A/D/O by MINI | Yazid Anani on Arts in Palestine

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Yazid Anani on Arts in Palestine

At Ramallah’s new arts center, the public programs “question the intricate social and economic processes that shape the contemporary Palestinian landscape.”

Perched on the mountainous edge of Ramallah’s al-Tira neighborhood is the A M Qattan Foundation, a new arts center in the West Bank’s rapidly shifting architectural landscape. Designed by Donaire Arquitectos, the sprawling 7,000-square-meter campus was conceived as a metaphorical lighthouse and includes a glass box restaurant, multiple exhibition spaces, theater, library, and artist residencies. The foundation’s director of public programs is architect Yazid Anani. Known for his imaginative and provocative point of view, Anani consistently presents a wide range of hyper intelligent initiatives that are transformative for Palestine and beyond.

Anani’s journey to this point underscores pivotal historical touchstones within the West Bank over the last half century. Below are edited excerpts from a conversation in Ramallah just weeks before the West Bank went on lockdown to slow the spread of the Coronavirus.

Alyssa Nitchun: What was your upbringing like and how did it inform your path to becoming an architect?

Yazid Anani: I was born and raised in Ramallah in a house from the 1940s surrounded by a vast piece of land. I spent my childhood in the fields making classifications of insects, flowers and stones and playing in the almond and walnut trees. My father, Nabil Anani, is an artist. He was a main figure of the committed art movement in Palestine which was very active in the 1970s and 80s. I grew up in his studio which was in our home. He was also an art teacher at the Women’s Training Center, one of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s (UNRWA) vocational colleges. I remember vividly accompanying him to his classes and meetings of the Palestinian Art League.

AN: What was it like to be an artist in Palestine at that time? Were politics deeply intertwined with his practice?

YA: Artists were part of a bigger movement. The Artist League promoted the PLO’s ideals and ethos through art. My father along with other artists from that time such as Sliman Mansour, Issam Bader, Ibrahim Saba and Karim Dabah were painting and drawing Palestinian villages, revolutionary iconography, and symbols of roots and resistance. Using the colors of the Palestinian flag was forbidden by Israel. Many times they had to smuggle their paintings across checkpoints; artwork was often confiscated and art spaces shut down.

AN: What pulled you towards architecture?

YA: When I finished high school, I attended Birzeit University. The closest subject to art was architecture. I was fascinated with design as a tool of creation and still driven by my childhood obsession with the visual form and function of nature. I then went on to do my Masters in Landscape Architecture at the University of Life Sciences in Oslo, Norway.

AN: In the early 2000s you did your PhD in Spatial Planning at TU Dortmund, Germany. You returned five years later to a significantly changed Ramallah. Economic capital was flowing in with the advent of the Palestine Investment Fund. This shift has largely directed the contemporary development of the West Bank, including urban planning and architectural preservation, or in many cases, lack thereof. How did you interpret this shift?

YA: I realized that the dream of “liberation” I had grown up with was not what I imagined. It was nowhere close to what my father and the artists from the 1980s used to draw: it wasn’t about the olive terraced landscapes, or the Ottoman architectural villages, or the agricultural communities. The Palestinian flag and its once forbidden colors now meant something else. What it became was a vast neoliberal economic project led by the Gulf region and global investment funneled through a middlemen regime. I started to discover that this is actually what the liberation project yielded. It was a very real fiction.

AN: How did your community respond?

YA: For me hope came from the creativity of collaborating with local artists and cultural institutions. It was a vivid, vibrant cultural scene at that time, full of energy. Everybody was supporting each other, we worked collectively regardless of our contradicting opinions and schools of thought or how we looked at art, architecture, or politics. There was Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, founders of Campus in Camps and co-founders with Eyal Weizmann of Decolonizing Architecture, who set up their studio in Beit Sahour; Vera Tamari founded the Birzeit Ethnographic and Art museum; Reem Fada, Emily Jacir and Khaled Hourani founded the International Art Academy; Al Mahatta Gallery, an alternative art space, was started by a group of young artists; Samar Martha launched her influential project Art School Palestine; RIWAQ, the West Bank’s architectural heritage center, put together their first biennial with Khalil Rabah; Fatin Farhat began the Department of Culture at Ramallah Municipality, and the list goes on.

AN: Despite more than two decades of groundbreaking work within education, science, arts, and culture throughout the West Bank and Gaza, until recently the Qattan Foundation has had no central regional headquarters. You joined the Foundation in 2016 as part of a new generation of leadership. Your first exhibition, “Subcontracted Nations,” a monumental undertaking with works by more than 66 artists took place in the new building simultaneous to its construction. What drives your vision? How does that play out in your programming?

YA: When Omar Qattan and Ziad Khalaf asked me to establish public programing for the foundation I envisioned something transformative, curated projects and activities which question the intricate social and economic processes that shape the contemporary Palestinian landscape. In Subcontracted Nations, the artworks posed different questions, such as: How can we imagine the nation when it is reduced to a series of subcontracted service industries? If sovereign states are no longer capable of fulfilling their main mandates to protect and improve the conditions of the majority of their citizens, and if some states are better than others at subsidizing welfare services, then can we rethink the politics of democracy through subcontracting other states to administer our nations and provide better services?

AN: The architectural development of Ramallah has come under a lot of critique. What is your take on the current situation?

YA: Beginning in 2005, an era of neoliberal urban restructuring in many Arab capitals swept the Middle East with projects such as the Solidere in downtown Beirut, Al-Abdali in Amman, Dreamland in Cairo, The Pearl in Doha and even in Mecca through the Jabal Omar project. The Palestinian Authority adopted these same policies as a prescription for building their state; upper class residential gated communities spread across the West Bank and Gaza, while high-end business districts emerged in Ramallah and Jericho. They are regulated by the neoliberal elite in joint partnership with the PA’s political management under a perpetuation of Israeli occupation. Cities like Ramallah have become a site of massive redevelopment with bulldozers tearing down historic buildings and neighborhoods. Several of these emerging projects are anticipated to lead to urban geographies of inequality, exclusion, and social displacement.

AN: The new Qattan building has faced similar critiques for contributing to a new international Ramallah style that is not authentically Palestinian. How do you respond to this?

YA: Many Western scholars, artists, and curators (and sometimes locals) fetishize the indigeneity of Palestinians as a suspended race of people with a mythical revolution history that was symbolic to a wider historical and political struggle for decolonization and liberation in the world. When these scholars and artists visit Ramallah, they are struck by how the social and visual narrative doesn’t fit with what they imagined. Questions and conversations regularly revolve around their astonishment of how Palestine is indeed part of the global including the architecture of the new foundation’s building. Between Bauhaus, Brutalism, socialist architecture, and other styles Palestine has always been influenced historically by global architectural movements. I find it very bizarre that some people are in denial of such history.

AN: What exhibitions are coming up next at the Foundation?

YA: Later this year we open Weed Control, a group show responding to a 1940 British Mandate document and traveling exhibition titled Control of Weeds (Including Experiments) which classified many domestic Palestinian flora as harmful weeds and introduced pesticides and other new methods of control. The repercussions of this historical turning point echo into the present. For the show, 33 artists are each given a seed from the original document and asked to subvert the British colonial and industrial value of the seed into a more personal, mythical, or poetic one.

We are also in the process of planning an exhibition titled Palestine From Above, which explores how the technology of mapping and image making has been used successively by several administrations and powers to depict the Palestinian landscape from the skies – mostly through military – for purposes of documentation of infrastructure, human settlement, natural resources, tactical sites, religious sites, and other issues pertaining to surveillance and espionage.

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