From Palestine with Art opens in London with defiantly hopeful view of nation's future

Instead of focusing on tragedies, exhibition showcases artistic breadth of emerging and established creatives

In Pursuit of Utopia (2020) by Nabil Anani is a highlight of the London exhibition. Photo: Palestine Museum US
Powered by automated translation

From Palestine with Art, a travelling exhibition that made its debut during the 2022 Venice Biennale Arte, is returning for its third year on Thursday. This time, the show by Palestine Museum US is being held at London’s P21 Gallery.

The exhibition, running until March 2, will spotlight contemporary works by 22 Palestinian artists.

Highlights include Venetian Red, a 2021 work by pioneering Palestinian artist Samia Halaby that features her idiosyncratic approach to abstraction. Nabil Anani’s In Pursuit of Utopia, on the other hand, is a sprawling landscape piece that features the lush splendour of the Palestinian countryside before it was overrun by Israeli settlements.

Photographs by Hanan Awad, meanwhile, pay homage to Palestine’s people and culture, such as Faces of Resilience I, which shows an elderly woman in traditional clothing sitting with a container of figs in the foreground. Immigration, a work by Mohammed Alhaj, reflects on the Palestinian experience of migration with stark silhouettes scattered across layered, textural vistas of yellow and grey.

The works within the exhibition come from the collection of Palestine Museum US, an institution founded in 2018 by Palestinian businessman Faisal Saleh. The museum is located in Woodbridge, Connecticut – an advantageous location given that it lies between New York City and Boston, two academic powerhouses within the US. Its collection mainly comprises artworks given on loan by the artists themselves, who have lent their work in support of the museum’s mission to share Palestinian art.

Many of the pieces that will be displayed at From Palestine with Art have been shown in previous runs of the exhibition, including at 2022 Venice Biennale Arte and last year's Accademia di Belle Arte di Roma. However, there are some new additions. These include the film Bank of Targets by Palestinian journalist Roshdi Sarraj, who was killed during Israeli bombings in October.

“The film is 25 minutes,” says From Palestine with Art curator, Saleh. “When you watch it, it’s like watching the news. It is about when Israel attacked Gaza in 2021. It’s going to run in a loop for the month, every 25 minutes it is going to restart.”

Bank of Targets is a poignant reminder that the tragedies currently unfolding in Gaza, though marking new levels of brutality, are not new, and that the bloody history of the past 75 years since the Nakba is doomed to repeat if definitive international action is not taken.

The work is one of the few within the exhibition that directly touch upon the horrors of war. In that way, the London show sustains the spirit of previous instalments of From Palestine with Art. Instead of showcasing the tragedies contorting Palestine, the exhibition aims to celebrate the artistic breadth of its creatives, emerging and established. However, the show inevitably takes on a new dimension of meaning in today’s context, presenting a culture that is under threat of systematic erasure.

The Israel-Gaza war is nearing its fifth month. More than 25,000 Palestinians have been killed, of which more than 10,000 are children. Israel is showing no signs of halting its onslaught and has ramped up air strikes and shelling on the Palestinian enclave despite international calls.

Events on the ground are tragic, but there is another global frontier to the conflict that also cannot be ignored: a cultural one. Even before the Israel-Gaza war, the artistic landscape of Europe and the US was somewhat arid of Palestinian representation, with only a few platforms giving space for artists from the country to display their works. The war has only intensified this inhospitable climate.

Landmark exhibitions of high-profile Palestinian artists have been cancelled, such as Halaby’s retrospective at Indiana University’s Eskenazi Museum of Art. Artworks associated with imagery of Palestinian resistance, meanwhile, have been pulled from auctions, including two Ayman Baalbaki paintings withdrawn from a Christie's sale for depicting figures in keffiyehs and gas masks.

As such, From Palestine with Art comes at a pivotal time and with indispensable representation.

Part of what helped the third From Palestine with Art materialise in London was the support of the venue, Saleh says.

“P21 Gallery is a non-profit and there were Palestinians involved in the creation of that gallery,” he says. “The gallery is an oasis in the middle of a desert in Europe. Europe has become a cultural and artistic desert in the sense that you cannot show anything Palestinian anywhere in most of Europe.”

The support of institutions like P21 Gallery is vital in the dissemination of Palestinian art, especially as establishments that were receptive in the past have become less so. Palestine Museum US has been privy to these shifting sentiments. While its exhibition From Palestine with Art was accepted by the Venice Biennale in 2022, follow-up shows that sought to go beyond introductory explorations of its art have not been so lucky. Palestine Museum US’s proposals for the Architecture Biennale in 2023 and the Art Biennale of 2024 were both rejected.

“At the same time, the curator [of the architecture biennale] invited a friend of hers, who happened to be an Israeli filmmaker, to present a project about a Palestinian house in Jerusalem, from which the owners were expelled in 1948. He was involved in some sort of a renovation project and that project was presented as part of the international exhibit.”

The filmmaker, Saleh notes, has been supportive of Palestinian rights in his works. However, in a landscape where Palestinian art is sidelined, having an Israeli artist telling Palestinian stories is problematic, he says.

“[The architecture biennale] was supposed to be about decolonisation and meanwhile we’re seeing the opposite,” Saleh says. “We applied for this year’s [art] biennale and we put a very strong project with 23 Palestinian artists, four of whom are deceased and one who is from Gaza.”

This year, the Venice Biennale Arte is being held under the theme Stranieri Ovunque – Foreigners Everywhere. Palestine Museum US proposed a show that reflected on the theme of the international exhibition, titling it Foreigners in their Homeland.

“Meaning Palestinians are foreigners in their homeland,” Saleh says. “That's the theme we wanted to present. We wanted people to understand what is happening to the Palestinians under occupation, under apartheid, and the challenges of their daily lives that people don't know about.” This point, Saleh says, was going to be conveyed “with very tasteful artwork, that is very subtle.”

“For instance, there was a picture of a bride and a groom sitting for their wedding picture and behind them is the separation wall,” he says. “In the face of it, this is just a couple having their picture taken. But the fact is that the separation wall has become part of their life.”

The proposal was denied. Yet, Saleh is undeterred, saying he still intends to hold the exhibition in the space, even if it means holding it without the Venice Biennale’s seal of approval.

“When you apply as a collateral event, you're on your own basically. You have to have your own venue, everything,” he says. “They just sell you their logo for €25,000 ($27,112). You don't want to approve us, fine. We’re doing it anyway.”

With Venice still a question mark, Saleh says he is keen to see how audiences in London will react to From Palestine with Art. He segments the audience into two categories: those with direct ties to Palestine and the Arab world, and those who are only beginning to discover its art.

The exhibition will hopefully reprise one of its most idiosyncratic components: a 1948 map of Palestine spread across the floor of the space. The element has resonated deeply with audience members who have Palestinian roots as people pinpoint the villages their grandparents came from.

“I have two days to find a place to print it,” Saleh says. “The map is usually large, six or seven metres long. Palestinians can come and each one of them will be able to find their home village on the map and put their finger on it. When Palestinians walk in and they see a map of Palestine that says Palestine on it, it transports them to a different world.”

“For the Palestinians, this [exhibition] is all about Palestinian identity and steadfastness,” Saleh says. “You just have to exist as a Palestinian and that's half the game. You don't have to do anything, just be a Palestinian and have people recognise you as a Palestinian, that's really important. This [exhibition] goes a long way in enforcing that, so that people are proud of being a Palestinian and they want to be identified as Palestinian.”

Updated: January 31, 2024, 12:52 PM