Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Standing in Solidarity: how art can overcome occupation


By Myriam Purtscher - October 08, 2018
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Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [artist] [culture]

A wire fence snakes down through the mountainous terrain, slicing through land now separated by war. On one side, the houses within the main village of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, Majdal Shams, cluster together, with all neighbours living in close proximity to each other. On the other side, the barren border mountain range is Syria, sparsely dotted with farms.   

When Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, more than 100,000 Golan residents fled to Syria. The contested region was then fully annexed by Israel in 1981.
 
Those who fled are separated from relatives by a 200m-wide valley, a fence consisting of coils of razor wire and minefields still not cleared after the war. In a time before the Internet and mobile phones, separated families could only shout to each other from atop the hills near the segregation fence, spreading news of loved ones or deaths.
 
For the first time, Qalandia International included a tour led by Golan artist Wael Tarabeh to Majdal Shams in the occupied Golan Heights, visiting several sites which have solidarity significance and galleries.
 
The separation fence might have carved a physical barrier through the land, but not the hearts and minds of the Golan artists, which the Qalandia International biennial art festival is showcasing this year.
 
Beneath the banner of 'Solidarity’, Qalandia International seeks to connect regions locally and internationally with over 70 exhibitions to be featured within the month of October.
 
Qalandiya International was founded in 2012 as a joint contemporary art event that takes place every two years across Palestinian cities and villages.
 
Not only art from regions under occupation; like Golan, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem and the West Bank will be on display, but also from Israel and internationally, with collateral events taking place in Germany, UK, US, Qatar and South Africa. Their aim is to form a connective tissue of solidarity between Palestine and the world, with art as the catalyst.
 
Deputy Director General at AM Qattan Foundation, Fida Touma,  kicked off Qalandia International with a press conference at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah, welcoming the nine foundations who created this year’s festival.
 
“What started as an ambitious idea in 2012 by four organisations, is now an international biennale carrying our initial goal of celebrating and showcasing visual art of Palestine to the world, and receiving these of the world in Palestine,” Touma said.
 
Discussing the theme of 'solidarity’, Touma wanted to stress they were not looking for definitions of the theme, just expressions of what it means in today’s political climate.
 
“The Qalandia International revolves around this broad theme…which is based on our discussions of what we want to dig deeper into and what is of immediate concern to us as cultural practitioners in Palestine,” Touma continued.
 
“What does Solidarity mean in our current reality? How is it manifesting today? What does that say about our current state of affairs locally regionally and internationally?”
 
In Palestine, the idea of solidarity remains a slogan for the struggle towards liberation and connection to the increasingly fragmented areas now under Israeli occupation.
 
Group exhibit 'The Fourth Line’ by 16 Syrian artists from Golan Heights opens Monday night at the Goethe-Institut in Ramallah.
 
Syrian artist Shani (name changed), who grew up in the Golan Heights village of Majdal Shams. Born in 1982, she is part of a family separated during the war and would often shout to her Aunt living on the Syrian side. Shani studied art in Damascus and now has a studio in Ramallah. She is the personification of how separation can be overcome through art.
 
Shani explained how, although artists have been displayed in galleries in Ramallah previously as part of Qalandia International, this was the first year the festival had visited the Golan Heights region.
 
“It is very important to be part of Qalandia International and to come here,” Shani explained to Palestine Monitor.
 
She described how the long distance from the West Bank makes Golan artists feel separated.
 
“To have this here [in Golan], you feel there is solidarity with Palestine.”
 
Mixed-media artist Akram Halabi, who currently lives in Vienna, stands in front of his work at the opening night of his exhibit.
 
Akram Halabi, who’s opening exhibit for his mixed-media piece named Snowflakes was showcased at the Golan Heights Fateh Al Mudares Centre for Culture and Arts during the opening week of the festival. Standing in the home-turned-gallery space, Halabi explained how he believes Qalandia International is a great conduit for Golanese artists to be seen.
 
“I think there is not so many options for us to move and to present our works here,” Halabi told Palestine Monitor.
 
“So in Palestine there is a space [that] is open for us to present. I think it is important for us to make contact and communication to Palestinian artworks and artists,” Halabi continued.
 
“But, I think there is a self-questioning which we need to do, and art is playing an important part for us, to communicate with people more. Show a different side to what’s in the media… people often think of apples when they talk about Golan Heights, but there is also art.”
 
Reflected within this idea of showing a new version of reality through art, Shareef Sarhan, curator of the exhibits held at Eltiqa & Shababek Gallery in Gaza for Qalandia International, spoke over the phone with Palestine Monitor about how they use art to combat the perpetual images of poverty and war in Gaza.
 
“All people outside of Palestine; the international community, Arab community, and the media, just see Gaza as war, but never see Gazan life,” Sarhan said, as the background racket began to drown out the conversation. Sarhan laughed at the noise, “You’re in Gaza now!”
 
For this year’s Qalandia International, 17 artists exhibited in Gaza using mediums such as painting, sculpture, installation and digital art.
 
“Through this [exhibition] we make a connection with the artists and their community,” Sarhan continued.
 
Sarhan described how their art attempts to establish international solidarity with the Palestinian cause and how the Qalandia International platform will help to change the global idea of what life is like in Gaza.
 
“We are [trying to use] our art to see another face to Gaza – not necessarily politics, but how the fishermen live, how the worker, how the teacher, mothers [and] students in university all live.”
Qalandia International runs until October 31. 

Lead image: Outside the Fateh Al Mudares Art Centre in Golan Heights.

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