By Rawan Sharaf
In 2019, upon my return to Palestine after a few years of studying abroad, I was asked by the Palestinian Art Court–Al Hoash, a Jerusalem-based cultural institution that specializes in the visual arts, to assist in reviewing its strategic vision and help build a two-year plan for the institution. Thus, I became involved in the establishment of YURA–Palestinian Visual Art Resources, an open-access source in Arabic that archives material on Palestinian art and a platform for the production and dissemination of research-driven critical knowledge. As a former director of Al Hoash (2006–2013) and a contributor to its founding, I had the privilege of knowing what cultural assets this institution owns and what potential its archive holds – specifically in the Al-Wasiti Art Archive. Al Hoash specializes in the collection, presentation, and interpretation of Palestinian visual art and has accumulated over 15 years of work experience and cultural capital; it fosters research and knowledge production in the visual arts, as manifested notably in its remarkable series of publications that includes anthologies, artists’ monographs, and catalogs. Yet, like most cultural institutions in Jerusalem, Al Hoash faces challenges to its ability to sustain itself under extremely difficult funding conditions and scarce resources. These challenges have frequently hindered the organization’s ability to maintain its mission of accumulating knowledge, making it accessible to the Palestinian public, and preserving it as part of our collective experiences and knowledge.
In addition, this opportunity to embark on such a project came just after I finished my studies on the politics of the Palestinian art field, and corresponded to an area of both personal interest and what I believed to be a collective necessity. Researchers in the Palestinian cultural field face a dearth of reliable resources or are unable to access the existing ones, whether primary material or research and critical literature, which hampers their research and knowledge-production endeavors. Despite the rich legacy of Palestinian visual art experiences and practices, there has been little systematic collection, preservation, documentation, and archiving of cultural production and practices. Most individual or institutional efforts to engage in such ventures are scattered and remain inaccessible or obliterated. The risk of losing this material and what it embodies in terms of memory, knowledge, and narratives lingers – while the Israeli occupation remains. Over the past 74 years, Palestinian cultural productions and heritage, whether tangible or intangible and in official archives or private collections, have been exposed to very harsh acts of systematic looting, dispossession, and destruction by the Zionist machine of aggression, ranging from the 1948 mass expulsion of the Palestinian people and the destruction of hundreds of villages during the Nakba to the raiding and plundering of the PLO headquarters and archives in Beirut during the 1982 invasion, the repeated military aggression against Gaza, and the raiding and seizing of libraries, archives, and documents of Palestinian organizations in Palestine in general and Jerusalem in particular. However, the last few years have witnessed among Palestinian institutions an upsurge in projects that collect, archive, and digitize resources. They have resulted in collections such as The Palestinian Museum’s Digital Archive,*1 an extensive endeavor to archive the social history of Palestine, and Khazaaen,*2 a community-based, voluntarily led societal archive that documents the daily life of Palestine and the Arab world, to name only two. Yet none of these projects specializes in the visual arts.
But how does all the above connect to the present project detailed here? Personal passion, organizational capacity, and collective concern were the motivation behind the Palestinian Visual Art Resources program – a multifaceted, long-term program that seeks to generate, provide, and facilitate knowledge and resources on Palestinian art to a range of audiences, including artists, curators, and researchers. It is not an archive project per se but a project of collecting and making accessible visual art resources, including archival material, to Arab and Palestinian audiences, and fostering the generation of historical and critical knowledge around these materials through various methods. And when we say visual art archival material and resources, we do not necessarily refer only to visual material but rather to all forms of productions through which art and cultural practices become part of the social public arena, including textual and visual material, publications, posters, catalogues, photos, etc.
Over a period of three years, Al-Hoash invested collective efforts through its team, friends, volunteers, and partners to bring to light this project in its foundational phase. It was a long, exciting, challenging, and frequently tedious labor of love and dedication by a small team, working with limited resources and under the restrictions and closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.x3 The foundational phase included the digitization of archival material through a partnership with Khazaaen, observing, classifying, and preparing the metadata for this material, recruiting researchers to produce research papers from the archive, and developing the digital platform and launching it.
Al-Wasiti Art Archive, gifted to Al Hoash in 2006, constituted the main archival material in this first phase. It was initiated in 1997, when artist and researcher Tina Sherwell joined the team of the Al-Wasiti Art Centre in Jerusalem (1996–2002) to set up an organized Palestinian art archive, and was halted in the year 2001, when the art center lost its venue, had to close its doors, and was eventually dissolved. This stands as yet another ambitious Palestinian project of documentation and institutionalization that sadly was terminated. The archive, along with the center’s institutional documents, remained in the custody of Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour until 2006, when it was granted to Al Hoash upon its establishment. Since then, Al Hoash has maintained the archive, storing it in metal cabinets in a corner of its premises. I remember the times when the Al Hoash team and its board members explored ways to preserve this archive, make it accessible, and make good use of it. As a Palestinian, I believe that we as a collective share an existential concern when it comes to our cultural productions and heritage. It’s more of a syndrome, where we feel obliged as individuals and as groups to collate and preserve our productions as a way of negating the Zionist-constructed narratives. However, the tedious cycle of working in Palestinian civil society, continuously struggling to maneuver ways through the politics of international funding, its instability, conditionality, and contribution to de-development in many cases, kept such an important project for years on the margin.
In its foundational phase, Al Hoash digitized over 2,000 items of archival materials from the Al-Wasiti Archive that cover the period from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. The Al-Wasiti Archive was developed and compiled around artist files. Each file includes the artist’s biography, documentation of his/her artworks in the form of photographic slides, and copies of postcards, exhibition catalogs, media clips, and other forms of relevant material. It also contains Al-Wasiti’s institutional archives, including documents of cultural events, exhibitions, catalogs, and photographs, all of which stand as a witness to a crucial period in Palestinian modern history, namely, the mid-1990s post-Oslo period. This period witnessed epic changes in local, regional, and international politics. It saw the NGO-ization of the Palestinian cultural field, transforming it from voluntary, politically driven, and community-based collectives into a format of internationally funded institutions. It is also the period just before digital media and cyberspace took over as tools and mediums of archiving and knowledge production. All this makes the archive unique and valuable. It also included invaluable material that documented the establishment and practices of the League of Palestinian Artists (Rabitat al-tashkilyin al-falastinyin), including a trove of documents, both original and photocopied; flyers, invitations, media clips, copies of handwritten minutes of board meetings, letters to artists inviting them to participate in exhibitions, catalogs of the annual Rabitat exhibition, by-laws, articles, and tens of other documents.
Today, and after three years of diving through archival material, the Arabic digital platform YURA, the pillar component of the Palestinian Visual Art Resources program, can be electronically accessed and viewed by the wide audiences of cyberspace. It offers three main components: archives that offer digital archival material on Palestinian art and its social history; a library that displays the catalog of books published by Al Hoash; and a future national index on books and research published on Palestinian art, and the stories and research papers that present newly published research and articles inspired by the archive. YURA derives its name from the Arabic verb ra’a (رأى) which means to see, signifying sight and vision because it is essentially specialized in visual art. But the word denotes a range of other meanings, including: to witness, to consider, to conceive, to discern, and to take notice as well as notions of opinion, perception, perspective, and point of view. In this respect, YURA aims to stand as a witness; it allows its visitors to see, perceive, and comment, and offers a space for discussion, critique, and knowledge production. YURA aspires to grow to become the main address for reliable primary and research resources on Palestinian visual art. It strives to serve as a source of inspiration for the production of interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral projects, including exhibitions, seminars, and discussions and for the generation of new knowledge that is digitally available to Palestinians now and in the future, here and abroad. Al Hoash perceives this as part of its role to proactively contribute to the preserving and constructing of the fragile Palestinian social, cultural, and political narratives by using visual arts.
Article photos courtesy of the Palestinian Art Court – al-Hoash. Photos by Ahed Izhiman.
*1 For more information, please visit www.palarchive.org.
*2For more information, please visit www.khazaaen.org .
*3This program was generously supported by A.M. Qattan Foundation through the “Visual Arts: A Flourishing Field” (VAFF) project, funded by Sweden.