Jump in a taxi in downtown Ramallah, agree on a fare of about 40 shekels, and in 15 minutes you will be blinded by a striking white building, poised on a hilltop like a bird about to take flight. Although completed in May 2016, it took 15 months to fill the spectacularly designed and landscaped Palestinian Museum in Ramallah, a long saga of inefficiency and corruption.
Then, after initially living up to the stereotypical view of Palestinian chaos, the museum changed tune with a powerful inaugural show. “Jerusalem Lives” (till Jan 31 2018). Curated by Reem Fadda, it explores the pivotal role, symbolism and impact of this much coveted city. Multi-disciplinary and fearlessly political, the exhibition above all references the iniquities and challenges of the Israeli occupation. Even four digits of the museum phone number refer to the nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 when 750,000 Palestinians lost their homes to make way for the creation of Israel.
And it seems the new director, British educated Mahmoud Hawari, is not only making this museum a hub for local cultural activity but also building links with international partners such as the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Let’s hope it brings international attention to this long bleeding wound of the Middle East.
Built on land donated by neighbouring Birzeit University, the bold, innovative architecture by Irish practice Heneghan Peng blends seamlessly with the arid rolling hills that surround Ramallah. Equally important is the exterior where terraced grounds spill down the hillside carpeted in dozens of immaculately landscaped Mediterranean plants.
Artworks placed among the beds include a sound-installation by Basel Abbas and Ruanne About-Rahme, so accompanying the visitor with voices muttering in Arabic from the undergrowth.
Standing on the outer edge is Key of Return, by Indian artist Sudarshan Shetty (above), a mysterious, five-metre high structure wrapped in tarpaulin. Packed to travel? Waiting for the return? Possessions in storage? It clearly symbolises the plight of so many Palestinians who were forced to abandon their homes in 1948, while the dome echoes a Muslim shrine.
On the terrace outside the museum café, Nida Sinnokrot‘s iconic piece, KA (Oslo) – above – basically a huge rusty digger, raises its ‘arms’ to the sky to reference the ongoing demolitions of Palestinian and Bedouin homes. It makes a surreal contrast to the pristine white limestone façade and designer furniture. Even the rooftop is crowned by an artwork – Falling stone, Flying stone by Syrian artist Yazan Khalili – a huge chunk of Jerusalem limestone defying gravity.
More impact comes from Dubai artist, Mohamed Kazem, whose graphic work Directions (Border) – above – blankets an entire glass wall of the museum with vinyl GPS coordinates – in turn reflected onto the floor by the powerful sunlight. The coordinates refer to cities Kazem is prohibited from visiting, such as Jerusalem, Beirut and Damascus – a condition all too familiar for young Palestinians as anyone under 50 cannot visit Jerusalem or Al-Aqsa mosque, one of Islam’s most sacred sites, unless married with children. The Israeli idea is that young fathers won’t pull knives.
Inside, “Jerusalem Lives” takes the visitor through a maze of photos, graphics, statistics, sculotures, installations and the odd painting. Mona Hatoum’s installation of cubes of olive-oil soap stands out, though more moving still is the beaded model of the Dome of the Rock (below) made in an Israeli prison by Nader Al Jubeh. The artwork was apparently smuggled out of the prison while still unfinished to avoid detection by Israeli authorities. It’s exquisite, a bejewelled dream for Palestinians.
And then of course there are dozens of takes on the infamous separation wall, most dramatic being the huge, moody photographic enlargements by Jerusalem artist, Rula Halawani – simply entitled Wall (below). That says it all.