Home is where the art is

The first museum dedicated to Palestinian art opened in the North and South America, with a voice that aims to reach far and wide

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Born in the West Bank city of El Bireh, Saleh came to the United States as a high school senior in 1969, studied at Oberlin College, earned his MBA from the University of Connecticut, and eventually helped establish a small benefits and human resources firm based in Washington.

But since June last year, Saleh has found himself mingling freely with international artists, angling to display their work in his new Palestine Museum US, a 400-square-metre gallery on the ground floor of an office building he owns on Litchfield Turnpike in Woodbridge, Connecticut. When its doors opened last month, it ushered in the first museum dedicated to Palestinian art in North and South America, Saleh said.

“This is a big event for Palestinians,” he said. “We want to invite people to come and learn about Palestinian art and expression and are creating a space where it can be visible and conspicuous.”

Saleh is financing the museum himself, but he said he hopes to eventually attract enough financial backers to relocate the gallery from its suburban, turnpike setting to a major city. The museum will be open Sundays from 1pm to 5pm.

Art by Nameer Qassim on display. Saleh says he hopes to eventually attract enough financial backers to relocate the gallery.

The human experience

On display at the opening were works of 20 artists, mostly from the West Bank and Gaza City, Gaza Strip, who are either still living there or are working as expatriates.

Saleh said the museum’s agenda is neither political or religious, but few of the artists on display have avoided the historic and continuing conflicts between Palestinians and the state of Israel.

Yet for every statement of political resistance, there are images that simply evoke the human experience.

The range of media includes paintings, textiles, installation pieces and photography. The unifying, and qualifying, theme of the artwork is that it is either by Palestinian artists or represents Palestinian life.

“Very often, when artists are under that kind of war pressure, they produce some of their best work,” said James Harithas, director of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston. In 2003, the Texas gallery hosted “Made in Palestine,” probably the first museum exhibition of Palestinian art in the United States. The exhibit then toured nationally and “was the most popular show we’ve ever had,” Harithas said.

CONN_MUSEUM_PALESTINIANS_3_1713577Good relations

So far, the museum has faced no blowback from the local community, Saleh said. In fact, he enjoys good relations with one of his non-profit neighbours, the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. When the organisation’s Jewish Community Centre needed a temporary home last year after a fire, Saleh rented it space in his Woodbridge building, across the hall from the new museum.

In an email, the organisation expressed appreciation for Saleh’s support of the community centre, and the Jewish Federation’s chief executive, JudyAlperin, affirmed that she hoped there would be opportunities for bridge-building and dialogue once the museum opens.

Voices of creative enquiry

Core search for identity: 
Manal Deeb

‘This is a dream,” said the artist Manal Deeb, whose mixed-media works hang in the gallery. Her work was also exhibited at the UN Visitors Centre in New York in 2012-13. Born in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Deeb moved to the United States as a teenager in 1986. Speaking by telephone from her studio in Fairfax, Virginia, she said the new Palestinian museum will provide her and other Palestinian artists with an outlet where there was none before.

The impacts of war on women and children are a theme of Deeb’s art. “As Palestinians, we all have the same core search for identity, and this is a way for us to all come together and save that identity,” she said.

Cactus means to be patient: 
Rana Bishara

The impacts of war on women and children are also a theme of 47-year-old Rana Bishara’s art. Born in 1971 in the Upper Galilee village of Tarshiha where she still lives part time, her paintings in the museum feature abstracts that explore memories of childhood growing up amid political demonstrations, contrasted with the beauty of the natural world. To this end, much of her work features actual pieces of cactus, a symbol of razed villages where nothing remains but the prickly vegetation.

“For me, cactus means to be patient,” said Bishara, who earned an MFA from the Savannah College of Art, Georgia, in 2003. “One of my famous works has pieces of pickled cactus, packed tightly in a jar, which depicts Palestinians who are living in Israel under the pressure of laws that treat us like second-class citizens or worse,” Bishara said.

I am never going to let you forget I’m Palestinian: Samia Halaby

Among the 23 artists in the Houston show, and one of its major organisers, was an Occupied Jerusalem native, Samia Halaby, whose work is also on display in the Woodbridge museum. Halaby now lives in New York and, at 81, is something of a doyenne of the Palestinian art world. In her 2001 book, Liberation Art of Palestine: Palestinian Painting and Sculpture in the Second Half of the 20th Century, she traced the roots of modern Palestinian art to American Abstract Expressionism and the social activism of the Mexican muralists of the early 20th century. The powerful, revolutionary works of Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Picasso and the Cubists — whose blocky abstractions echoed the geometric patterns of classical Islamic art — planted seeds of inspiration for Palestinian artists of the 1970s and 1980s, Halaby said.

“It was a high period for Palestinian artists, and one of the very important things to them was that their own people understood what they were doing,” she said. “Today, there are Palestinian artists who are now concerned with explaining the Palestinian issue to the outside world and a Western audience, which is why this new museum is so important.”

For her part, Halaby said her art is not as much informed by any specific political agenda as it is by her fondness for Cubism, medieval Islamic art and Soviet Constructivism. Yet at the same time, she does not back away from her identity.

“I’m never going to let you forget that I’m Palestinian,” she said. “So if you look at my art, I am saying I’m Palestinian, like it or hate it, here’s what I do, and I do it very well,” she said.

 

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