Monday, May 17, 2010

Artist-in-Residence - Scarlett Hooft Graafland, 2000

The other artist-in residence for 2000 was Dutch artist Scarlett Hooft Graafland who had come to Jerusalem in 1999 for post graduate study at the Bezalel Academy. Together with British artist Emily Douglas, she had done a mobile performance piece in the Old City that Christmas in which the two artists sold soap they had designed in the shape of sheep or Jesus.
We organised a small cart where we placed a bowl of water so people could wash their hands and try out the soap. Because of the mobility of the cart, we could reach all the separate parts of the old city, from the Christian quarter to the Muslim, from the Armenian to the Jewish. It was interesting to have such a diverse audience and different responses to the work. (Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Interview, May 2010) 
It was through this she met Jack and they then discussed the possibility of having a similar installation of the work in Al Ma’mal and Anadiel. The title of the show was ‘Part-time Human’ and it also used soap carved into these same shapes. However, this time the work was used to explore questions in relation to the ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’, a temporary psychological disorder affecting some Jerusalem tourists who begin to believe that they themselves are Jesus.
For the installation at Al-Ma’mal, ‘Part-time Human’, I commissioned the production of hundreds of soap statues from one of the traditional Palestinian soap factories in Nablus. The soap is made out of soda and pure olive oil and is an ancient procedure. It is a famous Palestinian export product in the Arab world and is normally produced in square blocks. The sheep and Jesus statues were displayed on the floor of the gallery with many ‘Jesuses’ leading big flocks of sheep through the space. In this installation, I was trying to ask questions about the ‘real Jesus’, the same questions patients of the ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’ are dealing with (Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Interview, May 2010).

Designing, preparing and creating the components for this installation took a few months and required many trips to Nablus. This was a major undertaking in itself because the journey from Jerusalem passed though several check points necessitating several changes of mini bus. Getting back to Jerusalem with big boxes full of soap was an even greater challenge and not only because of the transport logistics:

When I first started the project, I had no idea it would be so complicated to make it happen. Many times I was stopped at check-points and had to show  my belongings and explain why I was travelling with these amounts of soap, and why I was a western woman travelling alone in the West Bank. There was always a general tension with the check-points and the Israeli settlements sitting on the tops of mountains in the West Bank with their rigid architecture that seems to have no connection to their surroundings. It made me realize how hard it must be for people who have to deal with this as a day-to-day reality (Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Interview, May 2010).
When the project was eventually realised, the entire floor of Gallery Anadiel was covered with the soap sculptures distributed in bundles throughout the gallery space. Visitors were compelled to walk around and in between the flocks of sheep led by the 'Jesuses', while immersed in the smell of the soap pervading the space. This gave the exhibition much more than a purely visual impact. Despite the challenges, the success of the project left Graafland with an overwhelmingly positive recollection of the experience: 
The hospitality of the Palestinians I met during my travels in the West Bank and the stunning landscapes of fields of old olive trees, the generosity of the factory owner in Nablus, where sometimes I would stay for days with his family working on the soap production, the interesting and broad art community I met through Al-Ma’mal - I thought it was very special and important to have a Foundation for Contemporary Art in the middle of Jerusalem with such a good program. I experienced a lot of creative energy at the centre and found that Al-Ma’mal was very well known and respected by the Israeli art community too (Scarlett Hooft Graafland, Interview, May 2010).


Graafland’s exhibition marked the second time that the floor of the gallery had been covered with Nablus soap, the first time being Mona Hatoum’s show at Anadiel in 1996. The soap and the factories had also been beautifully captured in a series of photographs by Issa Freij which were published in Edition 10 of What’s Up? in 1999.

These same images were reproduced in a special Al-Ma’mal Calendar in 2004 to stand as both testament and memorial to the soap and to the factories, several of which were destroyed by the Israeli incursion into Nablus in 2002.
For thousands of years the city of Nablus was exposed to many invasions yet no aggressor had dared to destroy the old city of Nablus and its precious cultural heritage until the coming of the Israelis. It was reported on the 12th of April 2002 that among many other buildings in the old city of Nablus, the Masri, Rantisi and Cana’an soap factories had been destroyed. (Jack Persekian, From 'Nablus Soap', 2010) 


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Artist-in-Residence Interview – Peter Riedlinger 2000

1. How did you first get involved with Al-Ma'mal?
I was initially invited to Jerusalem by the Jerusalem Center for the Visual Arts, an Israeli institution based in the city. I had a desire to come to the country to understand more about the complex situation at that time in 1999 while the peace process was still actually in process. I stayed for 6 months as their guest on Mount Zion and developed my project us/them.

The curator of contemporary art in the Israel Museum recommended that I go to Gallery Anadiel where she thought the work would fit well. I contacted Jack and we met and I introduced the work to him. He then invited me to show the work at his gallery. The show was arranged and I extended my stay beyond so all in all I stayed 8 months and the team of Al-Ma'mal and me became friends. During my first trip I did a workshop with the Israeli High School for the Arts to finance my stay and the exhibition 'us/them' at Anadiel in April/May. The following summer Jack sent me an invitation to also run a photography workshop at Al-Ma'mal but at exactly that time the political situation escalated dramatically. When I returned to Jerusalem at the end of September 2000 the Intifada had just broken out and violence and oppression was all over the place.

2. What were the main challenges of your workshop at Al-Ma'mal?
The general situation of everyday violence and the very pessimistic mood that struck the people in East Jerusalem and the West Bank was certainly not favourable to hosting a workshop. The idea seemed so far away from the problems dictated by the time to everybody who was a resident of the city. However, despite these odds we managed to engage a group of youth who were quite curious and interested in my program and in the end two workshops were conducted. They resulted in some amazing images being made by the students which were then exhibited. Two things were important for me: understanding the critical role/power and coverage of the media and photography in the country on the one hand, and understanding the medium of photography from its very base on the other. This made the students quite creative.

3. What are your strongest memories of your time there?
I have plenty of very strong memories that are also personal. I met and fell in love with my wife the Palestinian artist Noel Jabbour. We harvested olives from a neglected old grove in Ein Kerem and made about 25 litres of the finest olive oil in Beit Jala. At night we heard the bombardment of Beit Jala by the Israelis while during the day we went there to press the olives. In a way it was quite absurd but I wanted to continue doing things that were normal. Also I remember going to the cinema in Ramallah at night and how the Israeli soldiers on checkpoints could not believe that there were people who were insisting on doing such activities among Palestinians.

4. Did the experience have an impact on your own work?
Certainly it had a direct impact. We moved away from Ein Kerem to the east to Dahiat al-Barid close to Jack's house. At one point the Israelis started to isolate first the neighborhood then the whole city from the West Bank. This was the start of a new project 'us/them II' that documented these drastic changes in the urban landscape in and around the city. The escalated building in and of settlements and infrastructure became particularly relevant in my work. The project was then followed up in 2008 and exhibited at Gallery Anadiel as well as in the Goethe Institute in Ramallah, Beirut and Damascus and it was published in Camera Austria.

5. Do you have any other observations about your time at Al-Ma'mal? 
I have always the greatest respect for all their strength to keep up such significant and important cultural work for East Jerusalem and its residents, despite the crippling isolation the Palestinians suffer.
Email Interview May 2010

Peter Riedlinger, continued his relationship with Al-Ma’mal after his official residency period and conducted a second photography workshop in 2001.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bethlehem and Jerusalem 2000

In 2000 the activities in Al-Ma’mal had to be dramatically scaled back. There were no workshops, only two artists in residence and only two other exhibitions.

In the wider political context the millennium year confirmed a bitter end rather than a new beginning. Although optimism about an agreement between Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak at Camp David in July was never particularly high, the absolute failure and its aftermath could not have been anticipated. The political cynicism of Ariel Sharon's visit to Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in September, provided the spark that then ignited the second uprising, or 'Al Aqsa intifada’. In the years of violence and chaos that followed, not only did the mechanism for dialogue vanish but also any residual notion that agreement in the foreseeable future was possible.

The impact of this was certainly felt at Al Ma’mal but there were other more prosaic reasons for the scaling back. One of these was quite simply a lack of money:
That year was just awful with the situation and we had a funding crisis. There was no money for production either of What’s Up or workshops. Because a lot of our own money had gone into it, we were having personal financial issues too. This meant we all really needed to get proper jobs for a while. (Samar Martha, 2010)
At that time Huda Iman was working as a consultant to the Bethlehem 2000 project and thought that the whole team and infrastructure of Al-Ma'mal could work together on this project too. Thanks to Samar Martha’s sister, Khalil Rabah was able to get in and out of Ramallah so it was plausible:
It was tricky getting in and out of Jerusalem both for me and Khalil because we had West Bank IDs. Luckily my sister had a spare car with Jerusalem plates so we used to borrow her car and license to make it look like we were Jerusalem residents. We just had to hope that we didn’t get stopped and asked for our IDs. (Samar Martha, 2010)
However, things didn’t work out quite as expected. Although Jack, Huda, Khalil and Samar did all work with Bethlehem 2000, it was as individuals rather than a team.
We all ended up at the Bethlehem 2000 project. I remember Huda wanted to sub-contract Al-Ma’mal as an organisation to produce projects for Bethlehem 2000 but instead we all got jobs there separately. (Samar Martha, 2010)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Artist-in-Residence Interview – Beat Streuli 1999

1. How did you first get involved with Al-Ma'mal?
I was at the Sydney Biennale in 1998 and met an artist and friend Khalil Rabah. He transmitted an invitation from Jack for me to come and do something in Jerusalem. At the same time there was an Israeli artist who also transmitted an invitation from the Dvir Gallery in Tel Aviv. I was really happy about these simultaneous invitations and thought it would save me two trips so I scheduled to do both at the same time.

Working on both sides was of course a bit more complicated than anticipated but it meant that I got to see the whole complex situation very quickly. It was just before the 2nd intifada so it was a comparatively pleasant time when I was there. A beautiful time in fact. I was there for two weeks working for about a week on each exhibition.

2. What kind of work you were doing?
In Tel Aviv I was snapping on the street but in Jerusalem I was doing portraits with high school students. I was meeting them and getting to know them a bit while taking their photos. Some of them were also part of the workshop I did.  It all went very smoothly. They were open minded kids who gave some hope for the future and were very different from the images of violence associated with this place. Two girls also took us around and we went to more traditional boy’s schools and I took portraits of some of these boys too.

3. What do you remember about the workshop?
The photography I did was part of the artist-in-residence program but it was also mostly for an exhibition at Anadiel Gallery. I remember doing a presentation about my work and looked at students’ work but I don’t think I really did a proper workshop. I mostly worked with Rula Halawani who organised it all.

3. What are your strongest memories of your time there?
The whole trip was pretty mind-blowing. It was my first time in the region and even though it was quiet at that time I knew of course about the political history and situation. The main thing was just to be there because when you are on-site you understand much better what is really happening. It’s all much closer and it touches you much more. In general, it’s true that you can know as much as you like about a place but unless you have spent some time there physically, it is nowhere near as present and meaningful. You need to have been there.
It was amazing to meet and get to know all of these people in such a short time through working closely with them and not just as a ‘cultural tourist’. Jack has a great personality and at that time Khalil was always there too. We went to Ramallah and once went all over the West Bank and often just hung out in outdoor cafes and talked. This is an easily forgotten reality. I think it is important to try and emphasise people not as victims but as human beings who have fun and are fun to be with despite all the problems in the background.

4. Did the experience change your own work or was it more a continuation and development of a theme?
What was important was Jack’s approach. I remember him saying that he tried to run the Al-Ma’mal art space in a ‘non-political’ way. He wanted a chance to deal with culture in a pretty pure way for once and not just as a reaction to the situation. So I tried not to react to the political issues too directly. This suited my work becuase it doesn’t usually do this anyway.

It was the first time that I had not focused on people with a social and western background like me. Having been a photographer never specifically looking for the ‘other’, quite the opposite, this gave me an opportunity to see how I could deal with such a new situation. This first experience of a different environment opened my work up to cope with more far away realities. It was an important first step. I was a bit nervous about photographing in a mostly Arab context because I was afraid of photography that seems ‘exotic’ but around the old city there was quite a cosmopolitan atmosphere that was typically Arab at the same time, and I think that my photographic method proved to work quite well in that context too.

The people I met doing the portraits were quite ideal. They were subjects that allowed me to project an image to my audience back home and elsewhere that was of normality and not a cliché of poor Arab countries or violence, and not naive or superficial either. What is nice about the work I did in Jerusalem is that these images went on. I have used them a few times either on their own, or mixed with other portraits from elsewhere. For example one or two were printed out 5m high and used for a spectacular window installation at Palais de Tokyo in Paris which was there for four years, from 2002.

5. How were the photographs exhibited at Al-Ma'mal?
In Jerusalem the portraits were produced as posters and mounted on the wall of the exhibition space. This was a perfectly adequate way of working with a low budget project but most of all it was a way of keeping it simple, accessible and everyday rather than what is created by using big and expensive framed prints.

Telephone Interview conducted April 30th 2010