Putting east Jerusalem (back) on the cultural map

An art collector seeks to bring Palestinian art out of obscurity, while encouraging a new generation of Palestinians to create.

Mazen Qupty 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Mazen Qupty 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In 1984, when east Jerusalem was still considered a cultural center, Mazen Qupty attended his first art gallery opening. Looking at the paintings, he felt charged in a way he hadn't in law school. It made sense, because really it had been film that was his passion before graduate school. Even after moving for his studies to Tel Aviv from his native Nazareth, Qupty went to the Cinematheque between classes. If he could have, he would have watched one, two or even three films a day. So in his first interaction with the fine arts, he realized that painting and film were, for him, similar visual languages that spoke to him. "I went to law school by accident," he says. "But going to law school [and becoming a successful lawyer] gave me the means to collect." His first purchase in 1985 was the painting The Children of Our Neighborhood (1983), by Tayseer Barakat, a native of Gaza's Jabalya refugee camp, who graduated from the Alexandria College of Fine Arts in Egypt, before moving to Ramallah. In the work, a young boy plays on a swing, while faceless figures play in different frames in the background. Over the years, Qupty and his wife, Yvette, have purchased at least another dozen of Barakat's iconic paper and wood works, as well as approximately 170 works by 45 Palestinian artists living in the West Bank, Gaza, Israel and around the world. "I fell in love with the paintings; I just wanted to wake up with them," Qupty explains. Said Abu Shaqra, the founder and curator of the Umm el-Fahm Art Gallery in Wadi Ara, says Qupty has the world's largest collection of Palestinian art. Arab artists - Muslim, Christian, Beduin and sometimes Druse - who were born in Palestine, or whose families were born in Palestine before the founding of Israel, generally consider their identity Palestinian, even if they also have citizenship in Israel, Arab states or elsewhere. Qupty says that he may be the only serious collector of Palestinian art. In his Beit Hanina home in east Jerusalem, behind security cameras and gates, every available wall space is covered with original and colorful work, both abstract and figurative. That most of his works are in storage, though, reflects the current status of Palestinian art. "There is no market for Palestinian art," Qupty says. "You buy it from the artist very cheap and it's yours, in your home; there is no opportunity to see it as an investment, there is nobody to buy it and there is almost nobody to see it." In June, when the modern American painter and film director Julian Schnabel was in Jerusalem scouting movie locations, he visited Qupty in his home with a mutual friend from the art world. Qupty couldn't help but ask, "So how much do you get for a work of art?" Qupty, who has never paid more than $3,000 and usually pays significantly less, nearly lost his breath when the artist replied, "between $400,000 and $700,000." Arguably, the deficient market for Palestinian art is a result of many factors, including economic depression, travel restrictions to and from east Jerusalem and Ramallah, which were once cultural centers, and few opportunities to study and exhibit fine arts in the Arab community. Under the travel restrictions imposed since the 1987 intifada and especially since the second intifada in late 2000, West Bank Palestinians have been unable to frequent the cultural activities that east Jerusalem once boasted. Lost income at east Jerusalem movie theaters, galleries and other cultural organizations caused many of them to close their doors. The same also happened in nearby Ramallah. "When I moved to Jerusalem in 1983, there was a cultural life in east Jerusalem," remembers Qupty. "There were exhibitions by Palestinian artists. Jerusalem was open to the West Bank and Gaza and was the cultural center for Palestinians." Abu Shaqra's Umm el-Fahm gallery is the only operational gallery in Israel committed to displaying Palestinian works, as a matter of cultural exchange between Palestinian and other modern artists. Abu Shaqra announced last year plans to build the first Arab modern art museum in the country, an idea backed by the Culture Ministry. Freelance curator Jack Persekian, a Palestinian of Armenian origin, promotes Palestinian art through cultural exchanges and occasional exhibitions in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, through his Al-Ma'mal Foundation. Israeli museums do have small holdings of Palestinian works. The Israel Museum, for example, has five in its collection, including two locals, Haifa artist Sharif Waked and Druse artist Asad Azi, and three works by Palestinians living abroad: a large sculptural installation by the most well-known Palestinian artist, Mona Hatoum, and works by established artist Halil Rabah and emerging artist Jumana Amil el-Abud. Israeli curators face hurdles in collecting Palestinian art: The number of Palestinian artists on the market is still small compared to artists in other societies, and not all of the artists would choose to participate with Israeli institutions they see as part of the political hegemony. But regardless of affiliation, most local efforts to run contemporary Palestinian art institutions - by Palestinians or Israelis - have gone out of business. Palestinian art may not be a popular or a sound financial investment in today's market, but for the Qupty family, buying it was a personal pleasure as well as a way to support and encourage local artists, while preserving Palestinian culture. Still, over time, with most of the work hidden from view, Qupty would ask himself: What else can I do? AT A DINNER party in 2004, a diplomat's wife working for a local non-governmental organization waved her arm toward the large paintings around the Qupty dining room table. "It's a shame that anyone who wants to see these beautiful works has to come to your home; why not just open a museum," she apparently said. "That's crazy," Qupty replied. "How would I afford to or even know how to open a museum?" After that seed was planted, Qupty would think about the fact that at the time, there were no galleries in Israel or in the Arab neighborhoods around Jerusalem that were exclusively committed to employing Palestinian curators and exhibiting art works by or about Palestinians. And soon, a set of plans were emerging for workshops, schools, exhibitions - and the first Palestinian modern art museum. A few months later, Qupty registered the Al-Hoash modern art gallery, also known as the Palestinian Art Court. The gallery is intended to be a first-stage solution, until an appropriate building in east Jerusalem can be found, purchased and renovated into a museum. With money and guidance from the Spanish, French and Swiss governments, the UN Development Program and 22 Arab partners, including Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and billionaire businessman Munib Masri, the gallery opened its doors in a small space on Nablus Road, near the American Colony Hotel. The independent and non-profit organization is more than a gallery with ongoing exhibitions, with themes from the environment to feminist and nationalist issues. It also runs partially or fully subsidized art workshops for children, youth and women, an archive for Palestinian art and a publishing house. Its first book, published in 2007 in Arabic, English and Spanish, focuses on Palestinian women artists. A recent installation by Scottish artist Jane Frere displayed 3,000 suspended and faceless wax figures in motion, as if in a haunting exodus. The work was a compilation of figures made by children in Palestinian refugee camps - in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan and Lebanon - to remember the experiences of their parents and grandparents, who became dispossessed with the founding of Israel. Frere had traveled to the camps, where she led art workshops with the children, which culminated in the work. Qupty expects that getting a Palestinian modern art museum off the ground will take three to five years, between finding and training an appropriate staff, getting a building permit from Israel and raising enough money to purchase a space. The Spanish and French governments and a museum in Norway have agreed in principle to help with training for curators, conservators, and administrators. While he doesn't see the Arab states as a resource for museum training, Qupty does expect to solicit funds from the wealthier Arab countries to purchase and renovate a space. "Abu Dhabi is investing $2 billion to build the Louvre there. If we get 1 percent of that, it will be enough," he said, estimating a $10 million-$15 million building budget. "We want to maintain independence and credibility," he says of why he doesn't want funding from the Israeli or Palestinian governments. Qupty also recently founded the Palestinian Association of Contemporary Art, whose first project was to open an art school in Ramallah, where 14 artists are currently in residency, funded by the Norwegian government for the first three years. Beyond desires to preserve and promote Palestinian culture, Qupty has said that establishing a national museum will show the world the human and cultural side of Palestinians, which is not often portrayed in the media. "Many Israelis don't know there is Palestinian art and if they do know, they expect the work to be paintings with guns and direct political [images]," he said. "When they do see our works, they seem surprised at the quality and that it belongs to 'the enemy.'" While many Palestinian works since 1948 deal with nationalist themes and themes of resistance, Qupty says that the works he buys are not overtly political. Subjects in his collection include women in traditional embroidered dress, lush orchards, men riding donkeys, local architectural and landscape motifs, and abstract paintings with Christian motifs. There is some debate among art historians about the roots of Palestinian art. Palestinian painter and commentator Samia Halaby argues that, in contrast to the European art historical views, Palestinian Arab artists also have roots in the ancient pictorial and cultural traditions of the Mediterranean basin, and later from the geometric designs and illusion paintings of the Medieval period. According to the earlier writings of art historian Ismail Shammout, until 1948 Palestinian art was largely focused on traditional embroidery, ceramic painting, architecture, photography, calligraphy and iconography. In addition, a handful of Arabs born in Palestine started pursuing painting in a more modern tradition, including traditional scene painter Sophie Halabi, whose work from the 1920s and '30s the Quptys recently began to collect. Ironically, says Qupty, the Halabi works of east Jerusalem are a "a mirror image" of the Jewish painter Anna Ticho of west Jerusalem, from the same period. Perhaps one day there will be a joint retrospective, he muses. MEANWHILE, QUPTY is one of three Palestinians pursuing the building of an Arab modern art museum, but each with an altogether different vision. Abu Shaqra's museum in Umm el-Fahm will focus on modern Arab art from every country and will also feature Israeli and other international works. Persekian of Al-Ma'mal, who says he is in talks with a museum in Holland, prefers to have a collection of Palestinian art in an overseas rather than local museum, to reflect the sense of statelessness facing Palestinians. "When you say 'Palestinian museum,' there is so much to this icon; this building will represent so many people dispersed all over the world, so the museum should represent the issues and be a 'refugee museum' to represent the idea of being displaced. Symbols should reflect the particularity of the Palestinian in context." Qupty's museum will be the first local museum totally dedicated to Palestinian modern art and the first major center for Palestinian modern art in east Jerusalem. "You need three things [to create an art world within society]: art schools; an art market; and art museums," Qupty says. "It's important for everyone, including Israelis, to see that Palestinians have a cultural life and cultural history and are not just shooting and throwing stones and blowing themselves up. We also believe that art is a very good tool and maybe one of the best tools to tell [young people] that you can live a normal life, which includes going to art school, creating art, showing art, expressing yourself through art, that you don't have to express yourself through dramatic means. Even political message can be expressed through art and not through guns; so this is an important message and even a message of peace. When the museum opens, it will fulfill a dream." The Al-Hoash art gallery on Nablus Road in Jerusalem, tel. (02) 627-3501, is open Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday 12 noon to 7 p.m. The current exhibition is works from children's workshops; from August 8 with works from women's workshops; and from August 21 with photos by Khaled Jarar of women who struggle to travel from Ramallah to Jerusalem.