A visible improvement?

In an unlikely bid, several art and cultural centers are trying to enhance east Jerusalem's cultural scene.

Drought by Sliman Mansour 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Drought by Sliman Mansour 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
The wrought iron gate of Dar al-Tifl al- Arabi, the Arab folklore center on Mount of Olives Street in Sheikh Jarrah, doesn’t look like it has been changed in a while. The mansion and grounds behind the gate, however, have undergone sudden renovations for a new retrospective exhibition by Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour. The villa itself was once owned by the Nashashibi family, one of the powerful Arab family-clans that were important in Jerusalem in the early 20th century. Isaaf Nashashibi, an intellectual, built the house in 1922. It was built like a palace in a period when most of east Jerusalem’s houses were quite small.
For years after the death of Nashashibi, the house languished before being acquired by Dar al-Tifl al- Arabi in 1982. The organization was improbably run by the Husseini family, who were once the great rivals of the Nashashibis in Jerusalem politics. A pamphlet put out by the organization notes, “Once it became part of Dar al-Tifl, the association’s board of trustees decided that they were interested in reviving the palace artistically, culturally and literally… This palace is undoubtedly a major hallmark of the beloved city of Jerusalem and we are full of hope that this important building will continue to stand in years to come.”
To make it successful, it seems essential that the building live up to the facelift that it has undergone. The opening of the Mansour retrospective is a step in the right direction. Mansour was born in Bir Zeit in 1947 and claims to have founded the first art gallery in “Palestine,” Gallery 79 in Ramallah. His works have appeared in several books dealing with the Palestinians, particularly the cover of Birthing the Nation by Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh.
The opening of the show takes place against a long backdrop of ups and downs in the east Jerusalem cultural and artistic scene. Hadas Kedar, a lecturer at Bezalel who was born in Jerusalem, remembers that in the past there was a more lively cultural connection between east and west Jerusalem. “At the end of Jaffa Road, just before the Old City, there was an important gallery named the Gimel Gallery in the 1970s and 1980s. It showed cutting-edge political art by Israelis and Palestinians. Now it is a pharmacy, run by the same owner.”
She recalls another museum once connected to the municipality and an art gallery in the Armenian Quarter run by Jack Persekian. “Persekian had a special gallery where Mona Khatum, one of the most important Palestinian artists from Lebanon who today lives in London, showed her work. There was even talk that Yoko Ono, the wife of John Lennon, was going to show there. I remember that it had exhibitions in 1995 and 1996.”
Persekian, an Armenian, moved on to found Al- Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art at New Gate in the Old City. The Hindu, a newspaper in India, once claimed “If it weren’t for Persekian, there would be no art scene in east Jerusalem.”
His foundation runs a Web site that attempts to be hip but could use some work. Currently it is showing an installation by Ruba Salameh entitled “Out of Place” (a name that evokes Edward Said’s autobiography by the same name).
Salameh, who was born in 1985 and lives in Nazareth, describes her work as “shattering the boundaries of collective thought as a necessary process to the journey of the soul into self-consciousness.”
The Al-Ma’mal gallery receives extensive international coverage and support from organizations such as artpalestine.org, “a New York-based cultural organization dedicated to Palestinian contemporary art.” It is also supported by the London-based organization ArtSchool Palestine, founded in 2005, which is devoted to “facilitating structure and base for the development and promotion of contemporary Palestinian art.”
This Week in Palestine, a glossy monthly magazine that is said to have a circulation of 12,000 and has been published for the last several years, offers a list of all the cultural centers in the West Bank. The magazine lists 23 cultural centers in east Jerusalem and 36 in Ramallah, which has the most of any location. Kedar is adamant that despite the fact that Ramallah may seem like it has more cultural centers, east Jerusalem should be compared to Tel Aviv as the real location of up-and-coming culture among the Palestinians.
What is obvious from the list of places that are involved in culture in east Jerusalem is that many of them are devoted to either music or theater. Three of the places are run by foreign governments – the French Cultural Center, the British Council and the Turkish Cultural Center. There seem to be only three galleries. Many of the cultural activities are focused in an area near Bab al-Zahra (Herod’s Gate).
Kedar explains, “My feeling is that this area around the French Cultural Center and the bookshop is a cultural triangle.” Because of this, Kedar led a tour of the area on June 4. A few Israelis and foreign journalists joined her to see the emergence of an art scene in east Jerusalem.
“I wanted to take a small group around east Jerusalem,” she says. “Initially I started with trying to organize a group exhibition of Palestinian artists in west Jerusalem, but it was difficult to find people and it seemed politically that they were in a fragile situation and might be www. j p o s t . c o m IN JERUSALEM 11 east Jerusalem or that there is art being done there. It is kind of like a preview of what will happen in the future.”
The Al-Hoash gallery on Al-Zahra Street is at the center of the cultural triangle, and it is the same gallery that is hosting Sliman Mansour’s retrospective in Sheikh Jarrah. Mansour’s show is curated by Tina Sherwell, a British woman married to a Palestinian.
It is not easy to find Al-Hoash. It requires navigating the jumbled street and passing a giant sign for dentists and doctors before walking up the staircase to the gallery. The gallery itself is small but nice. The entrance is emblazoned with a giant list of the donors who have made its work possible: notable Palestinian families such as the Dajanis, Touqans and Husseinis, and foreign donors such UNRWA, Oxfam, UNDP, the Swiss Agency for Development, the Ford Foundation, the EU and the Belgian, French, Spanish and Danish consulates.
Hanan Wakeen is the public affairs coordinator of the gallery. Born in the small Christian Arab village of Mi’ilya in the Galilee, she studied at the Hebrew University and lives in French Hill. She notes that there is a cultural increase in the area. “The whole street is developing into a cultural center.”
Al-Hoash advertises in the local Arabic press, but not the Hebrew. It has little interest in attracting Israelis or the Hebrew press, which it views with some suspicion.
“We try to reach out to the local community, to students and people in this area,” says Wakeen. The gallery exhibits Palestinian and international artists and increasingly tries to bring east Jerusalem students to the gallery.
Imran Shanti, the man responsible for overseeing the show at Dar al-Tifl, was born in Beit Hanina in Jerusalem and studied business in Jordan. He found a job with Al- Hoash afterward. “There are few jobs here,” he says .
He helped Sliman Mansour set up his work in the gallery. One piece, entitled Drought, consists of clay that has been allowed to dry on wire mesh on the ground, so it looks like a desiccated stream bed. “I helped the artist with this for a week, and it took three more weeks to dry and complete.”
Shanti thinks that the local cultural scene is in trouble, that “it is suffocating,” but he hopes galleries like Al-Hoash will bring about an awakening. The Jerusalem municipality is working to promote art and culture in east Jerusalem and has allocated a little over NIS 1 million to a cultural department there. According to a statement by the municipality, the department has operated since 1995 and has a director and a cultural coordinator who works with seven other cultural coordinators in neighborhoods throughout east Jerusalem. But if these eight people all make a minimal salary, it seems that almost half the budget must go to them, leaving a paltry sum for promoting culture. Nevertheless, the city is trying to promote culture, including an Arab women’s day, 10 cultural events for Ramadan and other Muslim festivals, 60 plays at local theaters and more than 90 lectures and seminars on culture for youth and adults.
The reality is that east Jerusalem is experiencing a cultural improvement. It is one that mostly shuts out or has little interest in an Israeli audience and is directed inward. Kedar is excited, however, about what is happening. “I think at the moment that people are into their own identity and opening up to their own culture.”uncomfortable. Many people in Israel don’t know that there are galleries in