Unveiling art

A Bethlehem exhibit showcases emerging Palestinian artists.

teardrop 298 (photo credit: (Courtesy))
teardrop 298
(photo credit: (Courtesy))
To paraphrase, and somewhat distort, the most oft-quoted lunar walk in history, a recent trip to the International Center of Bethlehem was a small step from home but felt like a giant sociopolitical leap. While the Palestinian city is just "over the road" or, more precisely, just across the security fence, very few Israelis pop over to catch an exhibition and, while they are at it, pick up some coffee and baklava. The occasion for my brief jaunt over to the Palestinian Authority was the opening of an art exhibition at the Al-Kahr Gallery on Paul VI Street off Madbasse Square, not far from downtown Bethlehem. The exhibition included works by four Palestinian artists - Inas Halabi, Ayman Tarshah, Wael Burkan and Layla Hamdieh. According to Hamdieh, there is plenty of artistic endeavor to be had in the Palestinian Authority. "There are galleries in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin and especially in Gaza," she says. "There are quite a few Palestinian top-quality artists, and I think they produce interesting work." The exhibition in Bethlehem was entitled Without Walls, and was the first in Bethlehem in which Hamdieh had participated. For her, the trip from her home in Wadi Joz, in east Jerusalem, to Bethlehem was, in fact quite a long one. "It took me about an hour and a half, but it was well worth it." Hamdieh has been painting for over 20 years, studying at the Aley Center near the Rockefeller Museum in east Jerusalem. Until recently it was hard finding the time to set brush to canvas. "I worked in special education for 25 years," she explains. "That is very demanding work, both in physical and emotional terms, to I didn't have much time or energy left to paint after I got home at the end of the day. But I have left special education, and now I can paint more." Hamdieh contributed 11 paintings to Without Walls exhibition, some abstract and some more clearly inspired by her hometown. "Jerusalem is very important to me," she says. "It is where I live and it is, of course, a symbol." Burkan, on the other hand, could almost be defined as the quintessential Jerusalem artist. Every one of his works has Jerusalem as its central theme. "It is such a beautiful city, and so important to so many people," he explains. "It certainly is to me." Unlike Hamdieh, Burkan has the benefit of outside perspective which, he says, both enhances his work and has ironically strengthened his bond with his own roots. "I lived in Denmark for seven years. I learned from the Danes to be proud of my history. Before I moved to Denmark, for me Jerusalem was just the place where I was born and grew up. But now I see how rich its history is and how wonderful it is." When Burkan moved back here six years ago, together with his Danish-born wife and two children, he found he had a lot to catch up on, and to express. "Some people told me I was lucky to have spent those years in such a peaceful environment in Denmark, while they went through the intifada. Yes, life is much calmer in Denmark but in a way, having that time out was also something of a curse. People who had been here the whole time had gotten used to the situation, and sort of accepted it as natural. I know there is another way to live." In the past few years reality has smacked Burkan in the face - almost literally. "I live in Abu Dis, and my home is just 100 meters away from the security wall. It is so ugly. You can't ignore it. You get up in the morning, full of energy and looking forward to the day ahead, and then step outside and see this monstrosity. It is so depressing." The security fence - both in physical form and in sentiment - informs much of his work, as does the Old City. "I spent a lot of time in the Old City, walking through the alleyways and taking in the sights, the smells and the energies there." Burkan, literally, incorporates some of those aesthetics and olfactory elements in his work. "I use coffee sediment, sand and all sorts of spices from the Old City in my paintings," he explains. "I want my pictures not just to show Jerusalem, but also to feel and smell like it." Burkan also says his artistic approach has changed since he returned here from Denmark. "You can't help but be changed by what you see, and the things around you. I once tried doing something about the ugly [security] wall. I thought I'd paint some things on it - to improve its look and make it more bearable, but some soldiers stopped me." And Burkan is not the only member of the family who feeds off the political dynamics here. "My kids also paint. Sometimes they do pictures of Israeli soldiers, and sometimes of life in Denmark. I think it is sad when children become adults before they have completed their childhood." Like Burkan, Inger Jonasson has the benefit of extraneous insight. The Swedish art coordinator of the International Center of Bethlehem has overseen numerous exhibitions during her three-year tenure there. "Of course there is something uplifting about art," she says. "It also takes on the characteristics of local life. Swedish art, for example, is very much about landscapes and light. Palestinian art is far more expressive. The painters depict the situation, the security fence and the harsher side of their lives. But they also use humor. That's very healthy." Ultimately, Hamdieh says art is a two-way street. "I have paintings in which I expressed something and then someone has come along to an exhibition and interpreted them in a way I didn't consciously mean. But that's okay. We all have our own way of looking at things." For more information about the exhibition, and the International Center of Bethlehem, go to: www.annadwa.org.