Can this project bring contemporary art to conservative towns in Palestine?

Two Palestinian organizations have cooperated to launch a program in the conservative town of al-Dahriya that involved artists interacting with residents to prepare an exhibition.

al-monitor People take part in a visit to al-Dahriya during which the Artist Residencies Trail was announced, al-Dahriya, West Bank, seen in a picture uploaded March 12, 2019.  Photo by Facebook/QattanFoundation.

Apr 5, 2019

Through the joint effort of two Palestinian organizations, a new program is bringing contemporary art where it has never gone before. An artist-in-residency program co-sponsored by Riwaq and the Abdel Mohsen Qattan Foundation will enable the residents of the conservative West Bank town of al-Dahriya, south of Hebron, to paint, produce a short film, make puppets and take part in a number of other creative activities.

In al-Dahriya's historic old town, the ruins of a Roman fort point to the past strategic importance of its location and its role as a defense outpost as well as a hub of commerce between Hebron and the Negev. Some of its historical monuments, such as the old market and surrounding buildings, were renovated by Riwaq — Centre for Architectural Conservation, which aims to protect Palestine's architectural and archaeological heritage.

After the renovations, Riwaq partnered with the Ramallah-based Abdel Mohsen Qattan Foundation to highlight art and culture in the town through the Artist Residencies Trail. The program, which began in March, will bring seven Palestine-based artists to al-Dahriya, one after the other, for week-long stays at the historic al-Dahriya Guesthouse, a piece of Palestinian heritage restored by Riwaq in 2016.

Riwaq co-director Shatha Safi told Al-Monitor that after Riwaq finished its work on the guesthouse, the municipality provided the supplies and services required to accommodate visitors and tourists. Riwaq wanted to inaugurate use of the building with a program that would bring the local population into contact with the arts and attract cultural and intellectual investment for the city.

Yazid Anani, director of public programs at the Qattan Foundation, told Al-Monitor that the program has faced a few challenges.

“It was somewhat difficult for the residents to accept the cultural and artistic activities,” Anani said. “The residents of the old town in al-Dahriya are very conservative and have a hostile perception of art. Some residents even labeled the program as offensive and violating public decency.”

Qattan worked with the municipality to overcome such resistance. “The municipality issued a statement stressing the value of this program,” Anani remarked. “We are determined to change this misconception [about art]. We want to advance art and culture throughout Palestine."

The Qattan Foundation had previously been involved in a similar but smaller residency project in Asira al-Shamaliya, north of Nablus. As for the al-Dahriya project, Anani explained, “This is a larger program, with plastic arts, animation, recycling waste into sculptures and artworks, photography, theatrical production, scriptwriting and storytelling by a group of storytellers who will visit houses and coffee shops to collect popular stories. A special stand will be allocated to storytellers where they will be telling the stories they learn from the town.”

Mohammed Salih Khalil, founder of the Ramallah-based Visual Arts Forum and an art director at the Ministry of Culture, became al-Dahriya's first artist-in-residence. During his six-day residency in early March, Khalil taught portrait painting to interested locals. He told Al-Monitor that the residency was the first time that he had taught younger generations from a small town and that his visit to al-Dahriya was another first.

At the end of the residencies, the paintings created by Khalil's students’ will be displayed along with other works by local budding artists produced during the other artists' residencies. Khalil said those he taught were both eager and committed.

“This was a rich and unique experience,” Khalil remarked. “I hope it can be repeated in other towns in Palestine.” 

For Khalil, the program appeared to be beneficial from both a personal and professional perspective. “The Artist Residencies Trail is an opportunity to engage emotionally [with local people],” he said. “It pushes the artists to give more and boosts their sense of belonging [to Palestine].”

According to Khalil, the residency program and the restoration of the town’s historic center have had a major impact on the town, particularly on the aesthetic perceptions of its youths. “No similar artistic activity was ever been conducted in their town,” he said.

Basel Naser, director of The Animation Factory, was the second artist-in-residence. He arrived in al-Dahriya in late March with 15 years of experience in the visual arts and with Raouf Haj Yahia, a cameraman and visual artist.

“We organized a workshop on making puppets and performing puppet shows,” Naser told Al-Monitor. “We then organized a workshop on animation techniques and on making short films. The workshops target amateurs who want to improve their skills.” Participants in his residency projects will produce a film to be screened at the final exhibition.

Safi said that al-Dahriya’s old town is only one of 50 historical centers where Riwaq is working to preserve historical structures. “We hope that these restored buildings will attract new institutions,” Safi explained, with the goal that they will set up shop in these locations and revitalize cultural life there.

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