Fillip

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:

Dear Fairuz,

I am not sure you’re literate in Arabic. But I will get straight to the point. Your songs don’t appeal to us. Your voice reminds us of the screeching of a pigeon that Abu Firas points to in one of his poems—Abu Firas, ever heard of him? That’s one of the great Arab poets. Your songs, especially the ones claiming to be nationalist, have given you wide acclaim in the Arab World. From people who’d never heard of you, to people who never wish to hear of you again, we’ve all been listening to you singing about nationalism­—“Jerusalem,” “The Bridge,” etc. These songs have been played to death. Aside from your personal fame, you’ve made a fortune, and your bank account has grown well with all this shrieking in the name of our nation, through your distant voice and distant personality. And with all your guts and glory, you have not spent a penny on the Fidayeens, on the families of the dead, on the revolution, on the refugees you sing about. Fairuz, we don’t even need your Francs or your Liras, please, we simply beg you to quit screeching for Palestine, because we love listening to the radio without having to hear your voice.

On behalf of the Palestinians,

A faithful Palestinian woman

Murmurs expressing disagreement

Bisan Abu Eiesheh – People often expect qualities from an artist that are simply not their responsibility. When Marcel Khalifeh started charging $100 per ticket for his performances, people cried out that he came to fame on the back of the Marxists and was now the ultimate bourgeois. If the guy has a three-hundred-man orchestra, surely he’s entitled to cover his expenses? Fairuz is the same. This is their livelihood, the livelihood of an artist.

Taqi Alddin Sbatin – But the letter is saying she abused the Nakba to increase her audience. Like using Palestine as bait.

Awatef Roemy – Exactly. This was written at the end of the ’60s—the criticism is that she was using Palestine in her work as an artist, but did not actually back the Palestinian resistance movement that erupted in Lebanon from ’65 onwards. But if any one of us expressed something nationalist, and it came from a personal space and not in the hope of reaching fame, then it cannot be a wrongdoing. It’s a voice that’s commenting on the very moment and its everyday context, whether it’s only reaching out to console itself, or to others who are also experiencing that very same moment.

Noor Abed – Living under occupation, politics is a reality that I live in every day, so I don’t need to make work here about politics or work that is consciously political. From the moment I wake up and wash my hands, the water pouring from the tap is political, beginning with where it came from to how it unjustly arrived to me. So I don’t see a line, demarcating x as being part of the general conflict and y not being part of it. I do somehow feel I might be abusing the Palestinian cause when I use politics as a subject matter. Because for me there are many other subjects, materials, and forms to comment on, simply as a human being, whether I live here or elsewhere.

Abdullah Awad – I agree; politics is so much part of our reality that I don’t need to put it to use in my work.

Abed – As long as you have “Nationality: Palestinian” next to the name of the artist, this in itself will skew the reading of your work toward that setting.

Osama Nazzel – But an artist will always draw from his or her environment; I would say 90 percent of all our work here at the Academy is political. Bisan encounters a military checkpoint every day en route to school, and every day he’ll feel surprised that there’s a checkpoint between two Palestinian cities so close to one another. Prisons often come up in the drawings or videos of Ramzi, based on his own experience as a prisoner. In various installations, Abdullah addresses our proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, which we cannot access. Asma has worked on the separation wall in her animations, etc. None of this necessarily comes from our sense of imagination; it’s all drawn from our immediate surroundings. But if we were artists from an independent democratic nation, living in freedom, we’d definitely resort to other subject matter.

Toukan – There’s something fundamentally wrong with human beings waking up feeling free from their political realities, wherever they live.

Eiesheh – But that situation is different from the situation here. In the West you can choose to be political. Here you have no choice; politics follows you to the door of your home.

Nazzel – I agree—and a major difference here is that to be independent we need to be “militarized.” We are in a constant state of war. So an artist here is by default part of a “military” until the day there is a nation.

Ramzi A’ssad – Even if we were to speak of love, it would be defined by politics. As Noor indicated, for me the pavement I walk down is political, this institution is political—or at least it’s part of a particular policy. When everything is political, of course my subject matter becomes politics.

Eiesheh – In the end, what matters is whether there is a level of truth to the subject matter. I’m not saying that when you’re Palestinian you have to take a specific position about being Palestinian all the time. If you refuse political work, great; make refusal your thing. Tuck politics away in a drawer and keep working apart from it all, but at the very least, be honest about this stance of withdrawal. If I make work about something I have never experienced, then I am being dishonest to myself and to my audience. At the end of the day, art is speaking about yourself, where you are, what you are thinking, about where art is heading, what is at stake, what you understood, what you researched.

Sbatin – I believe that the moment you enter a gallery, it is possible to identify a Palestinian work of art just by looking at it. Even if a tourist produced a work about Palestine...even that becomes Palestinian.

Murmurs expressing disagreement

Nazzel – An artist is part of a general populace, never separate from it. Yes, all societies are suppressed in varying degrees, but artists have a responsibility to respond to that suppression because they are “the people.”

Murmurs expressing disagreement: “not necessarily”...“nothing is a must”...“why this insistence on responsibility?”

Nazzel – Noor—for example, by letting people write on your dress in a public space, you faced the possibility, and the responsibility, that this work might lead to harassment. And you rightly went ahead with it.

Abed – Of course artists should take responsibility for decisions in their work—studying art in itself entailed a huge responsibility for many of us. But why burden ourselves with the weight of all society on top of that?

Toukan – Yes, but at the same time, we can’t ignore that some of our works end up circulating within a system of exchange, sometimes in the international art market, and often, outside of Palestine. Once we know that we’re effectively speaking to a foreign audience and another circuit that is not part of a groundbreaking political dialogue—despite the lip service they pay to it—what becomes of these gestures within that larger context? In other words, how does one deal with contemporary art’s larger reality, which is subject to various forces, namely power and capital, above and beyond the reality in which we produced the work? This is especially true with so-called “political art” here, even when it’s safely placed within social, participatory, public, or activist realms.

Eiesheh – Of course there’s a conflict there. But the question is, how much can one keep renouncing and refusing to participate in this larger system? We are all part of these institutions—there is no “outside” position; this is only an illusion. Take Andy Warhol’s factory: though he created a valid critical space for himself, he was also his own biggest authority on matters of inclusion and exclusion, on benchmarks, etc.

Toukan – Perhaps this point goes back to conversations we’ve had about how a work of art becomes “art” when someone, at a given time, within a given social order, has the power to deem it a “work of art.” And the strategies for this are, sadly, more straightforward than ever before: through ascribing vaguely institutionalized language onto a work, or through putting more effort into the curatorial statement than into the work itself, etc.

Abed – This is exactly what’s happening here in Palestine. Artists are spotting strategies that have worked for one or two successful artists and are simply replicating them. In the end, artistic representation from Palestine ends up looking hilariously similar and homogenous. It’s so easy and attractive to employ these strategies, especially when this work is selling and garnering attention.

Asma Ghanem – I think the difference is that, for me, art isn’t a “work” or a project. I play with material or footage every day of my life, and something may or may not come out of it. I don’t start from an idea.

Eiesheh – Most of my work is a reflection of personal experiences, of questions I don’t understand, questions I want to understand.

Razan Akermawy – My starting point is an art historical one. I like to know what other artists have done that I can build on. I can’t claim that I come from a reading culture—reading is new for me—and I am finally enjoying that as a space to start work from. I definitely get excited when I see things coinciding with my own work. They lead me to what will eventually become of the work. I don’t think of older works as finished, either. I still reflect on older works all the time, I build on them, and they may become my new work in turn.

Sbatin – My starting point is repetition. Repetition, repetition, repetition, and looking for coincidental differences.

Roemy – I think I’m more reactive than that. Most of my work comes from a space of reacting to an event, an experience, a place.

Nazzel – I’m similar, but my reaction is a place of refusal, one that uses art to communicate a refusal of oppression.

Awad – For me, it’s definitely fiddling around with a technique and enjoying it when it works. I start thinking about a work only after I’m finished with it.

Toukan – A question for the fourth years and graduates: Do any of you feel there were specific skills that you came to the Academy for, but you never got...be it casting, printmaking, or editing? How “skilled” do you feel as you’re leaving this place?

Nazzel – I came thinking that here I could develop a technique in cartoon drawing. Instead, I found that the focus is on contemporary art, and that is probably why this Academy was even created.

Ghanem – Drawing is contemporary.

Nazzel – Everything can be contemporary. And drawing as a skill is something I would have liked to have seen more of here.

Abed – I’ve personally never waited around to get skills from someone. I experiment independently. What I do think is needed is more theory, especially since they’re admitting new students, nineteen years of age, who think that art is only about one’s emotions and subjectivities. We need theory that can be applied, and to explore our own relationship to our work.

Akermawy – The problem is that we get visiting faculty who spend a month over here, we get along, we understand each other, and then boom, suddenly the relationship is cut when they leave, until we get another faculty member who works in an entirely different way. There’s no continuity.

Eiesheh – I don’t feel any academy’s purpose is to teach you how to draw. Nor is it the responsibility of an academy to ensure that you graduate to become a practicing artist, even after four years of training. An academy should merely make you think. As for the lack of theory, what’s this very discussion then, or the visiting lecture series? This is all part of theory, and we do apply these ideas to our work.

Nazzel – I don’t think it’s interesting to praise, or critique, this particular academy. Let’s look at the situation before this academy. And let’s specifically look at entering students. As Noor said, some are straight out of high school and find themselves in an entirely new context; others already have diplomas from vocational art academies elsewhere, others are practicing artists already. All three feed into one system of learning. I can imagine this reality is really challenging to coordinate.

Roemy – So, in sum, there are different abilities, different credentials, different classes, different cultures, entering a place that has its own culture of teaching and learning, and its own set of social norms and practices. Some know how to assimilate, and do well, others definitely don’t.

Toukan – Do you actually like this interdisciplinary format, or would you have preferred to graduate within single discipline areas?

A’ssad – I think there should be a clearer system of grading, somewhere along the line.

Murmurs expressing disagreement: “How the hell do you grade art?”

A’ssad – I mean Palestinian art history exams, for example, or global art history.

Roemy – If I had wanted this kind of approach, I’d have gone to one of the universities here.

A’ssad – Then maybe some kind of more systematic grading, as I feel the artist’s agency becomes unclear when it comes to juries or crits.

Toukan – Do any of you look at fine art departments at, say, Al-Quds or An-Najah, smell the turpentine or the clay, and yearn for “the Academy” in its classic sense?

Eiesheh – Yes, but then again I know this image is purely aesthetic—it’s just an image from the outside in, of another institution.

Sbatin – A student at one of those schools can discuss acrylic versus oil paint for hours, or depth and landscape, etc. Here we are stuffed to the brim with critical thinking, criticism, or discussions such as, “What is art?” This is totally different. So, for me, yes, I do yearn for being around a school that smells like an academy, but I don’t yearn for the conversations that take place there.

Eiesheh – Generally, as artists today, we’ve been liberated in the sense that we can think and conceptualize as artists, while someone else can fabricate and implement the work itself, so I don’t really need to learn every technique that’s out there.

Toukan – What about English language skills? Isn’t the English language a prerequisite to entering the contemporary art circuit in general, including this very academy?

Sbatin – One absolutely needs the English language here. Most of our tutorials and studio visits are by people who speak English, and if I am to take their one-on-one advice, I need to know what the hell they’re saying. I also need English to explain my work. Even if someone is translating my ideas, they don’t quite understand my work well enough to translate properly. The Academy took note of this and brought us someone to teach key terms and definitions in contemporary art. I was among the lazy ones who never bothered to attend these sessions, but four years on, I’ve picked up enough from just going to art school.

Abed – Many object that we, as Arabs in an Arabic context, privilege the English language here at the Academy. The fact of the matter is that, so far, we are predominantly funded from abroad, many of our teachers are foreign faculty, and, what’s more, in the end I want to learn the English language for myself. Art is one of those practices where work is constantly moving—you need to know how to speak about it, how to write about it, how to present it in other places, but in one and the same language—and it so happens to be English.

A’ssad – I have a big problem with the kind of white supremacy being highlighted here; it’s evidence of an inferiority complex. Take Suleiman Mansour’s painting Jamal Al Mahamel (The bearer of burdens) (1973). It has travelled the world, literally and figuratively, and it did not need the English language to get this far. Art does not need a language to produce its deepest impact or effect on people. Moreover, I shouldn’t need to keep explaining and contextualizing my work; it speaks for itself.

Sbatin – Think about it: if you have two artists of the same exact calibre, the one who speaks English is more likely to succeed, without a doubt.

Eiesheh – Or think of the Orientalists. They did not come to the East merely to learn Arabic, but also to further their knowledge about the context. Similarly, Arab artists in the modern period went to Germany to read critical theory, and artists like Samir Salameh went to Paris to understand French theory. We’re well aware of the postcolonial connotations here, but they do not mean you can refuse English altogether. An artist is part of an intellectual circuit. If artists here can’t see how much they’re catering to Orientalism and capitalism, then they’re not artists. I’m not talking about being a good or a bad artist. I mean that in such a case you’re not an artist in the wider cultural significance of the term.

Toukan – Do you ever feel that the neoliberal agenda is tied to the kind of education we are seeking, the kind of works we reference here at the Academy, the publishing houses we access, and more importantly, the pushing of contemporary strategies onto students? Are these references getting violently all-too-similar everywhere?

Eiesheh – Contemporary art is not a monster. It’s a product of a historical moment. Looking at contemporary art today is a matter of development: Arab culture is not producing new culture, it’s consuming cultures. We are at a place now where we can either continue to look at the West in hegemonic terms or look at it as an opportunity. But I think the terms under which we are producing work is the issue. The funding parameters are dictating the work we are making. Leading curators come here and we follow them, not the other way round. We have artistic productions being funded by Epson. Though theatre productions here are written by great Arab playwrights, they have huge logos of European cultural centres on them. It’s a matter of wearing down our own identity. We might as well be wearing Nike or Tommy Hilfiger products made in China.

Toukan – But then what do we all mean by “contemporary art” in this conversation?

Ingrid Bøe – It’s difficult to say, because it’s a very context-specific term. It’s something that both knows and rejects its own context.

Awad – Contemporary art is an art that has only one rule, namely that you know what you’re doing with it.

Akermawy – For me, contemporary art is the overproduction of knowledge.

Abed – We can define the word “contemporary,” but I can’t honestly define the word “art.” I think contemporary is a very smart word because it suggests an immortality by virtue of its continued use. What’s more, I cannot see it as separated from the larger enterprise of capitalism. For instance, from the outset the Academy lets us borrow Apple laptops.

Eiesheh – Contemporary art only feels like it’s without boundaries in comparison to the older rules of impressionism, expressionism, etc.

Ghanem – I find it difficult to speak in these terms, as art is being defined somewhere else anyway. I don’t think along the lines of such definitions.

Toukan – Much of what’s being said goes back to the word “indeterminate,” which we tried to translate last week. It’s that “neither here nor there” syndrome.

Eiesheh – Linguistically speaking, there’s something off with the term “contemporary” ( in Arabic). The translation doesn’t work when you think of the specific meaning of time that’s implied in the word. Or consider how we’re now accustomed to using the words “Palestine Conflict” when it’s not a conflict at all. It’s an occupation. It’s frustrating to use a term that went from being imposed to becoming the norm.

Akermawy – The problem is, there are technologies associated with contemporary art, like Macs, but we’re now like the workers who can’t afford what we are producing.

Abed – Who convinced you that you needed a Mac? “Necessity” is key here. They made you think a Mac was necessary.

Nazzel – It’s like swine flu. Promoting a demand for a vaccine they produced, which they then called necessary.

Sbatin – It’s like someone giving you an apple along with a knife.

This conversation was translated by Oraib Toukan and initially published in Red Hook Journal, an online publication of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. This text is the third in a series of translations coproduced by Fillip and Red Hook Journal. Thanks to Tina Sherwell for helping to organize this discussion and for her consistent, critical, and self-reflexive conversations on schooling.

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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