Exhibition gives colour to old pictures of Palestinian cause

The Amman show explores what we can learn from the activism of 1968

The Palestinian artist Yusef Audeh's painting 'The Speed of Fingers' (2019), which depicts a scene from Jean Genet's 'Prisoner of Love'. MMAG Foundation
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Last year marked five decades since the strikes of 1968 – the height of leftist activism in Europe, when students proclaimed their solidarity with workers and liberation groups across the global south.

The Palestinian struggle was at that time a unifying cause across the Arab region and the European left. Writers, artists, filmmakers and intellectuals travelled from Europe to training camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria and elsewhere to support the cause. Now, a new generation is trying to make sense of the significance of this moment of solidarity.

It comes at a time of increased political commitment among artists, with scandals toppling the heads of major US and UK galleries and museums, and young artists and curators wondering what we can learn from earlier moments of political activism.

One such exploration is taking place at the MMAG Foundation in Amman, where Turkish curator Ovul Durmusoglu has put together a show around the Palestinian revolution, as seen through the eyes of writer Jean Genet. The well-known French playwright and novelist visited Palestinian training camps in Jordan in 1970, and engaged with the region from that period onwards. In his last book, Prisoner of Love (1986), written as he was dying from throat cancer, he addressed his time with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Black Panthers. 

The MMAG Foundation is restoring three historic buildings in Jabal Amman for its exhibition spaces and planned education centre. MMAG Foundation

"People almost forget about this beautiful piece of literature that is a very important political chronicle of the time," says Durmusoglu, an astute curator who was born in Ankara and is now based in Berlin. "Especially from today's position, when we are talking about how do we engage, how do we take a position, and how do we produce meaning with the work that we are doing in the arts? It's very timely. It's a text that helped me find my way back. I was a bit lost, but reading his passion, his emotion, his self-reflection, I found my way back."

'What are the political stakes of rethinking the revolution today?'

Titled Stars Are Closer and Clouds Are Nutritious Under Golden Trees, after descriptions of the Jordanian landscape in Prisoner of Love, the two-part exhibition opened in June at the MMAG Foundation, a new art space in the wealthy district of Jabal Amman. The founders, Palestinian collectors Mohammad and Mahera Abu Ghazaleh, are renovating three historic buildings to host shows and to launch an ambitious education programme.

Durmusoglu's exhibition unfolds in two parts (the second starts in September), with a public programme put together by the Jordanian researcher Nadine Fattaleh. The events have generated a core group of followers who attend all the talks, screenings and reading group meetings (they're working their way through the Prisoner of Love, of course – and almost all of them are encountering it for the first time).

“What are the political stakes of rethinking the revolution and its history today?” asks Fattaleh. “This is still an open-ended question. Every time we have a speaker, these are the recurring questions – what does it mean for the here and now?”

The PLO, the Black Panthers and Arab Women’s League

The exhibition’s artworks address the era of student protests and guerrilla activity from the perspective of Amman, tracing connections outwards from the Jordanian capital. Greg Thomas, a US scholar, shows his archive exploring the links between the PLO and the Black Panthers, which each had headquarters in Algiers at the time.

Marwa Arsanios, a Beiruti filmmaker, has researched the Kurdish autonomous women’s movement, which flourished in the 1980s. The exhibition shows her 2017 film about the structure of the movement, accompanied by work by the German artist Ines Schaber on the Arab Women’s League. Schaber has represented her work via two photographs of the League, taken in 1944 in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, in which many of the Jordanian audience, Durmusoglu says, have recognised mothers and aunts.

A photograph of the Arab Women's League at a Jerusalem hotel that the German artist Ines Schauber is showing as part of an exhibition on the Palestinian revolution in Jordan. A few of the audience members have recognised aunts and mothers in the picture. MMAG Foundation

Turkish artist Banu Cennetoglu exhibits a work mourning the leftist student leader Deniz Gezmis, who was executed in 1972. That moment, says Durmusoglu, marked the end of the prospects for democracy in Turkey, and the work anchors the show's thesis of solidarities around landless revolutions. By using Genet as a framework, the exhibition also navigates the relationship between foreign intellectuals and the local conflicts. The PLO were reportedly keen for the prominent French writer to publicise their activities, while Genet apparently did not want his work to be made part of any propaganda.

Banu Cennetoglu’s image, Deniz, of the slain pro-democracy leader Deniz Gezmis, is on show at the MMAG Foundation in Amman. Courtesy MMAG Foundation

"He was just in love with the people's movement," says Durmusoglu. "Not the whole politics and the institutions that were built on top, but just the guerrillas." One of the reasons Prisoner of Love has remained such a potent work, lauded by figures such as Edward Said and Edmund White, is because it sits beyond reportage, in a category of personal and philosophical reflection. Durmusoglu found that many works that speak of histories of the region have rarely or never been shown there. She and her team commissioned the first Arabic subtitles for the well-known film dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) by Johan Grimonperez – a history of aircraft hijacking, including exploits by the PLO – as well as for the feminist filmmaker Carole Roussopoulos's Munich, which includes footage the French filmmaker shot in Jordan.

A still from Johan Grimonperez's 'dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y' (1997), a famous work of found-footage excerpts that tells a history of plane hijackings. 

A separate film programme uncovered a history of films from the Palestinian revolution that are also little seen. Durmusoglu and Fattaleh invited the Ramallah and Brussels-based researcher Reem Shilleh, who researches early experimental and documentary Palestinian films, and whose efforts, Fattaleh notes, she only came across while studying in New York.

"The history of films of the Palestinian revolution started in Amman around 1968 when photographers and filmmakers realised the importance of showing the world what was going on in the Palestinian revolution," says Fattaleh. She and Shilleh invited Khadijah Habashneh, who helped set up the Palestine Film Unit, and whose late husband, filmmaker Mustafa Abu Ali, was also part of the group.

"We screened Mustafa's documentary They Do Not Exist (1974) alongside [Jean-Luc] Godard's film about the Palestinian revolution, Here and Elsewhere (1976)," says Fattaleh, with Habashneh speaking afterwards. The Palestine Film Unit had engaged with Godard in Jordan when he came to shoot the footage that later became Here and Elsewhere.

"It's different seeing Godard's film in Jordan and in contrast to Mustafa Abu Ali's film," she says tactfully. "Khadija offered an insight into this world of revolutionary filmmaking, what was being produced, the self-criticality of the filmmakers, and the sacrifices they all had to make by being part of the liberation movement."

If Palestine captured the world's imagination as a moral struggle, the reality in the Arab world was more complicated, with a large influx of Palestinian refugees entering Jordan and Lebanon after 1967.

Curator Ovul Durmusoglu (right) leads a tour of the exhibition. Emad Mohammad Zyoud

Avoiding 'stigmatising terms'

Durmusoglu wades carefully into this territory, particularly the events of Black September. "Genet saw a very important moment of break and disruption in Jordanian society at the time," she says.

Durmusoglu says it was difficult to tackle the subject in the exhibition, but that she "had the mission to deliver a story that would heal people's souls in a certain way". She says she wanted to avoid "stigmatising terms" and instead tell the story with "a different vision with different points of connections that inspired each other". "The dream of the revolution shifts in these moments," she says. "And each adds up to a different imaginary."

Stars Are Closer and Clouds Are Nutritious Under Golden Trees is open at the MMAG Foundation in Amman until Thursday, December 5. Part two of the exhibition opens on Thursday, September 19