Defying the limits of occupation: Capturing Ramallah in art and literature

Sara Elkamel from Dubai, Sunday 24 Mar 2013

The importance of art and literature is heightened in the context of occupation, discuss Ramallah-based visual artist Shuruq Harb and author of ‘In Ramallah, Running,’ Guy Mannes-Abbott at Art Dubai's Global Art Forum

Shuruq Harb & Guy Mannes-Abbott discuss Place (Ramallah). (Photo: Art Dubai)
Shuruq Harb & Guy Mannes-Abbott discuss Place (Ramallah). (Photo: Art Dubai)

On Thursday, Art Dubai’s Global Art Forum discussed the power of art and literature to navigate otherwise unnavigateable occupied territories of Ramallah, and to imagine a different picture of “home.”

Held within the framework of the massive Art Dubai fair, the seventh installment of the Global Art Forum, directed by Istanbul based critic HG Masters, commissioned by forum director Shumon Basar and dubbed “It Means This” was a platform for a series of debates, performances, discussions and publications focusing on creating “a lexicon of ideas and concepts for the 21st century,” according to Basar.

The Global Art Forum, which kicked of in Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, presented topics such as ‘careering’ with former REM lead singer Michael Stipe and Douglas Coupland, a riveting lecture on score in Arab music, presented by Lebanese sound artist Tarek Atoui, a performance entitled Purity by Egyptian multidisciplinary artist Hassan Khan, and a discussion over Middle East Nervous Anxiety (MENA) featuring Art patron and Arab affairs commentator Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi.

On a panel discussing the anatomy of the word ‘place’ in reference to the de facto capital of Palestinian Authorities, Ramallah, ‘In Ramallah, Running’ author Guy Mannes-Abbott and Ramallah-based visual artist, and co-founder of the subversively charged independent art platform ArtTerritories, Shuruq Harb reveal how their artwork is a way in which they seek to understand, and defy, the parameters of the occupied city.

Introducing the panel, the quirky Shumon Basar explained that this year’s Global Art Forum attempts to tackle the notion of “Place,” a term that would appear easy to define. Sessions in this year’s forum seek to define Ramallah and the Nigerian capital, Lagos. Basar says that one thing both cities have in common is that they challenge artists to find alternative ways to capture them through artwork. Both these cities are “difficult” to describe, to write about, or to measure, says Basar, whether for political reasons or in the case of Lagos, one of the fastest growing capitals in the world today, for simply being “too big.”

“Running is the proof of my existence…I am running in Ramallah, and it is painful.” Guy Mannes-Abbott reads poignant excerpts from his running and walking texts, which function to capture the writer’s experience with the city, and by proxy reflect the labored heartbeat of a volatile city.

Mannes-Abbott is not a large man. The ginger-haired writer speaks rapidly, his fair skin often tinted red with excitement, he is short, his face bears a smile at all times. Mannes-Abbott dared to walk and run across sensitive streets and hills, but he was afraid. “I was very aware of my mortality as I walked up on the hill,” he reads.

The result of this precarious endeavor is a raw account of an alternative Palestine that unveils how insidious and transportable the limits are under occupation.  “I ran within limits, beyond limits…you discover that limits are within you…that’s how occupation works.”

Visual artist Shuruq Harb would never run in Ramallah. In fact, the artist takes small steps and does not drive, in order to dream up a bigger space. “In order to feel the place is bigger, I walk,” she says.

Amin explains that her definition of the word place has less to do with the physical aspects of the city, and more to do with the people and connections that exist among them. For her, Ramallah is all about imagination, and that makes it larger than life.

“In the context of Ramallah, Palestine, because it is a prison, you need to imagine other places.”

To applause from about a third of the international audience, Amin says that the future she imagines for Palestine is to see it back in the region, rather than tucked away in isolation.

During the discussion on ‘place’ Shuruq Harb presents one of her art projects, entitled ‘All the Names’, a larger than life blue aluminum sign that lists 210 Ramallah street names conjured up by the Ramallah Municipality starting 2005, in their effort to “keep up the façade of normalcy” in the city, according to the artist.

This re-naming of streets through borrowing the names of an assortment of Arab and Islamic intellectuals along with foreign thinkers and artists including Picasso and Freud intrigued Harb, both as a visual phenomenon that reflects the characters and identities that Ramallah seeks to identify itself with (a mixture of resistance cultural diversity) and as an effort to “trim and groom” her city to make it user-friendly.

Both artists thus created artwork that reflects their encounters with the city, capturing Ramallah in words and images. “Often places require embodiment through cinema, literature, music, images and words,” says Shumon Basar.

Shuruq Harb says that within the Palestinian art scene artists are working with a variety of mediums and forms, yet due to the context of political turmoil, there is a tendency for artwork to be “literal and bullshit,” in that it unoriginally perpetuates the same media-circulated images of stone-throwing and hijacking, because it is easier to do so than to step out of the box. Harb referenced Mourid Barghouti's statement that in times of trouble, the community tends to want something that is literal rather than complicated.

“They need to imagine something else,” Harb says. Art and literature become more important in the context of occupation, the artist believes, because they are tools for understanding and for autonomous thought and expression. “Occupation is internalized,” she says, so it becomes both necessary, and challenging, to break out of the patterns and create something original.

Esteemed Palestinian poet and writer Mourid Barghouti, who was scheduled to appear in this session but could not make it, is cited as a source of “a different kind of art discussing the form” of Palestine, rather than the media’s (and art scene’s) limited snapshot, often devoid of depth or substance. Barghouti is hailed by the speakers for his skillful blending of “politics, people, and poetry.”

The impression you get from these artists is that in many ways, even though you can run round in circles in Ramallah, in Palestine even (not in the absence of risk), there is only so far you could go.  From Ramallah, the world is flat. If you approach the edge you do so at your own peril, and in a way if you dare to step off, there is nowhere else to go. The artwork coming out of the region is what gives the city its multi-dimensionality. Artists defy occupation by defying its limits through imagination and artwork.

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