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Ramallah's Art Scene Comes Home

Drive six miles north of Jerusalem and into the hills of the central West Bank and you’ll find the city of Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian National Authority and also an up-and-coming capital for contemporary art in the Middle East.

Ramallah is new to the international art scene, but interest in Palestinian art is hardly a recent phenomenon. Palestinian artists are regulars on the contemporary arts circuit, featured at the most important biennales, auction houses and museums worldwide: Venice and Art Basel, the Guggenheim and the Tate Modern, Sotheby’s and Christies. "Palestinian artists have always been included in our auctions," says Ruba Asfahani, Director of Contemporary Arab and Iranian Art at Sotheby’s. "Artists from Palestine are an intrinsic part of the contemporary art scene in the Middle East."

Take a closer look however, and it becomes clear that Palestine has been suffering from a serious cultural brain drain. Most Palestinian artists on the scene today are members of the diaspora. Those artists were born and raised in the West Bank and Gaza but left the territories for art school, fleeing Ramallah for cities like Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Paris and New York. "In the last 10 to 12 years, Palestinian artists have become more and more well known, but the artistic scene within Palestine is weak," says Mazen Qupty, a top collector of contemporary Palestinian art.

Thanks to Palestine’s tense political history, the visual arts in Palestine have long failed to gain the foothold they deserve. From 1967 until the signing to the Oslo Accords in 1993, when Palestinian cities were under military occupation, there were restrictions on arts and culture. For example, it was forbidden to paint images combining the four colors of the Palestinian flag, black, green, white, and red. "Painting a watermelon was not allowed," explains Khaled Hourani, one of Palestine’s leading artists and former Director of Fine Arts for the Palestinian Ministry of Culture.

Even after 1993 and the end of military occupation, the visual arts stalled in the territories. With the constant threat of unrest, immediate security needs superseded cultural ones. And once the Oslo Accords collapsed and the Al-Aqsa Intifada broke out in 2000, it became even more difficult for the arts to flourish. "When institutions and buildings are being destroyed left and right, what do you do about art?" says Hourani.

But today something new is happening in the Palestinian art world: instead of fleeing, artists are flocking to Palestine, and this is where Ramallah comes in.

As the intifada dragged on into the early 2000s and violence escalated, Hourani had an idea to start an academy of fine arts in Ramallah. Watching Palestinian youth picking up rocks, he wanted to give them the chance to pick up cameras and canvases instead. “I wanted to invite people to participate in the process of art and ideas,” he says. “I wanted to make Ramallah and this academy a creative center for artists and students, from here and around the world.”

In 2007, Hourani, Qupty, and a core team of Palestine’s most important artists established the International Art Academy of Palestine in Ramallah. Deep within the city, the Academy is bringing a new generation of Palestinian artists – within the territories – into the international conversation on contemporary art. "They cannot live closed-off," says Tina Sherwell, director of the Academy. "They must be part of something larger."

Four years in the running, this is just what the Academy has done. It graduated its first class in June – awarding the first six bachelor’s degrees ever by an art academy in Palestine – and it is quickly making a name for itself.

Artists and thinkers from across the world have come to teach and lecture in Ramallah, including Salvoj Zizek and John Berger, American artists Hans Haacke and Coco Fusco, and Emily Jacir and Mona Hatoum, two of the most internationally successful Palestinian artists working today. And this fall alone, students and alumnae from Ramallah participated in two of the most important arts events of the season, the prestigious FIAC contemporary art fair in Paris and the 12th Istanbul Biennale.

The mission of the Academy, however, is two-fold. It’s not only about exposing young Palestinians to what’s happening in art worldwide, but also about how contemporary visual art can affect everyday life in Palestine – how art can be an agent of social and political change.

With this in mind, Hourani recently set off on another idea for the Academy: to bring Picasso to Palestine. "This is an extremely visual culture," he says. "I wanted to see what would happen if I brought a piece of modernity – a masterpiece – to Ramallah." If Palestinians could not cross the checkpoints to see modern art, then the idea was to bring the art to them. But getting a Picasso into Palestine, across the separation border and security fence, where chaos can erupt at any moment, seemed all but impossible. "Of course people thought I was joking," Hourani says.

This past summer he proved them wrong. In partnership with the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands, and after two years of planning, the Academy exhibited the Picasso’s La Buste de Femme in Ramallah in July. It was the first contemporary masterpiece to come to the territories, and the crowds showed up.

"To see hundreds of people queued up to see Picasso, in Ramallah, from all across Palestine and the world, it was unbelievable!" Hourani says. "And for me, with all of this, it’s like I’m dropping a small stone into a silent lake, and watching the motion of the waves, the circles getting bigger and bigger and swirling around it. I’m watching the impact."

Photos courtesy of the International Art Academy of Palestine

Emily Gogolak lives in New York City. Her work appears in publications including The New York Observer, Rolling Stone Middle East, GlobalPost, and IHT/Ha'aretz. All posts »

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