
Jawad Al Malhi, one of the exhibiting artists, lives and works in Shufat Refugee Camp on the north eastern edge of Jerusalem, and it was here that I visited him a few weeks before the exhibition opened.
Al Malhi’s family were displaced from their village, Al Malha, located southwest of Jerusalem, during the Al-Nakba of 1948 and subsequently moved to Mu’skar camp in the Old City of Jerusalem. In 1966, the family were uprooted again to Shufat Refugee Camp, which was established in East Jerusalem in 1965 by the Jordanian Government and UNRWA. It was to potentially improve on the deteriorating living conditions in the Old City. However, the Six Day War of 1967 with invasion and occupation of the West Bank by Israel further accelerated the removal of Palestinians to the city’s periphery. According to UNRWA there are 11,066 registered refugees in a camp area of 203 dunums or 0.2 sq km, although unofficial estimates put the total population as high as 20,000.
Entering Shufat camp involves negotiating a narrow and often congested checkpoint on the perimeter. While Israel claims this is necessary for security reasons, it explicitly impedes critical access between this community and surrounding centers of employment and public services. The continuing construction of the separation or ‘apartheid wall’ by Israel, which will form a concrete barrier between Shufat and downtown Jerusalem, has already been accompanied by a marked rise in unemployment in the camp.
Jawad Al Malhi was born in Shufat camp in 1969, where he has lived all his life. His home is a few hundred metres from the checkpoint, which he negotiates up to six times per day, whether to make a medical appointment or collect his children from school.
Quietly spoken, Al Malhi articulated how the difficulty of gaining access to a government school in early years informed a growing awareness of how occupation was shaping the trajectory of Palestinian lives: “From the age of ten, questions came to me. What does it mean to be in this project [refugee camp]? What is the difference between refugees and people living in towns? What is the different mentality?”
Toward the end of the 1980s, he started painting prolifically. Figurative and realist, these early works focused on the day to day lives of individuals in his community, conveying a sense of the collective solidarity amongst his fellow neighbors. His subjects were ordinary Palestinians, men, women and children as they strove to sustain their lives under the oppression of occupation. The artist refused to accept refugee camp life as an unquestionable fate. “At that time, I tried to document everything and show this is not a normal situation, and it should be changed as soon as possible,” he explained.
Since then, Al Malhi has used painting, mixed media, installation, photography and video to explore and activate greater local and international awareness of lives that have been arrested in an artificial time warp. On the floor of his home, the artist rolled out a long photographic print, a vast panoramic view of the refugee camp taken from surrounding hills. The large scale of this image, entitled House No. 197, which presents a scene of crowded dwellings, draws the viewer into a dense and overwhelming labyrinthine world. The image was taken during winter, when severe temperatures and rain leave stains of dampness on the buildings. This is the most critical time of year for people living in the camp. Al Malhi described: “the winters are very cold, and there are no services, no power. When it is really raining, the people make holes to let the water pass from house to house, because all the drainage will come up.”
Noticeably this view of a residential area does not include people. The artist explained he did not want to portray the victim, only the reality of a world where occupation has distorted ideas of normality for three generations of Palestinians. The first generation remember their villages and ancestry. “The second generation, maybe I am one of them, were more interested in education and to better themselves. And then the third generation, after the First Intifada and Second Intifada, have no chance to be sure which direction they want to follow,” explained Al Malhi. In the continuing and hardening grip of occupation, they see no clear possibilities of a life beyond the refugee camp. “The new generation think and believe this is their home. The old generation still believe it is a station,” he said.
This reality is reflected in the precarious vertical development of housing. Residents embark on building another storey above their existing house as a new generation matures and families expand. Now, in the camp at street level, according to the artist, “there are more shadows because it is not easy for the sun to enter down between the buildings, because the buildings grow upwards like trees.”
The paradox between the purpose of a refugee camp as temporary, provisional housing, pending a more permanent, stable settlement, and the reality of lives indefinitely suspended in an endless cycle of waiting, is explored in the artist’s video, The Gas Station, 2009. The focus of the video is a pre-fabricated cabin and gas pump at the gas station in Shufat. As the hours pass, and day turns to night, everyday encounters, events and routines unfold in one microcosm of camp life where time changes, but crucially the view does not.
The artist attempts through his artworks to motivate the people in his community to engage with different ways of thinking about the future. In the wider international context, “I want the audience to be witness about the fact that still, after 63 years, people are living with this situation,” he continued.
In Al Malhi’s opinion: “Resistance is to make modern life, to make something different for yourself and for another, the resistance to be living in this time with this complicated situation…..I believe in art for life and art for people.”
He added: “To try to share and to learn from people how to use art, and sometimes help them to use their time in different ways. That is another resistance.” Al Malhi is a committed art teacher and has devised and implemented visual art programs for children in Jerusalem and the West Bank. He is also founder of The Open Studio, an artists’ organization that develops collaborations between artists and local communities.
Al Malhi is one of a core group of dedicated Palestinian artists living and working in the West Bank today. This is in defiance of the colonial Israeli occupation and absence of a major infrastructure of galleries, museums, art education institutions and funding bodies.
As Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, Director of the Culture and Arts Programme at the A.M. Qattan Foundation in Ramallah said: “we are not a state, we don’t have a government, we don’t have money to strategically plan. We don’t have national strategic plans for culture and for developing culture and developing arts.” Nevertheless, he strongly believes that Palestinian artists and creative individuals will make an invaluable contribution to the future: “Creators and artists are the most capable people, individuals, to reproduce, to recreate and reshape the Palestinian image and identity, a new identity and new aspirations. We have more awareness among people about the importance of culture and arts. Palestine is now contributing to the international scene with artists and writers and artworks and films.”
Jawad Al Malhi has participated in exhibitions at the Al Hoash Gallery, the Palestinian National Theatre and Gallery Anadiel in Jerusalem, as well as cultural centers in Jericho and Nazareth. Internationally, his work has been shown at the ARC Museum in Japan, United Nations Gallery, New York, the 1997 Turin Biennial, the Cite Internationale des Arts, Paris, in 2000 and the 9th Sharjah Biennial in 2009.
Defying the marginal fate ascribed by an unjust and indefensible occupation of the West Bank, ordinary Palestinians, such as Jawad, have demonstrated what can be achieved with creative action, a sense of vision and courage to think of a better future.
(Palestine c/o Venice at the 53rd Biennale of Venice is open until 30 September 2009. Visit: www.palestinecoveniceb09.org)
– Catherine Wilson, BFA(Hons), Dip World Art is a writer and editor who has written about contemporary world art and culture, and art and society, for international titles, including Art Asia Pacific, Artlink, Art & Australia, a-n Magazine and The Oxford Times newspaper, and contributed essays to museum and gallery publications. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.