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Canvassing for Art

Four years after its launch, ArtSchool Palestine has now become a significant movement by forging creative paths for Palestinian artists and art. AW follows along.

The significance of an organization such as the ArtSchool Palestine cannot be fully comprehended unless one understands the context that has led to its emergence – the centuries of exclusion of Palestinian artists and art from the mainstream art world, creating an underexplored, undervalued and unrecognized art scene in the country.

Although Palestinian artists are recognised as some of the most influential in the Arab world, their opportunities to exhibit are restricted by the political circumstances prevailing in their country. The constant threat of Israeli military incursions, which often involve the destroying and ransacking of art exhibitions, cultural centres, schools and the homes of artists and cultural workers, is the reality of artists in Palestine, much like the rest of the citizens.

For many artists, who still stand their ground, literally, in their struggle for an independent home, this reality remains an important source of inspiration. As such, a great deal of the narratives explored in contemporary Palestinian art and visual cultures are derived from the realities of post Nakba (Catastrophe) Palestine.

However, there is no pathetic obsession with the subject as critics would like to believe. Palestine artists exhibit high levels of creativity and their works are vivid and vibrant. Despite this, they don't receive the kind of representation due to them in art institutions, galleries and cultural centres in the Middle East, and the rest of the world. Besides the absence of critical discourse about artworks – this is true of not just Palestine but the whole of Arab World in general – there is a real setback for any sort of artistic development. Arts criticism is not a known field and is not taught at any of the universities in Palestine, therefore anything written about art doesn't go beyond description.

Given these dire circumstances, the significance of the Art School Palestine becomes even more apparent, as it facilitates a structure and base for the development and promotion of contemporary Palestinian art. AW caught up with the Director and Co-Founder of the organisation, Samar Martha, at the recently concluded Art Dubai 2009 to find out more about her passion for her work and this creative venture.

Arabian Woman (AW): Tell us a little about your upbringing and early influences in life?

Samar Martha (SM): I was born in Jerusalem in a relatively small family consisting of one older brother and one older sister. We soon migrated to the USSan Francisco, CA – and I lived there till the age of five. After that, I returned with my family to Ramallah, where I lived until the age of 16. I attended ‘Friends Girls School', an American school, which offered a range of extra-curricular activities in arts and sports, which played a major role in influencing my career and future interests.

AW: What is your educational background? Were you always passionate about arts?

SM: I did my undergraduate studies at the American University in Athens with a major in marketing management and international communication. I then mastered this with a postgraduate degree in Arts Management and Cultural policies from City University London.

Yes, I was always creatively inclined. Although not an artist myself, I used to enjoy drawings and was actively involved in theatre and other performing arts during my school and college days.

AW: When and how did the idea for the ArtSchool Palestine take shape?

SM: ArtSchool Palestine was initially founded in the UK by a small group of like-minded individuals: Ann Jones, Camilla Canellas, Charles Asprey, Khalil Rabah, Mahmoud Abu Hashash, Omar Al-Qattan, Sacha Craddock and myself. It is an ambitious, but uncomplicated method for engaging with the Palestinian people and the enfranchisement of their culture.

The organisation started with a website in 2005 as a tool for unity, a structure in a place that is geographically fragmented and often inaccessible, where it is difficult for information and experiences to be shared, whether across the borders within the occupied territories, across the Green Line or beyond. Thus, the limited access to information about culture and artistic practices in Palestine prompted the establishment of such an organisation. What was initially a virtual space to document artistic activities of Palestine artists on the ground and abroad has grown into something so much more.

AW: What is the vision and mission of ArtSchool Palestine?

SM: The initial idea of a virtual space was developed to accommodate the actual needs of artists. There was a need to connect artists with their colleagues internationally and provide them with opportunities to engage with the international contemporary art scene and also exhibit their work to a wider international audience. Also, with the absence of an art school in Palestine, the website also played as a tool for providing practical space, objective input and physical materials, and a centre for the discussion and development of art. The website provided a formal framework for practical help, and a platform for critical debates. It makes a conceptual place upon which everything can be reflected and projected.

Through its various programmes, ArtSchool Palestine strives to provide artists with opportunities for networking, dialogue and cultural exchange. It seeks to showcase their work to a wider international audience and to facilitate educational opportunities and encourage critical debate.

AW: What kind of activities does the organisation engage in for the promotion of contemporary art in Palestine?

SM: Since our launch in 2005, activities have included involvement in a wide range of projects – from exhibitions, film and video screenings, lectures, performances and publications, to establishing networks and initiating partnerships for reflection, dialogue and exchange.

AW: What is mapping all about?

SM: Mapping was initiated by an invitation we received from Art Dubai. The aim was to expose to the international audience the contemporary artistic practices in Palestine and its diaspora, expose young talent to a wider audience, and, most importantly, present the cultural and human aspect of the country to counter the stereotypical cliches the media has been depicting in the last decades.

Mapping was an attempt to map the creative clusters within Palestine and its diaspora; to bring to the forefront the creative forces of artists whose work, despite their diverse geographical locations, shares common themes such as displacement, exile, memory, identity, representation and home. In addition to geographical location, Mapping showcases artistic practice across generations, the varied use of artistic mediums, shared and common themes, and aspects of the contemporary cultural landscape.

AW: An interesting aspect of Mapping was the short films and videos that showed the real situation in Palestine. Have you faced any restrictions or resentment for this?

SM: I did not face any obstacles in presenting such a collection of video artwork, since the selection of work – despite their point of reference – was based merely on their artistic merit and quality. We have to keep in mind that artists are always informed by the context they live in, and in this case, it is the harsh reality of occupation. Therefore, any restrictions will be invalid under such circumstances.

AW: Currently, how many Palestinian artists, living and working in Palestine, do you have under your wing?

SM: As a non-profit art organisation, we do not represent artists as such. We try to be as inclusive as possible in our approach and our programmes are initiated with this concept in mind, and in accordance to the needs and arising opportunities. We work with established artists, but, at the same time, give special attention to young artists who require support.

Case in point is the ‘Still on Vacation' exhibition at the Oslo peace centre, which was a very high profile exhibition, and, due to its nature, required us to work with established artists such as Emily Jacir, Sharif Waked and Khalil Rabah. On the other hand, in our residency and exchange programme, and in supporting new productions, we work with young emerging artists.

AW: What are the challenges you faced during the creation of, and in running the organisation?

SM: One of the challenges we faced, and are still facing, is the positioning of ArtSchool Palestine as an art organisation that is merely devoted to promoting contemporary practices and quality art productions. There is a tendency to associate Palestine with politics; so in the beginning, finding international partners to work with proved difficult and controversial, as many international art organisations found it risky to engage with this highly politicised region.

Our persistence has paid off though, and we have now succeeded in establishing longterm relations with art organisations such as Tate Modern, Delfina, Gasworks, and others in Europe and beyond.

Another challenge we faced and were keen to disengage ourselves from is the tendency of many international NGOs to present Palestinian art work under the solidarity theme, paying no attention to the artistic work or its quality. In the past, we have seen many exhibitions organized under this umbrella, which was a problem for various reasons.

First, it presented the artists' work based on his/ her ethnic background, rather than the quality. Second, the audiences frequenting the event consisted of mainly political activists, and rarely curators, critics, artists or normal art scene goers. Third, the artwork was presented in a highly politicised environment, giving no justice to artists and to their work – in other words, art was exploited.

Finally, as a non-profit art organisation, funding is always an issue, and is an ongoing process that takes energy and time.

AW: What is the contemporary art scene in Palestine like? Has the situation improved in recent times? SM: It can be said that in comparison to neighbouring Arab Countries, we do have a very vibrant scene in Palestine, in terms of the number of non-profit art organisations that operate on the ground, and also in terms of the artistic productions, which are diverse and of high quality. Despite the restrictions and obstacles faced by many, the artists have managed to establish themselves in Palestine and in the international art scene as well.

In 2007, the first art academy was established in Palestine, with the support of the Norwegian government. In addition to the academy, there has been an increased interest by donor countries and funders in the arts, and many are offering postgraduate scholarships for artists to pursue their studies in the UK, France, USA, and other places. Thus, I do strongly believe that things have changed for the better, and that, in the coming years, we will see a new generation of artists.

AW: Before you got involved with the ArtSchool Palestine Project, what were you doing on the career front?

SM: I used to work as a curator. I was involved with a lot of short-term projects with different organisations, but mostly all associated with art in some form or the other.

Actually, even now I work as a freelance curator. I curated a number of projects including: ‘This Day' at the Tate Modern (2007), ‘Still on Vacation' at Nobel Peace Centre, Oslo (2007), solo exhibitions by artist Khalil Rabah, ‘50,320 Names' at Brunei Gallery, London'(2007), ‘The Real Deal' by Shuruq Harb at the Khalil Sakakini Centre, ‘Ramallah' (2008), and ‘In/Scene' video art exhibition at Al Hoash Gallery – Jerusalem (2008). I am also the co-curator of the annual Palestine Film Festival taking place, at the Barbican Centre – London since 2005.

AW: What's your dream for the ArtSchool Palestine?

SM: I hope that in the coming five years, I'll be able to stabilise ArtSchool Palestine as an institution that can run efficiently on it own without my direct involvement.

Article by:  Arabian Woman

Posted: May Issue 2009

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