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How in dealing with difficult everyday conditions the Palestinian Al Ma'mal Foundation for Contemporary Art manages convincing actions
The former trouble spots discovering the potential, "art", biennials on the fringe of the establishment enjoying their high noon, questions addressing new cultural identities, advancing mobility, as well as the questioning and changing of locations under the influence of globalization, are never-ending themes. Art on the periphery challenges metropolises, and their artists and curators try reacting with new presentation forms. Within the search for forms of representation and solutions for dealing with changing referential frameworks, a creative answer comes from Palestine, where confronting the "non-location" belongs to the daily practice. How so?
Occupation, Oslo, interim agreements and Intifada establish the coordinates within which the artists and exhibitors have to operate. Coordinates whose arbitrary nature presupposes an enormous flexibility regarding the capacity to react. Cyberspace Palestine. Already before the coming of virtual worlds, Palestinians had to learn to deal with unreal and unimaginabely extreme forms of existence. What was originally considered an disadvantage can prove to be an advantage during the course of the globalization and questioning of stable formats – an irony of fate understood by Palestine’s Al Ma'mal Foundation for Contemporary Art and transposed in its work. The most recent future project of this committed foundation can be seen as mirroring the overall social situation and results of the existing living conditions: CAMP, the Contemporary Art Museum Palestine. A museum whose goal is not only to ensure that the contemporary cultural identity of the Palestinian people receives international recognition, but also that a space be given to the disparate experiences of Palestine’s population, says Jack Persekian, initiator and director of the foundation. A museum without a permanent location – a break with expectations, guidelines, and prevailing dogmas – in keeping with the existence that it reflects.
Jack Persekian, the foundation’s director, is himself an example of questioning identity-related guidelines, and he leads our presentation astray. With his prominent black-rimmed eyeglasses, the 42-year-old looks more like a French existentialist from the Sixties. His name gives away his Armenian roots, and his style of his dress his love of detail. Only his black humor reveals that typically Palestinian character trait, used for mastering aggravated living situations. But what does typically Palestinian mean? Today the former economist is considered one of the leading contacts, promoters, and curators for new contemporary art.
The art scene in Palestine is not large. It has none of the hyped-up elegance of Beirut’s scene; it could be called the "periphery within the periphery". But over the last years, Palestine’s art scene has shown a terrific development and reached the international platform. Art apparently achieved what politics still fails to do: present itself as a partner with equal rights.
An important catalyst of this positive development is the aforementioned Al-Ma'mal Foundation, whose beginnings mark the spot where the Anadiel Gallery first stood, founded in the early Nineties by Jack Persekian. With the founding of Palestine’s first gallery, Persekian set in motion a development whose dimensions were unforeseeable then. What began as a commercially-styled gallery became the pivot and central point of Palestine’s young art scene. Economic pressures and the growing interest in Palestine beyond the clichés in the wake of the Oslo Agreement opened the door to visits and exchange programs by artists whose residencies ensured the gallery’s existence, and secured access to the international art world for local artists. The inclusion of Palestine’s Diaspora art scene, featuring artists such as Mona Hatoum, Nasser Soumi or Jumana El-Husseini, tested the internal Palestinian discourse on forms of representation, reflections on identity and modernity, the relationship to homeland, origins and history, and in doing so, developed early on as a theme the paradigms of multiple identities, long before this topic shriveled to a few empty words on the international stage.
In 1997 followed the obvious next step of an emerging development – the founding of the Al-Ma'mal Foundation. Originally set up as a loosely-ordered merging of artists, curators, and activists, today the Al-Ma'mal is a small but clearly structured art workshop with 13 board members from Palestine’s art scene, 4 board of directors, and 5 assistants. Its control center, which includes the foundation’s moderately-sized exhibition space, lies in the heart of Jerusalem’s old part of town, overseeing from there the three main programs: the Artists-in-Residence, Jerusalem Network, and Information programs. The foundation’s local and outside artists live and work in Jerusalem from 4 to 8 weeks, take part in workshops on the West Bank and in Gaza, and most importantly, participate in young people’s programs with Palestinian schools, organizations, and universities. The degree of excellence attained in the work done here is documented in the publication "Xposure," a volume of photography, published in 2001, including works by Beate Streuli, Peter Riedlinger, and Raeda Saadeh, as well as in the photo-album "Workbook," from the year 2004.
Talk of the inspiring work situation here has meanwhile spread throughout the international scene and constantly attracts more interested parties from outside, for example the artists Jananne AI-Ani, Eyse Erkmen, Ayreen Anastas and Phil Collins. Direct confrontation with the overburdened living situation inspires a corresponding intensity in the artworks, as recently shown in Collin’s dance-video-marathon installation "They Shoot Horses": the documentation of two groups of Palestinian youths dancing for an uninterrupted 18 hours until they drop – a work dealing with heroism, collapse, exploitation, and the will to survive. Through his role of curator, Persekian could expand the Jerusalem Network beyond its own boundaries, and meanwhile it not only enables young Palestinians to make the professional leap to the international art platform; it does so for other Arab artists as well. Examples of this are the 1998 Biennial of São Paulo and two exhibitions curated by Persekian – "In weiter Ferne so Nah", shown at the ifa galleries in Stuttgart and Berlin (2001-2002), and "DisOrientation" at the House of World Cultures in Berlin (2003).
But the importance of the Network for the foundation’s survival is not only of a purely financial nature. Increased limitations on the freedom of movement over the last years, resulting in a worsened access to resources, along with the stagnated peace process, have put the endurance level of the artists and the foundation’s staff to a grueling test. This further elevates the importance of the foundation’s new project, one which directs its strengths toward the future: the Contemporary Art Museum Palestine (CAMP), intended to function without a permanent location. With a traveling exhibition featuring works from the holdings of the Al-Ma'mal Foundation and Anadiel Gallery, as well as additional projects and commissions, CAMP should be presented every year, at a different international museum, with a visiting curator. During the preparatory stage for such exhibitions, an additional person or more from Palestine would participate in training programs for cultural and museum management. A circle made of representations of Palestinian contemporary culture, education, and political statements is beginning to complete itself. This is an ambitious project with multiple functions, whose existence matches an intelligent statement placed in exclamation marks – and another piece of Cyberspace Palestine. In view of the characteristics of the Palestinian identity and present state of affairs, a museum without a location is the logical inversion of the matter, and making this a reality can not take place without difficulties. But what in the Palestinian regions does not take place without difficult and unforeseen circumstances for its citizens? In response to the question of how long CAMP plans to exist as a traveling exhibition comes an answer as expected as it is consistent: "As long as we have to wait for the founding of the Palestinian State." Not too long, we hope.
Born 1974, Palestinian/German origin. Lives between Berlin, Beirut, and Ramallah. Works as cultural manager and consultant specialized in the Middle East. Writes for several publications.