Fillip 18 — Spring 2013

Events-Called-Schools: Transcript from the International Academy of Art Palestine
Oraib Toukan

Looking through photographs of student performances at the International Academy of Art Palestine, I am reminded of just how iconic an academy can become, merely through the act of documentation. Consider the much-disseminated images of Joseph Beuys and Blinky Palermo watching a performance at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1965 or Merce Cunningham, Josef Albers, or John Cage teaching at Black Mountain College. These images shift the terms of looking at an academy from the academy as an institution to the academy as an event, where an event is the conjoining of a time and place to a certain time in the history of that place.

The International Academy of Art Palestine in Ramallah is a telling example of an academy-as-event, both as an exhilarating program unfolding in the wake of Palestine’s numerous pedagogical experiments and as a product of its particular context and time. In 2003, Palestine’s early art pedagogues Nabil Anani, Suleiman Mansour, Henrik Placht, Khaled Hourani, and others went around Palestine in a van, packing nothing more than a projector, two speakers, films, books, and a whiteboard. They crossed checkpoints and boundaries and set up temporary sites of schooling in various organizations to simply converse about art today.

By 2006, the van became institutionalized into an actual academy in an alley right behind the Arab Bank in Bireh, Ramallah. An old classical house with a garden was renovated and named the International Academy of Art Palestine (referred to as the Academy from here on), since a Bachelor of Arts in Contemporary Visual Art is offered by way of mutual accreditation with the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. Although the Academy now has an active board of directors and a handful of consistent Palestine-based lecturers, it is essentially the fruit of two individuals’ daily persistence (along with four astonishingly efficient administrators): Tina Sherwell, a key scholar of art history and image studies in Palestine, and Khaled Hourani, an artist, writer, and one of the Academy’s founders.

The Academy equally relies on the momentous mass of self-funded visiting artists, academics, and curators visiting Ramallah for research purposes and/or out of a political inclination to pack in a course on their brief trip to Palestine. This situation is perhaps not entirely unlike Fatah or the PFLP1 welcoming fellow Marxists and Third Worldists in the early ’70s to collaborate with Palestinian freedom fighters to produce militant cinema, prose, and poetry. When it comes to the precise terms of contemporary practice, however, the two situations are barely comparable. Conversations among some artists in Ramallah today are in postproduction mode, that is, after the fact of making, and usually somehow linked to, or marked by, the privileges of a passing curator, critic, or artist in town.

Recent visits for example include free conversations with figures such as Slavoj Žižek, Adriano Pedrosa, who selected (then) third-year artist Bisan Abu-Eisheh for his 12th Istanbul Biennial, or Artur Żmijewski, curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale, who picked up successful alumnus Khaled Jarrar, and interestingly and ironically, the world’s largest key from Aida Refugee Camp. The key, as icon, is one of the most exhausted symbols on the right of Palestinian return. Though its use stemmed from the tragedy of generations of refugees passing down their house keys from homes they fled in 1948 following the Nakba,2 contemporary educational initiatives like the Academy are in effect seeking out the possibilities of alternative imagery to a narrative long-focused on loss and belonging. In 2008, the youth of Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem set to build the world’s largest key to qualify for a Guinness World Record to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Nakba. In 2011, Żmijewski exported the key from the gates of the camp to Kunst-Werke in Berlin for the course of the 7th Berlin Biennale. This event is perhaps just one of the many peculiarities of teaching within the fissures of universalism in contemporary art, and in a case like Palestine.

The Academy is well aware of the double-edged challenges and paradoxes of teaching in the shadow of possible semi-fictions and misrepresentations—especially those that amplify the question of what happens to students after graduation, when the shit hits the fan, and students find themselves in their studios all by themselves without such curatorial tourism. Equally polemic is the question of how these visits and their underlying power dynamics affect inter-student relationships, which have been known to inhibit non-career-related experimentation. Deconstructing notions of deskilling and amateurism would be one thing, but this academy harbours a handful of students that fought hard with society to even attend an art school, sometimes reconciling with their families only four years later, in picture-proud moments with graduation caps and diplomas. And such ordeals may also explain why one can feel that pinch of expectation among some students, the hope of streamlined professionalization—of becoming active, income-earning members in a growing, post-Oslo3 society seeking statehood from within the paradigm of global neoliberalism.

Lots of questions abound. With which aesthetic, language, discourse, and art history are Palestinian artists being professionalized, and why? What to make of students’ constant desires to address identity politics as subject matter? How is it possible to formulate an arts education that’s more interdisciplinary, without compromising the autonomy of having finally arrived at that key discursive moment in Palestine where one can speak of art and artists, alone, outside of literature and other arts? How can notions of refusal and withdrawal of the artist be introduced into an institutional context that favours production? How to equally celebrate moments of ambiguity, fragility, and indecision in a political context that we salute for its clarity and perseverance? And how to maintain an institutional memory of the fact that conceptual art unfolded over “there,” coincidentally, just as anticolonial movements were being fought over “here,” and elsewhere.

What follows therefore is a conversation among the students of the Academy about art edu­cation and its institutions. It’s a trimmed version translated from Arabic. It documents a particular moment: November 28, 2011, at 10 am. The artists present were Abdullah Awad, Asma Ghanem, Awatef Roemy, Bisan Abu Eiesheh, Ingrid Bøe, Jamal Sabri, Noor Abed, Osama Nazzal, Ramzi A’ssad, Razan Akermawy, and Taqi Alddin Sbatin. The conversation unfolded in a session I moderated at the end of one of my teaching terms at the International Academy of Art Palestine in Ramallah and as part of a series of audio-recorded sessions that document current working ideas among artists at the academy. This particular discussion was on the institution of education, the one that followed was on the critique of institutions, and an upcoming conversation will discuss definitions of the term siyasi (meaning political), often referred to in this conversation as well.

Oraib Toukan – OK, I will start by reading from a reader’s letter found in a 1969 issue of Arab Weekly magazine, addressing the legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz:

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About the Author

Oraib Toukan is an artist based in New York. From August 2013, she will be heading the Arts Division of Bard College at Al Quds University in Palestine.

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