Christmas was fun. But in that non-creative void where the ghost of creative past rules the charts, the art world didn’t all come to a halt and Arts Canteen, a company dedicated to the promotion of Palestinian artists, brought us Despite a selection of 16 artists. (Cover photo Hani Zurob, Wainting #08, detail.)
“Do you celebrate Christmas?” I ask Aser EL Saqqa comfortably sitting in the sofa of Shoreditch’s top notch den: Rich Mix.
“It is important to celebrate Christmas. I celebrate all festivities as a human being but not as a religious celebration. I see Christmas in this,” he points at a distant canvas. The center is split in half by a line dark grey concrete that represents the Gazan strip barrier. An old blue car sits in the front of the wall on which is tied a red parachute hanging in the air, motionless, floating over the wall.
“What behind the wall by Mohammed Joha is the most horrifying factor of the occupation,” he tells me. “It’s the wall. When Christian community go to Palestine they are being stopped at checkpoints. Remember that Christ was born in Bethlehem, Palestine.”
Aser El Saqqa along with Nicola Gray, are both curators for Despite an exhibition of 16 Palestinians artists 11 of whom are from the Gaza Strip, Galilee, East Jerusalem or abroad like Mohammed Joha who will leave Palestine in 2004 and settle in Italy having carved a name for himself as an emerging artist from Art Education at the Al-Aqsa University in Gaza.
“It’s Palestine covered geographically and historically,” El Saqqa continues. “Art is not about exclusivity. I believe that we should be balanced in making it accessible. Gaza has always been a hub for artists and has seen many of them with clashing artwork. First grouped at Gaza College, artists used to exhibit there in the early 70s. As the Head of Public and International Relations for the ministry Of Culture after the Israeli-Palestinian peace process signed in 1994, it was not part of my job to create festivals and events but we had to expand the cultural scene in Palestine. Some of the artist exhibiting at the time were very young and I am very proud to see them here today, their progress, some of them taking up the stage and others involved at international scale.”
Installed in London, it is following Aser EL Saqqa’s visit back to Gaza in 2010 that Arts Canteen began as a newly established company taking on art. There, surprised by the sheer number of art produced post 2008 – 2009 armed conflict in the Gaza strip, El Saqqa intends to bring as much art as possible back to London. Yet, repeatedly stopped at the Egyptians’ border, he speaks to fellow artist Majed Shala and manages eleven pieces in a solo exhibition named Breathing the Air for the Shubbak festival 2011, the first contemporary Arabic festival in London sponsored by the Mayor of London.
“Because of the lack of exposure on Gazan art all of these artists need to be recognized,” he tells me. “There has always been a lot of focus on West bank artists: in terms of residencies and scholarship where they had more accessible borders, more NGOs taking west bank artists abroad. I do believe that some of these artists here are equally important as any other artist in the world.”
Late 2011, El Saqqa will export his collection to a commercial Art Fair up North, in Newcastle to see whether there could be a market for these artists. Unfortunately, the results were not as successful as expected and he is back to London for Defiance in Leytonstone a three weeks exhibition of 5 Palestinian artists from Gaza, showing about 14 pieces all together.
Crossing the large terrace/first floor we approach a few of the artworks. Hani Zurob, uses collage on hand painted background texture. Waiting #08 depicts his son on a plastic scooter at the bottom of grey pillars: the wall. Living in Paris the artist questions standards, personalizing the story of his life, adapting his own techniques into touching politically enhanced narratives.
Now facing what composed the flyer for the exhibition, Mohamed Joha’s Four Faces, (2011) is hypnotic. The four masked portraits on classic colour background show the reality and tangent representation of fear and insecurity, borders and isolation; cultural relation to privacy and identity.
“I know these artists want to be part of the global conversation within the artistic community. Culture and art are inseparable: it is the subject that they live in daily, it is the environment they are in, it’s the colours they are affected by, the symbolism, and every ingredient present on these canvases reflects the life that they live. Each of them with their own story.”
VD: I can tell there is something strong in the Despite display: combination of different styles, school of thoughts and generation, the exhibition strikes as unraveled history. Although I can fathom the loss of tradition and identity in the creative process, there is something missing from the overall: no physical connection with the political reality, it’s not daring almost soulless.
Aser El Saqqa: it is the artistic process that links each of these artists. Restriction or repression, they speak the same language, the place they share and it is the country they are living in despite the current political conflict. They are all united by artwork. What is important when working with artists is two fold: Respect and dignity. I am working with these artists because I appreciate the artwork but more importantly because the message delivered is a message of freedom. We cannot separate Palestine from the rest of the Arab world; Palestine is the heart of the Arab world and the Muslim world. Eyes are going in that direction everyday. It will be important to be part of that historical world.
The next Arts Canteen project will present Palestinian performances and installations called Resilience and light and hosted by Kent University, from the 6 to the 21 may 2013 and co-curated by Ben Thomas, Head of the Arts Faculty.