More than a cultural link: Jack Lang's French Arab Institute tries to help Gaza's artists

Times have never been more challenging for man who has spent more than a decade in charge of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris

Institut du Monde Arabe president Jack Lang attends a demonstration calling for peace in Gaza. AFP
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It houses the biggest collection of contemporary and modern Arab art in the western world and is under the firm hand of Jack Lang, 84, a veteran French politician well acquainted with the Middle East and the intricacies of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Yet the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris has found new relevance and fresh challenges since October 7. Few could have guessed that Lang's idea of an exhibition on Palestine, first discussed in 2022 and then launched in May, would take on such political relevance. When the Hamas-led attacks on Israel occurred, the exhibition was winding down but it was then extended until late December.

For Lang, the conflict that followed was a trigger for the IMA to take the next step, launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise €108,000 ($118,000) to enable 16 artists to flee to France.

"I felt the Palestinian people had been abandoned," says Lang, explaining to The National why he felt such an exhibition was necessary in the first place. "Those terrible events helped highlight the unjust fate of the Palestinians."

Titled What Palestine Brings to the World, the exhibition shed light on a vibrant art movement in Palestinian territories undermined by conflict. Its popularity also highlighted art's role as a bridge between Europe and the Arab world as Middle Eastern leaders accuse their western counterparts of double standards over the war.

Mr Lang says he has "always had hope" for Palestinians. He explains: "It goes back very far – I was a small child in 1948. But this issue has always been badly dealt with.

"Too often, Palestine is looked at through the lens of conflict. People are unaware that they are great people, creative people, inventive people. The exhibition paid tribute to the people themselves beyond political circumstances."

Many Gazan artists who participated in the exhibition were directly affected by Israel's military response in the enclave that has so far killed more than 30,000 people.

A member of a collective of artists involved in the exhibition, Mohammed Sami Qreqe, 24, died in the bombing of Al Ahli hospital on October 17. Lang had met the young man, a volunteer art teacher in Gaza, during a visit to the enclave and Jerusalem last summer.

Qreqe had contributed to the painting og one of the IMA Palestine exhibition's centrepieces: a dreamy blue and white cloud. Titled The Museum of Clouds, the oil painting represented an imaginary museum for Palestinians.

It was chosen as a symbol of the virtual cloud, where memory can be preserved online, and embodied possibilities for Palestinians to imagine their future.

The canvas was sewn in Gaza and had to transit via Jerusalem, Ramallah, Tel Aviv and Leipzig before arriving in Paris. A moment, Lang says, that was "very moving and beautiful".

A 'bridge of friendship'

Launched in 1987, the IMA is the brainchild of former French and Saudi leaders Valery Giscard d'Estaing and King Khalid. Lang remembers they "wanted to create a bridge of friendship and culture between the Arab world and the western world after the oil crisis".

Born in 1939 in eastern France to a Jewish family, Lang joined the Socialist Party and is often touted as France's most popular former culture minister for launching a free annual music festival in 1982.

He went on to become an MEP, an MP and education minister between 2000 and 2002. The French press credits him for giving new visibility to the IMA since his appointment as its head in 2013 and subsequently boosting visitor numbers to 700,000 a year.

But it is the years he spent alongside former French president Francois Mitterand that he highlights when speaking about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Those were times that some French diplomats reportedly view with nostalgia today – times when French diplomacy in the Middle East was distinct from that of its western allies.

Mr Lang said he was present when Mitterrand gave a speech to the Knesset in 1982 during the first visit by a French leader to Israel since its establishment in 1948. "It is up to the Palestinians, like others of whatever origin, to decide their own fate," said Mr Mitterrand.

Israel's prime minister at the time, Menachem Begin, accused the French government of pro-Palestinian bias and said the establishment of a Palestinian state would destroy his country.

"I accompanied the President in many countries, including Israel and Syria at the time of [Bashar] Al Assad's father [Hafez]," said Mr Lang.

"Every time, he held the same position, whoever he spoke to. The position of Francois Mitterand was a balanced position of the recognition of two people, of two cultures, of two nations," he said.

Asked whether he viewed President Emmanuel Macron's position on the conflict as equally balanced, Mr Lang answered: "It's another kind of balance."

Mr Macron has recently become tougher on Israel after offering apparently unconditional support following the October attacks.

"In the past months, or the past weeks, President Macron has given more importance to Palestine," said Mr Lang.

"Proof of this can be found in the fact that the Foreign Ministry, of which he is the boss, gave financial support to the exhibition on Palestine so that it could be extended by a month and a half."

'No equivalent' to the IMA

The job of IMA president is decided by the French president and approved by a board of directors. The board includes seven ambassadors from the Middle East and seven prominent French personalities chosen by the Foreign Ministry, such as Patrick Pouyanne, the head of the energy company TotalEnergies.

There is no equivalent in the western world to the IMA, according to Mr Lang. "It's the biggest collection of modern and contemporary Arab art in the West," he said.

He pointed to ties between France and the Arab world dating back to King Francis I, who sealed an alliance with Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire in 1536. King Francis I had previously founded the College de France where Arabic was taught alongside Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew.

Heading the IMA is a prestigious job and Mr Lang faced stiff competition for the renewal mandate in December, including from former foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. In July Mr Le Drian was instead chosen to be the head of Afalula, the French agency for the development of the ancient Saudi city of Al Ula.

Mr Lang's position involves close relations with the entire Arab world as exhibitions often travel onwards to the region and elsewhere. A previous exhibition on Arab divas was shown in Amsterdam for the past year and is heading to Jordan. The Gaza part of the Palestine exhibition is soon moving to Tunisia. A current exhibition on Arab perfume is scheduled to continue onwards to Saudi Arabia.

"Our relationships are first and foremost with artistic and intellectual communities, not institutions," said Mr Lang. Exceptions include donations from states such as the UAE and Qatar to support Arabic-language teaching at the IMA and a globally recognised language certificate delivered by the institute.

Mr Lang highlighted the recent inclusion of Zaki Nusseibeh, cultural adviser to the UAE's Sheikh Mohamed, into the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, as an "exceptional example of francophilia and francophonie." Mr Nusseibeh is of Palestinian heritage.

"I like to say it's the same fight for the French language and the Arabic language," said Mr Lang. "I am all for multilingualism. I regret the domination of a watered-down version of English. I'm not against English, but countries must fight for their national language. It's a treasure."

Updated: March 11, 2024, 12:06 PM