An exhibition dedicated to Palestinian art will be part of the 2022 Venice Biennale

Although there may not be a Palestinian pavilion at the Venice Biennale, over the years many artists and curators have worked – sometimes, despite controversy or censorship – to establish a Palestinian presence at most great artistic event in the world.

For the 59th International Art Exhibition, which runs from April to November this year, the Palestine Museum US will continue these efforts through an exhibition dedicated to Palestinian art and artists. Based in Connecticut, the museum is a non-profit organization focused on showcasing art from Palestinians in the territories and the diaspora.

Titled From Palestine with Art, the exhibition will feature works by 19 artists, some of whom continue to live in the country, in cities and towns including Gaza, Haifa, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Other artists live in the United States, Jordan and Kuwait.

Notable names such as Samia Halaby and Nabil Anani are among the participating artists, some of whom will present new works especially for the event. Scheduled to open in a 560 square foot space in the Palazzo Mora, the exhibition will feature paintings, photographs, sculptures and installations, with a historical map of Palestine covering the gallery floor and a standing olive tree in the center.

Additionally, items of Palestinian cultural heritage, such as embroidery, recorded music and oral histories, will also be on display.

“Our mission is not political,” said American founder of the Palestine Museum, Faisal Saleh. “It is an effort of humanization. I wanted to create a museum that will showcase Palestinian artistic excellence and provide a voice for Palestinians to talk to, through the arts,” he explains.

He established the museum in 2018 after living in the United States for nearly five decades as a businessman. “At some point, I realized that I hadn’t really done anything for Palestine,” he says. “I became very interested in contributing to the Palestinian cause and people, my people.”

Since its opening, the Palestine Museum US has established a program of exhibitions, artist talks and workshops, including a recent exhibition on art and poetry. Saleh is working with the museum’s chief curator, Nancy Nesvet, to organize the exhibitions, including the upcoming exhibition in Venice.

We want to tell the Palestinian story through the arts, which are an effective means of communication rather than political bickering

Faisal Saleh, founder of the Palestine Museum US

He is keen to bring more Palestinian artists onto the international art scene. “We expect Palestinian art to get a boost after the Venice Biennale and collectors will seek out more Palestinian artists,” Saleh said.

From Palestine with Art has been selected as one of the biennale’s official side events, a name for projects and exhibitions that have been admitted to the program by the art biennale’s curator, Cecilia Alemani.

It is part of a long line of projects and initiatives around Palestinian art at the Biennale. In 2009, the groundbreaking exhibition Palestine c/o Venice became the first collateral event on Palestinian art to be presented at the Biennale since its inception in 1895.

Curated by Salwa Mikdadi, it explored what she called “chronic impermanence” and how Palestinian art practitioners have struggled with representation and essentialism in the media. “It was important to have official representation because Palestine is not recognized as a nation state [by the Italian government] and cannot have a national pavilion at the Biennale,” she recalls.

An expert in the history of modern and contemporary Arab art and professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, Mikdadi has brought together artists Alessandro Petti, Emily Jacir, Jawad Al Malhi, Khalil Rabah, Sandi Hilal, Shadi Habib Allah and Taysir Batniji for the exhibition.

“The central idea of ​​the exhibition was to look at how artists reacted to their environment and their own government bodies as citizens, not necessarily a response to the apartheid wall,” she explains. “We have the right to think beyond Israeli actions, and I wanted to see what artists are working on within their own communities.”

Additionally, she has also coordinated with five Palestinian institutions to showcase duplicate artworks in Palestine.

In 2003, Francesco Bonami, the curator of the 50th Biennale, proposed the inclusion of a Palestinian pavilion on the board. He was met with criticism and allegations of anti-Semitism in a local Venetian newspaper the next day.

Times have changed since then, and curators and artists have continually paved the way for Palestinian art to find its place on the international art scene. Among them, Bashir Makhoul and Aissa Deebi, who exhibited their works at the 55th Biennale in 2013 with the support of The Palestinian Art Court – Al Hoash, The Mosaic Room and AM Qattan Foundation.

More recently, Larissa Sansour represented Palestine at the Danish pavilion in 2019 and architects Elias and Yousef Anastas, founders of the architectural firm Aau Anastas, presented their work All purpose at the Venice Architecture Biennale last year.

Still from the movie

Mikdadi believes that the importance of national pavilions will continue to decline over the years as notions of state representation become more nuanced and layered in a globalized world. Instead, the focus will be on the artists and their ideas rather than the nations to which they belong. “I see more Palestinian artists exhibiting alongside international artists. These national pavilions will slowly disappear, and even now there is more emphasis on the exhibition held at the Arsenale,” she says.

Now in 2022, From Palestine with Art includes a roster of established and emerging practitioners, from Mohammed Alhaj, Sana Farah Bishara, Rania Matar, Mohamed Khalil and Nameer Qassim to Ghassan Abulaban, Jacqueline Bejani, Ibrahim Alazza and Hanan Awad, among others.

Perhaps influenced by his background in business, one of Saleh’s goals behind the museum and its initiatives is to develop the market for Palestinian art. “Many Palestinian artists live in difficult economic conditions, especially those in Gaza and the West Bank. Their ability to sell works periodically is very important to them, so the museum would like to be of service to them,” he says, also clarifying that the museum will not solicit commissions and will maintain its non-profit status.

Established in 2018, the Palestine Museum US is located in Woodbridge, Connecticut.  Photo: Palestine Museum USA

Side events at the Venice Salon do not receive financial support from Biennale organizers, so the Palestine Museum US is currently raising $280,000 in funds from private donors to bring the show to Italy. A number of canvases are already on the way, and Saleh and Nesvet will travel to Venice for the installation.

Palestinian art exists as a form of active and creative resistance. For Saleh, he hopes that the exhibition at the Biennale will allow art to assert itself on its own merits and aesthetics, a goal shared with Palestine c/o Venice.

“There are a lot of people doing political work, but our mission is to show Palestinian art to the world. We want to tell the Palestinian story through the arts, which are an effective means of communication rather than political bickering,” Saleh explains.

“Palestinian artists produce excellent work under harsh conditions, including bombardments… We want the artwork to speak, like any other artwork from elsewhere. We Palestinians are human, like everyone else. We have artists, poets, writers. We are no different. We are human beings, we are entitled to human rights and we must be treated humanely. We implore the world to recognize this,” he says.

Updated: 02 March 2022, 14:29

James C. Tibbs