Opening in May at the Arab World Institute on the left bank of the Seine in Paris, an ambitious programme of talks, film screenings, and panel discussions will be exploring “what Palestine has brought to the world” from now until the end of September.
It is an opportunity for anyone finding themselves in the French capital this summer to attend events at the Institute throughout the week, with all of them relating to some aspect of Palestinian culture, politics, or society. There are talks and discussions on Palestinian art, literature, and archaeology in June, followed by similar sessions on Palestinian politics in July. Many of the events are free.
The programme is built around three related exhibitions that have taken over the Institute’s underground exhibition spaces as well as the temporary exhibition space in its museum of Arab history on the upper floors. Taken together, these supply a sometimes direct, sometimes oblique, look at many Palestinian themes.
The first of the three exhibitions, the Palestinians and their Museums, presents works collected over recent years for the proposed Palestinian Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art that is planned to be built in East Jerusalem. While plans for this are finalised, the collection is being housed and managed by the Arab World Institute, and the exhibition consists of selected works from it along with works taken from the Institute’s own collection of modern and contemporary Arab art.
The second exhibition, Images of Palestine, presents the work of 14 contemporary Palestinian photographers, their work being brought together by a common desire to break the stereotypes that sometimes still dictate the ways in which Palestine and the Palestinians are seen in some parts of the world. Older images of Palestine taken by European photographers in the late 19th century provide an intriguing contrast.
The third exhibition, the Briefcases of Jean Genet, presents the contents of two briefcases that French writer Jean Genet left with his Paris lawyers a few days before his death in 1986. Genet lived a notably peripatetic life, often travelling between Europe, the Middle East, and North America and living in a succession of hotels. The briefcases contain records of these travels along with drafts and manuscripts of Genet’s literary works and working materials relating to his support for the Palestinian cause.
Descending into the first of the exhibitions, housed in the Institute’s basement exhibition spaces, visitors come face to face with artworks that, though material, are as yet housed in what is still a “virtual” museum or at least one that has no permanent physical location. According to the wall texts introducing the exhibition, this situation says something about the present fortunes of many Palestinian people who find themselves living in different countries across the world without being able to return to their homeland.
With the proposed Palestinian Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art still without physical premises or a secure location, how might one best go about “building a museum in and for Palestine,” the exhibition asks. As the texts go on to say, the movement to set up public museums, notably museums of art, was historically associated with national self-consciousness, especially in Europe. One of the side-effects of the nationalism that spread across the continent in the 19th century was the building of a public art museum in almost every European capital.
Palestine is still without institutions of this sort that can record and express Palestinian identity and introduce especially members of the younger generations to main currents of modern and contemporary art. While such institutions cannot for the moment be built in Palestine itself for various, chiefly political, reasons, they can be built in virtual space thanks to the development of new technologies that can allow Palestinians and others across the globe to log into virtual Palestinian museums even if they cannot visit physical ones.
Events such as the Arab World Institute’s exhibition of selected works from the collection can give visitors a foretaste of what an eventual Palestinian Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art might look like. The project was launched by former Palestinian ambassador to the UN cultural agency UNESCO in Paris Elias Sanbar, also a leading writer, and since its founding in 2015 it has been able to put together a set of works that could eventually serve as the core of a Palestinian modern and contemporary art collection.
All the works have been given to the new Museum by their creators, with the result that the collection is an international and possibly also rather haphazard one as it is not the result of a consciously directed acquisitions programme. However, for Sanbar, interviewed in material available in the exhibition, this serendipitous aspect of the new Museum’s collection is a strength since visitors will understand that it is the result not of money or spending power but of generosity and international solidarity.
It also draws upon distinguished models such as the “museum of the future” that artists around the world contributed to after the coup d’état carried out by former general Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973 and the “museum against apartheid” whose collection was put together during the Apartheid regime in South Africa and was eventually installed in the country itself after the end of that regime in 1994.
“The Palestinian Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is in exile because exile expresses the period of transition,” Sanbar said. “Will we be able to establish the Museum in East Jerusalem when circumstances allow? We do not know, but we are working with this in mind.”
As if to underline the point, two smaller virtual exhibitions complete the presentation, one by the Sahab Museum (“Cloud” in Arabic) that seeks to set up an art museum for Gaza on the Internet and the other by the Eltiqa Gallery in Gaza City that invited 14 young Palestinian artists to create virtual artworks that could be hosted on the Sahab Museum site.
Another set of works, this time by Arab artists and drawn from the Arab World Institute’s own collections, is arranged around an installation commemorating the contributions made by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish to the Palestinian cause. A young Darwish is shown reading his long poem “Praise of the High Shadow,” madih al-zil al-ali, to the Palestinian parliament in exile in Algiers in 1983.
The second of the exhibitions, Images of Palestine, is a continuation of the first and sets late 19th-century commercial images of Palestine taken by European photographers against contemporary work by Palestinian photographers that variously criticises, completes, or reconfigures the orientalist gaze. The European photographs on show were produced by a Swiss company that had perfected an early colour process that enabled it to produce colour prints from the black-and-white negatives of the time. This technology presents Palestine as an empty space, as a survival or vestige of previous times, and as only peopled by various “native types.”
Set against these images, the photographs taken by the contemporary photographers show a wide range of ways of presenting today’s Palestine, sometimes carrying a political message with them and sometimes exhibiting a kind of black humour and subversive charge.
A sequence of images by Palestinian photographer Taysir Batniji presents houses wrecked during the 2009 Israeli attack on Gaza as if they were properties featuring in the catalogue of a real-estate agent. Mohamed Abusal, born in Gaza and now working in Paris, presents photographs of the “Gaza Metro,” being a set of photomontages of wrecked buildings contrasted with gleaming Metro signs.
Elsewhere in the Institute, a small exhibition invites visitors to inspect the contents of two briefcases left by the French writer Jean Genet with his lawyers before his death, presumably with a view to preserving them for posterity.
Made of what seems to be vinyl or imitation leather, these are also on display in the exhibition, though some at least of their contents have been spilled out into adjacent display cases and arranged by themes. These include Genet’s personal finances, with the contents consisting of copies of hotel bills and sketchy calculations scratched onto the backs of envelopes and strips of paper torn off newspapers, his involvement with protest movements in the 1970s, among them the US Black Panthers, and typed up copies and manuscripts of his newspaper articles and public pronouncements of the period.
The final display case includes pages from the typescripts of Genet’s last books, some of which were devoted in whole or in part to the Palestinian cause. The first of these, translated into English as Prisoner of Love and into Arabic as Asir Ashiq, was published soon after Genet’s death in 1986. The second, L’ennemi declaré, not translated, was published in French in 1991 and contains articles and interviews of several decades many of which are devoted to the Palestinians. Anyone interested in Genet’s later writing methods will be able to pore over the pages of typescript on display, blackened in many cases by his extensive rewritings and additions.
While there is a catalogue to the exhibition, entitled simply Genet’s Briefcases and produced by Albert Dichy of the French Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine, it is not clear how the material could be easily catalogued. Some of it consists simply of telephone numbers scratched on the backs of envelopes and what seem to be self-reminders to the author, though these are often illegible, scratched onto torn-off strips of paper. All of it is highly redolent of the period, with the phone numbers and addresses being those of leading intellectual figures of the 1960s and 1970s such as Michel Foucault, James Baldwin, Syrian dramatist Saadallah Wannous, and US actress and activist Jane Fonda.
Genet was a leading writer of the post-War period in France, according to his admiring contemporary the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre even its major novelist. However, after an astonishingly creative period immediately after the end of the Second World War followed by the production of a series of well-received plays, Genet seemed to have stopped writing, with Prisoner of Love coming at the end of a decades-long dry season.
According to the exhibition, it was Genet’s involvement with the Palestinian cause that encouraged him to write again. Arriving in the Jordanian capital Amman in 1970 in time to see the fighting of so-called Black September between the Jordanian armed forces and the Palestinian fighters, Genet became more and more sympathetic towards the Palestinian cause.
Thanks to his friendship with former Palestinian ambassador in Paris Leila Shahid, Genet decided to leave for Beirut in 1982 during the Israeli siege of the Lebanese capital, arriving in time to witness the massacres that took place in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in September 1982.
Genet wrote of the experience in his Quatre Heures à Chatila, four hours in Shatila, a horrified and horrifying account of the massacres that appeared in the Paris-based Revue des études palestiniennes in January 1983. As the exhibition puts it, “after years of silence, Genet had once again taken up his pen,” this time in defence of the Palestinians.
More generally, he had discovered following his involvement in the Black Panthers movement in the US after 1968 that “his personal revolt,” sketched out in his novels, “could also be a collective one.” He was henceforth destined to be the “captive” of movements of which he was also the “loving” admirer – as indicated in the title of his book on the Palestinian cause, Un Captif amoureux in the original French and Prisoner of Love in English.
Featuring many photographs, books, and documents from this period in Genet’s life and from the movements he supported, Genet’s Briefcases is a welcome opportunity to return to the intellectual ferment of the 1970s and early 1980s in Europe and the Middle East.
Ce que la Palestine apporte au monde, Arab World Institute, Paris, until 1 October
* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly