Transcript from the International Academy of Art Palestine

Oraib Toukan

(Events Called Schools)
International Academy of Art Palestine*
Ramallah, November 28, 2011

The following is a conversation among students about art education and its institutions. It’s a trimmed version translated from Arabic. It documents a particular moment, November 28, 2011, at 10:00 a.m. The conversation unfolded in a session I moderated at the end of one of my teaching terms at the International Academy of Art Palestine in Ramallah and as part of a series of audio-recorded sessions that document current working ideas among artists at the academy. The artists present were Abdullah Awad, Asma Ghanem, Awatef Roemy, Bisan Abu Eiesheh, Ingrid Bøe, Jamal Sabri, Noor Abed, Osama Nazzal, Ramzi A’ssad, Razan Akermawy, and Taqi Alddin Sbatin.

I would first like to address the ritual of documentation, the strange desire to put a recorder in front of one’s students. Looking through photographs of student performances at the International Academy of Art, I was reminded of just how iconic an academy can become, through the mere act of documenting it. Consider the much-disseminated images of Joseph Beuys and Blinky Palermo watching a performance at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1965, or Merce Cunningham and John Cage teaching at Black Mountain College in 1953. These images shift the terms of looking at an academy, from the academy as an institution, to the academy as an event. An event is the conjoining of a time and place, to a certain time in the history of that place. The International Academy of Art is a telling example of this; both as an exhilarating event unfolding in the wake of Palestine’s numerous pedagogical experiments, and as a product of its particular context. This is no different from, say, Bard’s CCS and MFA programs, which are very much tied to the context of New York, and which might be silenced without the city setting.

The International Academy of Art Palestine (referred to as the Academy from here on) is in fact an old Arab house with a garden, located in an alley right behind the Arab Bank in Bireh, Ramallah. The Academy was established in 2006 and offers a Bachelors of Arts degree in Contemporary Visual Art. Although the Academy has an active Board of Directors and a handful of consistent Palestine-based lecturers, it is essentially the fruit of two individuals’ daily persistence (along with four astonishingly efficient administrators): Tina Sherwell, a key scholar of art history and image studies in Palestine, and Khaled Hourani, an artist, writer, and one of the Academy’s founders.

The school also benefits from a momentous mass of self-funded visiting artists, academics, and curators visiting Ramallah for research purposes, and/or out of a political inclination. This is perhaps not entirely unlike Fatah or the PFLP welcoming fellow Marxists and Third World-ists in the early ’70s, to collaborate with Palestinian freedom fighters on militant cinema, prose, and poetry. When it comes to the precise terms of contemporary practice, however, the two are barely comparable. Conversations among an increasing amount of artists, for example, are in postproduction mode; that is, after the fact of making, and usually somehow linked to, or marked by, the privileges of a passing curator, critic, or artist in town. Recent visits include free conversations with the likes of Slavoj Zizek; or Artur Żmijewski, curator of the 7th Berlin Biennale, who picked up the worlds largest key from Aida Refugee Camp, and successful alumnus Khaled Jarrar on his tour; or the curators of the 12th Istanbul Biennial who selected (then) third-year artist Bisan Abu-Eisheh as a participating artist, and so on.

The Academy is well aware of these double-edged challenges and paradoxes of teaching in the shadow of potential semifictions and misrepresentations—especially those that amplify the question of what really does happen after graduation, when the shit hits the fan in your studio, and you’re all by yourself. Deconstructing notions of deskilling and amateurism would be one thing, but this Academy harbors a handful of students that fought hard with society to even attend an art school, sometimes reconciling with their families only four years later, in picture-perfect moments of graduation caps and diplomas. And this may also be why one can feel that pinch of expectation among some students, the hope of streamlined professionalization—of becoming active, income-earning members in a growing post-Oslo society seeking statehood from within neoliberalism and logic.

Lots of questions abound. Which aesthetic, language, discourse, and art history are our artists being professionalized with, and why? What to make of students’ constant desire for identity politics as material? How to formulate an arts education that’s more interdisciplinary, without compromising the autonomy of an arts education itself? How to introduce notions of refusal and withdrawal without instrumentalizing them, and without compromising their art-historical significance? How to celebrate equally moments of ambiguity, fragility, and indecision in a political context that we salute for its clarity and perseverance? And how to maintain an institutional memory of the fact that conceptual art unfolded over “there,” coincidentally, just as anticolonial movements were being fought over “here,” and elsewhere.


Oraib: OK, I will start by reading from a reader’s letter found in a 1969 issue of Arab Weekly magazine, addressing the legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz:

Dear Fairuz,

I am not sure you’re literate in Arabic. But I will get straight to the point. Your songs don’t appeal to us. Your voice reminds us of the screeching of a pigeon that Abu Firas points to in one of his poems—Abu Firas, ever heard of him? That’s one of the great Arab poets. Your songs, especially the ones claiming to be nationalist, have given you wide acclaim in the Arab World. From people who’d never heard of you, to people who never wish to hear of you again, we’ve all been listening to you singing about nationalism – “Jerusalem,” “The Bridge,” etc. These songs have been played to death. Aside from your personal fame, you’ve made a fortune, and your bank account has grown well with all this shrieking in the name of our nation, through your distant voice and distant personality. And with all your guts and glory, you have not spent a penny on the Fidayeens, on the families of the dead, on the revolution, on the refugees you sing about. Fairuz, we don’t even need your Francs or your Liras, please, we simply beg you to quit screeching for Palestine, because we love listening to the radio without having to hear to your voice.

On behalf of the Palestinians,

A faithful Palestinian woman

[General murmurs of skepticism and laughter.]

Bisan: People often expect qualities from an artist that are simply not their responsibility. When Marcel Khalifeh started charging $100 per ticket for his performances, people cried out that he came to fame on the back of the Marxists and was now the ultimate bourgeoisie. If the guy has a 300-man orchestra, surely he’s entitled to cover his expenses? Fairuz is the same. This is their livelihood, the livelihood of an artist.

Taqi: But the article is saying she abused the Nakbah to increase her audience. Like using Palestine as bait.

Ramzi: Time plays a factor here. At the end of the ’60s Fairuz really did change direction.

Awatef: Exactly. This was written at the end of the ’60s—the criticism is that she was using Palestine in her work as an artist, but did not actually back the Palestinian resistance movement that erupted in Lebanon from ’65 onwards. But if any one of us expressed something nationalist, and it came from a personal space, and not in the hope of reaching fame, then it cannot be a wrongdoing. It’s a voice that’s commenting on the very moment and its everyday context, whether it’s only reaching out to console itself, or to others who are experiencing that very same moment.

Noor: For me, politics is a reality that I live in every day, so I don’t need to make work about it. From the moment you wake up and wash your hands, the water pouring from your tap is political, beginning with where it came from, to how it unjustly arrived. What I then choose to wear is a political choice too, and so on. So I don’t see a line, demarcating x as being part of the general conflict, from y, or z, as not being part of it. That said, for me, when I make work, I do somehow feel I might be abusing the cause when I use politics as material. Because for me there are many other subjects and forms to comment on, simply as a human being, whether I live here or elsewhere.

Abdullah: I agree; politics is so much part of our reality that I don’t need to put it to use in my work.

Noor: As long as you have Nationality: Palestinian next to the name of the artist, this in itself will skew the reading of your work toward that setting.

Osama: But an artist will always draw from his or her environment; I would say 90 percent of all our work here at the Academy is political. Bisan encounters a military checkpoint every day en route to school, and every day he’ll feel surprised that there’s a checkpoint between two Palestinian cities so close to one another. Ramzi has worked on prisons, based on his own experience as a prisoner. Abdullah addresses our proximity to a Mediterranean Sea that we cannot get to. Asma has worked with the Wall in her animations, etc. None of this necessarily comes from our sense of imagination; it’s all from here. But if we were artists from an independent democratic nation, living in freedom, we’d resort to other material.

Oraib: There’s something fundamentally wrong with human beings waking up feeling free of politics, wherever they are.

Bisan: But that’s not the same as here. In the west you can choose to be political. Here you have no choice. Politics follows you to the door of your home.

Osama: I agree—and a major difference here is militancy. To be in a place of independence, we need to be militarized. Nation-states that are independent have a civilian mentality completely different from ours. We are at war, and an artist here is by default part of a “military,” until the day there is a nation.

Ramzi: Even if we spoke of love, it would be defined by politics. In the end, whatever consumes the subconscious becomes the subject matter of a work of art. As Noor indicated, for me the pavement I walk down is political, this institution is political—or at least it’s part of a particular policy. When everything is political, of course my subject matter becomes politics.

Bisan: In the end, what matters is a level of truth in the subject matter. I’m not saying that when you’re Palestinian you have to take a given position about being Palestinian all the time. If you refuse political work, great; make refusal your thing. Tuck politics away in a drawer, and keep working apart from it all, but do be honest about it. If I make work on something I never experienced, know, or feel, then I am being dishonest to myself and to my audience. At the end of the day art is speaking about you, where you are, what you are thinking, about where art is heading, what is at stake, what you understood, what you researched. It’s a reflection of you. It wouldn’t be possible to reflect on the moon if I felt nothing toward it, never thought about it, or if no one even knew it existed.

Taqi: I can assure you that the moment you enter a gallery, you know a Palestinian work of art just by looking at it. Even if it’s a tourist doing a work about Palestine. Because even that becomes Palestinian.

[General murmurs of skepticism and disagreement.]

Osama: All I know is that an artist is part of a general populace, never separate from it. It’s just that he or she happened to turn out to be an artist. All societies are suppressed, and artists have a responsibility regarding that suppression because they are part of the general populace.

[More murmurs of skepticism and disagreement, e.g., “not necessarily”; “why ‘responsibility’”; “nothing is a must”; “why this insistence on reflection.”]

Osama: Noor—for example, by letting people write on your dress in a public space, you faced the possibility, and the responsibility, that this work might lead to harassment.

Noor: Of course artists should take responsibility for decisions in their work—studying art in itself entailed a huge responsibility for many of us, but why burden ourselves with the weight of all society on top of that?

Oraib: We can’t ignore that these works often end up in a value system, a system of exchange, which is often located outside of Palestine. Once we know that we’re effectively speaking to another audience, another circuit that is not really part of a groundbreaking political dialogue—much as it thinks it is—what becomes of these gestures then? In other words, how does one deal with the reality of contemporary art itself, which is dependent on power and capital, beyond the reality in which we produced the work? This especially goes for work made ‘politically’—even when it’s in dialogue with the social, participatory, public, or activist realm.

Bisan: Of course there’s a conflict there. But the question is, how much can one keep renouncing and refusing? You are part of the Institution—especially when you think you’re outside it. Take Andy Warhol’s factory: though he created a valid critical space for himself, he was also his own biggest authority on matters of inclusion and exclusion, on benchmarks, etc.

Oraib: Well, this goes back to the discussion a while back that a work of art may become one when someone, at a given time, within a given social order, has the power to deem it a work of art. And the strategies for this are, sadly, more straightforward than ever before, through ascribing vaguely institutionalized language to work, through putting more effort into the curatorial statement than into the work itself, etc.

Noor: This is exactly what’s happening here. Some have spotted strategies that have worked for one or two artists, and simply replicated them. In the end, representations from Palestine end up looking hilariously similar. It’s so easy, especially when this work is selling.

Asma: I think the difference is that, for me, art isn’t a “work” or a project. I play with material or footage every day of my life, and something may or may not come out of it. I don’t start from an idea. It’s an everyday.

Bisan: For me, most of my work is a reflection of personal experiences, of questions I don’t understand, questions I want to understand.

Razan: My starting point is an art-historical one. I like to know what other artists have done that I can build on. I can’t claim that I come from a reading culture—reading is new for me—and I am finally enjoying that as a space to start work from. I definitely get excited when I see things coinciding with my own work. They lead me to what will eventually become of the work. I don’t think of older works as finished, either. I still resort to older works all the time, I build on them, and they may become my new work in turn.

Taqi: My starting point is repetition. Repetition, repetition, repetition, and looking for coincidental differences.

Awatef: I think I’m more reactive than that. Most of my work comes from a space of reacting to an event, an experience, a place.

Osama: I’m similar, but my reaction is a place of refusal, one that uses art to communicate a refusal of oppression.

Abdullah: For me, it’s definitely fiddling around with a technique and enjoying it when it works. I start thinking about a work only after I’m finished with it.

Oraib: A question for the fourth-years, and graduates: Do any of you feel there were specific skills that you came to the Academy for, but you never got . . . be it casting, printmaking, or editing? How “skilled” do you feel as you’re leaving this place?

Osama: I came thinking that here I could develop a technique in cartoon drawing. Instead, I found that the focus is on contemporary art, and that is probably why this Academy was even created.

Asma: Drawing is contemporary.

Osama: Everything is contemporary. And drawing as a skill is something I would have liked to have seen more of here.

Noor: I’ve personally never waited around to get skills from someone. I experiment independently. What I do think is needed is more theory, especially since they’re admitting new students, 19 years of age, who think that art is only about one’s emotions and subjectivities. We need theory that can be applied, and to explore our own relationship to our work.

Razan: The problem is that we get visiting faculty who spend a month over here, we get along, we understand each other, and then boom, suddenly the relationship is cut when they leave, until we get another faculty member who works in an entirely different way. There’s no continuity.

Bisan: I don’t feel any academy’s purpose is to teach you how to draw. Nor is it the responsibility of an academy to ensure that you graduate to become a practicing artist, even after four years of training. An academy should merely make you think. As for the lack of theory, what’s this very discussion then, or the visiting lecture series, this is all part of theory, and we do apply these ideas to our work.

Osama: I don’t think it’s interesting to praise, or critique, this particular academy. Let’s look at the situation before this academy. And let’s specifically look at entering students. As Noor said, some are straight out of high school and find themselves in an entirely new context; others already have diplomas from vocational art academies elsewhere, others are practicing artists already. All three feed into one system of learning. I can imagine this reality is really challenging to coordinate.

Awatef: So, in sum, there are different abilities, different credentials, different cultures, entering a place that has its own culture, of teaching and learning. Some know how to assimilate, and do well, others definitely don’t.

Oraib: Do you actually like this interdisciplinary format, or would you have preferred to graduate within single discipline areas?

Ramzi: I think there should be a clearer system of grading, somewhere along the line.

[General murmurs of disapproval, e.g., “how the hell do you grade art?”]

Ramzi: I mean Palestinian art history exams for example, or global art history.

Awatef: If I had wanted this kind of approach, I’d have gone to one of the universities here.

Ramzi: Some kind of more systematic grading then, as your rights are unclear when it comes to these juries or crits.

Oraib: Do any of you look at fine art departments at, say, Al-Quds or An-Najah, smell the turpentine or the clay, and yearn for “The Academy” in its classic sense?

Bisan: Yes, but then again I know this image is pure aesthetics- it’s looking at an institution from the outside in.

Taqi: A student over there can discuss acrylic versus oil for hours. Or depth and landscape, etc. Here we are stuffed to the rim with critical thinking, criticism, or what-is-art. Totally different. So for me, yes, I do yearn for being around a school that smells like an academy, but definitely not to sit in it and converse.

Bisan: Generally, as artists today, we’ve been liberated to think and conceptualize as artists, and someone else can fabricate and implement the work itself, so I don’t really need to learn every technique that’s out there.

Oraib: What about English language skills? Isn’t the English language a prerequisite to entering the contemporary art circuit in general, including this very Academy?

Taqi: One absolutely needs the English language here. Most of our tutorials and studio visits are by people who speak English, and if I am to take their one-on-one advice, I need to know what the hell they’re saying. I also need English to explain my work. Even if someone is translating my ideas, they don’t quite understand my work well enough to translate properly. The Academy took note of this and brought us someone to teach key terms and definitions in contemporary art. I was among the lazy ones who never bothered to attend these sessions, but four years on, I’ve picked up enough from just going to art school.

Noor: Many object that we are Arabs, in an Arabic context, and English should not be given the importance that it’s given here. The fact of the matter is that, so far, we are predominantly funded from abroad, many of our teachers are foreign faculty, and, what’s more, in the end I want to learn the English language for myself. Art is one of those practices where work is constantly moving—you need to know how to speak about it, how to write about it, how to present it in other places, but in one and the same language.

Ramzi: I have a big problem with the kind of white supremacy being highlighted here. It’s an inferiority complex. Take the Suleiman Mansour painting The Bearer of Burdens. It has traveled the world and did not need any English to do so. Art does not need a language to reach the deepest point it can possibly reach. Moreover, I shouldn’t need to keep explaining and contextualizing my work. It speaks for itself.

Taqi: Think about it: if you have two artists of the same exact caliber, the one who speaks English is more likely to succeed, without a doubt.

Bisan: Or think of the Orientalists. They did not come to merely learn the language, but also to further their knowledge about the context. Similarly, Arab artists in the modern period went to Germany to read critical theory, and artists like Samir Salameh went to Paris to understand French theory. We’re well aware of the postcolonial connotations here, but they do not mean you can refuse English altogether. An artist is part of an intellectual circuit. If artists here can’t see how much they’re catering to Orientalism and capitalism, then they’re not artists. I’m not talking about being a good or a bad artist. I mean that in such a case you’re not an artist in the wider cultural significance of the term.

Oraib: Do you ever feel that the neoliberal agenda is tied to the kind of education we are seeking, the kind of works we reference here at the Academy, the pushing of contemporary strategies onto students, etc.?

Bisan: Contemporary art is not a monster. It’s a product of its time. Looking toward contemporary art today is a matter of development. We can either continue to look at the West in hegemonic terms or look at it as an opportunity. But I think the terms under which we are producing work is what’s wrong. The funding parameters are dictating the work we are making. Leading curators come here and we follow them, not the other way round. We have local production funded by Epson. Most theater production here is written by Arab playwrights and yet they have huge logos of European cultural centers everywhere. It’s a matter of wearing down our own identity. This may as well be Nike or Tommy Hilfiger produced in China.

Oraib: But then what do we all mean by ‘contemporary art’ in this conversation?

Ingrid: It’s difficult to say, because it’s a very context-specific term. It’s something that both knows and rejects its own context.

Abdullah: Contemporary art is an art that has only one rule, namely that you know what you’re doing with it.

Razan: For me, contemporary art is the overproduction of knowledge.

Noor: We can define the word contemporary, but I can’t honestly define the word art. I think contemporary is a very smart word because it suggests an immortality by virtue of its very use. What’s more, I cannot see it as separated from the larger enterprise of capitalism. Even here, they let us borrow Macs, from the outset.

Bisan: Contemporary art only feels like it’s without boundaries, in comparison to the older rules of impressionism, expressionism, etc.

Asma: I find it difficult to speak in these terms, as art is being defined somewhere else anyway. I don’t think along the lines of such definitions.

Oraib: Much of what’s being said goes back to the word indeterminate, which we tried to translate last week. It’s that “neither here nor there” syndrome.

Bisan: Linguistically speaking, there’s something “off” with the term contemporary [mu3aser]. The translation doesn’t work when you think of the specific meaning of time that’s implied in the word. Or consider how we’re now accustomed to using the words Palestine Conflict when it’s not a conflict at all. It’s an occupation. It’s frustrating to use a word that went from being imposed to becoming the norm.

Razan: The problem is, there are technologies associated with contemporary art, like Macs, but we’re now like the workers who can’t afford what they’re producing.

Noor: Who convinced you that you needed a Mac? “Necessity” is key here. They made you think a Mac was necessary.

Osama: It’s like swine flu. Promoting a demand for a vaccine they produced, which they then called necessary.

Taqi: It’s like someone giving you an apple with a knife.


* Thank you to Tina Sherwell for helping to organize these discussions and for her consistent, critical, and self-reflexive conversations on schooling.

A different version of this text will be published in Fillip 18.

Oraib Toukan is an artist based in New York; she teaches and works in Jordan and Palestine.