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Establishing a Palestinian presence at the 2022 Venice Biennale

Nameer Qassim, “Enough”, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 100x100 cm [Courtesy of The Palestinian Museum US]
Nameer Qassim, “Enough”, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 100x100 cm [Courtesy of The Palestinian Museum US]

At the very centre of Palazzo Mora, an old Venetian building, I stepped across the front yard and then through rooms where workers were still setting up artworks from parallel shows, in preparation for the 2022 Venice Art Biennale running from 23 April to 27 November 2022. Finally, I found what I was looking for. A little taste of Palestine in the heart of this iconic Italian city.

Curated by Nancy Nesvet, head curator at the Palestine Museum in the US, the exhibition "From Palestine With Art" features 19 Palestinian artists from Palestine and across the diaspora.

Visitors are welcomed by artfully-stained curtains realised by Samar Hussaini. This is a strong first impression alongside the music; traditional Palestinian tunes ease visitors into the space and work at a subconscious level.

Palestinian portraits, 2022, by Jacqueline Bejani. Acrylic on canvas

Palestinian portraits, 2022, by Jacqueline Bejani. Acrylic on canvas
[Courtesy of The Palestinian Museum US]

Looking around the room, you see an olive tree and several paintings that hit you with their joyous colours, intense photographic pieces, sculptures and installations hanging from the walls. It's all a heartfelt puzzle reflecting the country itself.

As I stepped carefully on a historic map of Palestine covering the gallery floor, a man dressed in red sitting on a bench in the centre of the room told me, "You can walk on it, you know!" That's how I met Faisal Saleh, a former businessman and now director of the Palestinian Museum in the US. He organised the show.

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The floor piece, he explained, is an 1877 map produced by cartographer and historian Salman Abu-Sitta, who has mapped his country. "The significance of this map is that it shows Palestine before Zionism. There is not a single settlement on it; it's the land as pure as it was. It's the Palestine that Palestinians belong to, from the river to the sea. This is a very strong statement that the Palestinians are not willing to give up their land."

It doesn't take much to notice how political this show is. And it couldn't be anything else, given that the Venice Biennale, the biggest event in the art world, has never had a Palestinian pavilion in its entire 125-year history. Only in 2003 did Biennale curator Francesco Bonami foreshadow the possibility of a Palestinian Pavilion, but amidst sadly predictable accusations of "anti-Semitism", this didn't happen.

In 2009, though, the Biennale hosted an all-Palestinian collateral show called "Salwa Mikdadi's Palestine c/o Venice", addressing the Palestinian diaspora and the ongoing Nakba (Catastrophe). Later on, occasional Palestinian participation was seen in Venice, but never cohesively, and always affiliated with other countries.

 

"This is the strongest Palestinian presentation ever," said Saleh. "In the past, there were individual projects up to seven artists, but this one, in terms of the size, and the boldness of its pieces, is a very significant, strong presentation. I think this is going to have a very big impact and get the Palestinian name out in a big way."

Along with the artworks, there are also traditional pieces, like two-hundred-year old dresses embroidered ever so finely. The artists are from different generations and are a mix of the established and emerging. This, said Faisal Saleh, is deliberate. "We wanted to give the young and rising Palestinian artists the chance to participate and be inspired because participating in the biggest art event is very inspiring. It changes their life in a way."

'Woman Carries the Weight of our Past and our Future', 2017, by Nadia Irshaid Gilbert.

'Woman Carries the Weight of our Past and our Future', 2017, by Nadia Irshaid Gilbert.

Abstract and figurative work are displayed side by side. The warmth of the flames by leading Palestinian artist Samia Halaby in the abstract canvas "Venetian Red" is welcoming next to the canvas by young artist Jacqueline Bejani, who decided to celebrate leading Palestinian figures in literature and the arts by depicting their faces.

The show's mission is in line with the US Palestinian Museum's vision to tell the Palestinian story through art. Founded by Saleh only four years ago, it is located in Woodbridge, Connecticut. "There weren't any museums about Palestine in the Western hemisphere," he pointed out, "where the vacuum for Palestinian artists to show their work cohesively and consistently could be filled."

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There are a number of captivating symbols in the show, some that are tied very straightforwardly to the shared Palestinian imagery, such as the olive tree, a symbol of the attachment of Palestinians to their land and their rights. The keys hanging from the branches of the olive tree in the centre of the room are actual keys kept by Palestinians when they locked their doors during the 1948 ethnic cleansing known as the Nakba. "They thought they were coming back in a couple of weeks, or one month, or two months, but as we know, no one was allowed to return. Here the keys represent the right to return for Palestinians."

Just above the olive tree, there is a large painting by renowned artist Nabil Anani, who painted a beautiful landscape devoid of any of the barriers that are ubiquitous in today's occupied Palestine. The devasted land is depicted in smaller paintings by other artists in the show, juxtaposing the ideal with the reality.

"That's what the Israelis do to the beauty of the Palestinian land," remarked Saleh. "They build settlements, they destroy the environment, they kick the people out and they create apartheid structures. The message here is that the beauty of Palestine needs to be preserved."

Nabil Anani, "In Pursuit of Utopia #7", 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 138x300 cm

Nabil Anani, "In Pursuit of Utopia #7", 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 138×300 cm
[Courtesy of The Palestinian Museum US]

Anani's painting signifies the strength of artists, who are able to rise beyond the confinement of reality to see liveliness beyond the struggle. That's the sensation that the exhibition wants to convey; a sensation of expansion rather than contraction, of liveliness and hope.

One of the most evocative works in the show is by a young artist, Ibrahim Alazza; it is a wrapped keffiyeh hanging through barbed wire from the ceiling. Inside the wrapping are a number of transcripts of Palestinian oral histories about the Nakba. It's a strong reminder that memories are all that remain for people who lost everything.

"Art allows us to penetrate the obstacles that normally exist for Palestine to be heard," Faisal Saleh pointed out. "So the art can open these doors for us and allow us to communicate with people and tell them a little bit about our story."

He shows me a video on his phone of the reaction of some Palestinians coming in early to visit the exhibition, and being on the verge of tears when entering the room.

"There was an immediate recognition of belonging, and a sense of being really proud to be here, finally. We want to show the world that Palestinian art is just as good, if not better, than the best art in the Biennale. People have been very impressed so far."

I can understand why.

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