Wednesday, 15 August 2007

From Boston to the West Bank Art school director has a vital vision

By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent | August 15, 2007

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK -- At first, the road sign at a busy intersection
in this town looks like any other: A raised silhouette of a hand on a
red background in a circular white border.

But the index and middle fingers of the hand are missing, and the
warning written in Arabic in the border has only a tangential
connection to traffic control: Awkefu al-ketel "Stop the killing."

It's a powerful message directed at both sides in the civil war
between Hamas and Fatah, which has claimed dozens of lives in the Gaza
Strip and could spread to the West Bank.

The artwork, displayed at 50 major junctions across Ramallah and its
neighboring town El Bireh, is the creation of Majd Abdel Hamid, a
19-year-old local artist and one of 12 students selected for the
opening semester of the newly inaugurated International Academy of Art

"It's missing the two victory fingers which usually indicate the
Palestinian revolution and victory. It was a sign that Arafat often
used," explains Hamid. "It says that no one is going to win. It's a
lose-lose situation. The situation with killing is like losing parts
of your body, it's something really bloody."

Hamid's road sign is the first art project to be sponsored by the
Academy and a perfect example of what its founders, a group of local
Palestinian artists, hope to achieve.

"Politicians for more than 60 years haven't really solved our
problems," says Maria C. Khoury, the Academy's Boston-educated project

"For a long time, artists have wanted to say that through art there
can be a new language, there can be communication among ourselves, as
artists, and with the international community," she says.

Khoury, 47, who was born in Greece and raised in Denver, is a graduate
of Hellenic College in Brookline and Harvard University Extension
School, with a doctorate in childhood education from Boston
University. She met her Palestinian husband David at Hellenic College
and in 1996 emigrated to Taybeh, the tiny West Bank village where he
was born.

The Khoury family owns Foley's Liquors in Brookline and on their
return to the West Bank they poured their savings into creating Taybeh
Brewing Co., the first Palestinian brewery. It flourishes despite the
Israeli occupation, the Palestinian intifada, and the rise of Hamas,
which disapproves of alcohol even when brewed by Greek Orthodox
Christians. Today, David Khoury is the mayor of Taybeh.

Maria Khoury says the brewery slogan -- "Taste the Revolution" -- was
built on the same principle as the International Academy of Art

"We're trying to establish an institute that speaks out and says we
love our country, we love our culture," she says. "If we have freedom,
we too can produce excellent products, not just in business. My
husband tries to do that in business and commerce. But we also do it
in the arts, to have the freedom to express who we are."

The Academy aims to be the first independent degree-awarding art
institute in Palestine. Art courses are available at three Palestinian
universities, but their aim is to train high school teachers and they
focus on traditional Arabic art.

The 12 students selected to begin Academy studies this fall will focus
on contemporary visual art across a range of disciplines from video
installations to sculpture to painting.

The Academy's launch came thanks to the initiative of Henrik Placht, a
Norwegian artist who visited the West Bank in 2002 at the height of
the intifada. Placht secured a three-year grant of $1 million per year
from the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the
sponsorship of the Oslo National Academy of the Arts.

Placht has already initiated a series of student visits and teaching
exchanges, which began this summer with a Palestinian student building
an Israeli military checkpoint as an art installation at an Oslo train

Khoury is justly proud of the Academy's premises in El Bireh, the
former home of Palestinian historian Aref Al Aref. It housed a
fledgling art gallery more than 20 years ago. The house is a
century-old stone mansion that has been refurbished with studio space
in the basement and the loft, a computer design room, and, at its
center, a white cube with parquet wood flooring, the only exhibition
space of its kind in the Ramallah area.

For Nabil Anani, one of the four local artists who established the
Academy, it is a dream come true.

Anani, 64, was one of four Palestinian artists who founded the "New
Vision" movement during the first intifada. Together they produced
Palestinian art using local materials, placing their work at the
center of the struggle against the occupation.

"The Israelis know that art is important for the Palestinians and so
they were against us from the beginning," Anani says. "They
confiscated many artworks. They arrested many artists. They closed
many exhibitions."

Since the Oslo peace accords in 1993, the Israelis have largely
withdrawn from towns like Ramallah and El Bireh, but freedom is still
elusive. Israeli settlements, and the constant presence of military
jeeps and checkpoints are daily obstacles to free movement around the
West Bank.

Meanwhile, internal political tensions between Hamas and Fatah have
recently erupted into the kind of violence which prompted Hamid's
"Stop the Killing" project.

Anani says a Palestinian art academy is not a luxury -- it's a necessity.

"Palestine needs culture, needs writers, needs artists, needs dance,"
he says. "They need food, hospitals, security, work -- they need
everything. But if you want food, you also want to see art and to
dance and to be happy."

Adds Khoury: "We are starving as Palestinian people to be normal, so
we don't only just need food and medicine. We need to feed our souls."

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