This essay first appeared in AAA's previous publication Field Notes, Issue 04. To read the "Note from the Editors" for full context, please click here.
In the past century, the diverse artists who make up the Palestinian creative sector have emerged as a powerful force: images of their works have often succeeded in making Palestine visible to the world, and their voices have brought Palestinian issues, questions, and narratives to international ears. The heritage of modern and contemporary Palestinian art is thus a hugely important one; unfortunately, given the complex and conflicted political context within which it is produced, this heritage is also one that has sustained significant damage and loss over many years. Indeed, it was the realisation of a pattern of loss not only of single works of art, but of entire, curated exhibitions of Palestinian art displayed all over the world, that inspired the Palestinian Museum's latest research project: "Seventeen Lost Exhibitions."
From its inception, the Palestinian Museum has seen its mission as a new Palestinian cultural institution to explore and promote the multiple narratives and manifestations of the Palestinian experience; it aims to act as a platform for the discussion and creative interpretation of these often controversial issues. In particular, it seeks to provide a space in which the complex issues surrounding the creative industry in Palestine, and the problems encountered by creators and artists more generally, can be researched and debated. "Seventeen Lost Exhibitions," a research project undertaken by museum staff and published in the form of the museum's most recent bi-monthly newsletter, is the Palestinian Museum's first venture into the critical exploration of some of the problems that Palestinian artists and institutions have faced in the past, and continue to struggle with today.
The newsletter focused specifically on a series of fine art exhibitions, some based in Palestine and some abroad between 1970 and 2014, in which both lesser-known and very prominent Palestinian artists were invited to participate. For various reasons, after these exhibitions ended, they disappeared: entire contents of some exhibitions were lost, and none of the many works involved have been seen since. For a long time, discussions on what happened to these works, where they might be, and who or what was involved in their disappearances were muted, but the topic has recently resurfaced—now constituting one of the most controversial subjects under debate in the Palestinian cultural scene today. In this context, the publication of the newsletter, whose initial investigation into the matter goes deeper than any undertaken so far, was something of a bold move—especially since the research cannot guarantee that it will lead to the successful recuperation of any of the paintings, or even the discovery of their exact whereabouts.
The process of gathering even basic information on these lost exhibitions was fraught with difficulties, chief among them being the paucity of documentary evidence regarding them: the reason the works of art became so difficult to trace was precisely because, in many of the cases, not only the paintings themselves, but all the paperwork concerning them and the exhibitions vanished. As a result, the museum team was left to piece together the events leading up to the loss of the works using testimonies from the artists, curators, and others involved in the exhibition process; these testimonies were not always in agreement, and in many cases, the interviews revealed ongoing conflicts and resentments regarding the fate of the artworks and the way their disappearances have since been dealt with. In the absence of any written documentation, researchers had to navigate the different narratives put forward by their interviewees, and try to produce from them a realistic synthesis, but not one of these narratives had a conclusive ending.
Incomplete documentation, closed or inaccessible archives, and a general state of disorganisation have plagued the museum and cultural industry in Palestine for many years. This is perhaps not surprising given that institutions and individuals operate within a highly complex and conflicted political context—in the awareness that fragile calm may at any time descend into real violence and chaos; however, at the very least, this investigation demonstrates that a better job can and should be done of navigating this difficult situation. Perhaps the most important of all the many reasons to undertake this project was to use it to ensure that such things cannot happen again in the future: to take it as definitive proof that where the protection and preservation of Palestinian artistic heritage is concerned, something has to change.
The museum's decision to focus on this issue now, then, is based firstly on a desire to inject some life into the search for this art—not for the benefit of the artists who created it, but for the Palestinian public to whom it ultimately belongs, and who have yet to see it. This interest in the lost exhibitions is just part of the museum's larger concern with artworks and artifacts that have gone missing in Palestine over the years; we particularly hope that these investigations lead to some information regarding the fate of artworks that vanished from Palestinian homes during the 1948 Nakba. The second motivation for the research, however, is to produce a survey of past exhibitions that shows the mistakes that have been made and the problems that have been encountered, in the hope that we and our fellow institutions across Palestine will be able to learn from them. With the political situation in Palestine remaining as it is, the future of Palestinian art and museums cannot be a certain or safe one, but with projects like this, we are working to strengthen its foundations and set it on the best possible course.
Over the past few years, Palestinian artists have participated in a number of exhibitions outside Palestine. Unfortunately, a significant number of these exhibitions are now effectively lost, and the paintings they contained remain unaccounted for. Speculation about the fate of these important works of art abounds; so too do the fingers of blame pointed at various groups and individuals. In interviews recently conducted by the Palestinian Museum, artists have agreed that the loss of many of the works was largely due to a combination of bad organisation and opportunistic misappropriation. If we add this to the shows confiscated or irrevocably damaged by the Israeli authorities, we find ourselves facing a situation that urgently needs to be rectified: these lost works represent an important part of the Palestinian visual history, and it is an enormous shame that they remain inaccessible to the Palestinian public.
In this edition of the Palestinian Museum's bimonthly newsletter, we try to recall some of the vanished collective exhibitions. The newsletter does not cover the single-artist exhibitions mentioned in the interviews, nor the individual works of art that went missing in the occupations of 1948 and 1967. It is simply an initial step towards drawing attention to an issue deserving of far deeper investigation.
London Exhibition, 1976
London was host in the 1970s to one of the first collective exhibitions in the Western hemisphere to focus on Palestinian art. Held on the Tattershall Castle yacht on the River Thames, the show was organised by activist Leila Mantoura and encompassed 30 works in total, by artists including Sliman Mansour, Nabil Anani, Isam Bader, Khalil Rayan, Leila Al-Shawa, Kamel Al-Mughanni, Isma'il Ashour, and Khalil Dadah. When the exhibition closed the works were moved to a traditional dress shop owned by Queen Dina, wife of the late King of Jordan, to be kept there until a way could be found to return them to Palestine. After a while the shop closed, and despite repeated attempts the artists have been unable to discover what happened to their works.
This was the first US exhibition to include work by Palestinian artists from the occupied territories, and it was organised in collaberatiion with the Arab League across eight different American states. 15 artists took part, including Jamal Badran, Samira Badran, Isam Badran, and Sliman Mansour. The works on show in the exhibition were never returned to their authors, and the whole exhibition has disappeared entirely.
International Exhibition for Palestine, 1978
Organised in Paris on the initiative of the PLO representative there, Ezzeldin Kalak, this exhibition was to travel around the world as the nucleus of a permanent Palestinian museum. 177 Palestinian and international artists donated 194 paintings and a number of sculptures for participation in this museum, including works by the French artist Claude Lazar. The exhibition opened at Beirut Arab University, after which some of the works were displayed at the Palais de Tokyo Contemporary Art Museum in Paris, and others at the Tehran Museum. During 1981 and 1982 two further shows were held in Norway, both involving works from this collection. During the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, the PLO media office was bombed and even the documents pertaining to the exhibition were lost, along with all its other components. Afterwards, accusations regarding the fate of the artworks were fired off in all directions: some artists claimed to have seen the works in the care of a certain group of people, others thought they had been sold in Paris, and so on. The mystery has never been solved.
Gaza Exhibition, 1979
The late political figure Dr Haidar Abdel was the driving force behind this exhibition, held at the Red Crescent Association in Gaza to celebrate Palestinian Child Week. The show brought together 40 works by different artists, including Karim Dabah, Isam Bader, Nabil Anani, Fathi Ghaben, Rihab Al-Nammari, and Sliman Mansour. The night before the exhibition was to open, the works were placed in the Association library, to be moved to the exhibition hall the next day—but in the intervening period a Muslim Brotherhood demonstration broke out in Gaza. In the course of the demonstration hotels and other tourist attractions were burned down, and so was the library itself. According to Sliman Mansour, his well-known work Lina Al-Nabulsi was lost in the blaze: when the artists arrived all they could find was the charred frames of the paintings.
Palestine Exhibition in Moscow, 1979
This exhibition was organised by the PLO in collaboration with the Palestinian-Russian Friendship Society; Mustafa Al-Halaj, Kamel Al-Mughanni, Ismail Shammout, Tamam Al-Akhal, Ibrahim Hazima, Sliman Mansour, and Nabil Anani all took part. After the Moscow show the exhibition was moved to Beirut, but there the works disappeared; they were never returned to the artists.
Karama Gallery in Beirut, 1982
The late Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout organised this exhibition, which contained work by a number of artists including Sliman Mansour, Nabil Anani, Zuhdi Al-Adawi, and Yassir Dweik. During the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut the building housing the exhibition was bombed, and all the works of art were subsequently lost. Khaled Hourani claims later to have seen by chance the works by Sliman Mansour, Zuhdi Al-Adawi, and Yassir Dweik hanging in a house in Beirut, without the knowledge of the artists. According to Shammout's widow and fellow-artist Tamam Al-Akhal, meanwhile, a second group of paintings, belonging to artists from Japan and East Germany and exhibited in solidarity with the Palestinian cause, was salvaged from the rubble by Ismail Shammout. "These 25 or so paintings were then housed temporarily with someone called Ali Al-Gharib in Al-Faihaa Building in Beirut, since our own house had been damaged by the bombing," Akhal explains, "but when we wished to get them back Mr Al-Gharib denied knowing where they were, and claimed they had been stolen."
Kuwait Exhibition, 1986
This Kuwaiti exhibition was held as part of Jerusalem Day, and was organised by the late Palestinian politician Faisal Husseini. According to Sliman Mansour, "We heard that the show was a success and that several of the paintings were sold—but we never received the money for them, and those that were not sold were not returned. Some time later I was surprised to see one of my paintings, which had been in this exhibition, sold at auction!"
Italy Exhibition, 1988
This show was hosted in Rome and was the brainchild of well-known Italian activist Luisa Morgantini, along with a group of Italian artists calling themselves "Kuffiyeh" in solidarity with Palestine. It contained 30 works by Palestinian artists such as Taysir Barakat, Vera Tamari, Karim Dabah, Adnan Al-Zubeidi, Taleb Dweik, Awad Abu Armaneh, and Taysir Sharaf. The exhibition went on to tour a number of Italian cities, but today the fate of the works involved is unknown. Considerable effort is now being made to find them.
Palestine Weekly Exhibition at Hebron University, 1989
Held at Hebron University, this exhibition was part of a group of other shows focusing on Palestinian heritage. It contained works of art by a number of Palestinian artists: Khaled Hourani, Issa Abeiduh, Nabil Anani, Sliman Mansour, and Taleb Dweik. These works were confiscated by the Israeli occupation forces that broke into the exhibition, on the grounds that they were "inflammatory"; the soldiers also arrested artist Khaled Hourani and then-president of the Hebron University Student Council Jibril Bakri as a result. Artist Issa Abeiduh was able to get some of his paintings back after complaining to Zamir Shimesh, the temporary Israeli mayor of Hebron at the time, but we still do not know what happened to the rest of the works.
Palestine Fine Art Exhibition in Tunis, 1990
This Tunis exhibition was organised by the Association of Palestinian Fine Artists, under the supervision of the PLO, as part of the celebration of the first Palestinian Culture Day, whose inauguration was presided over by Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. It contained works by several Palestinian artists (some of whom were then resident in the UAE), including Bashir Al-Sinwar, Nasser Abdel Aziz, Sobhi Murad, and Ahmed Heiluz. Some of the paintings were sold and the money transferred to the artists, but the fate of the remaining works is unclear. According to Nabil Anani, a box containing a number of the remaining paintings was sent to the Palestinian Ministry of Culture a few years later. These paintings were hereafter considered the property of the ministry, and Anani has apparently seen several of those hanging in the Prime Minister’s offices.
Geneva/Italy: 6X2 Exhibition, 1990
The exhibition was the product of two artists' workshops held in Ramallah and Gaza, and was organised in Geneva before being moved to Italy under the supervision of Nimer Hammad, the PLO representative there, to be shown in the town of Magione. 30 artworks were sent over, including pieces by Khaled Hourani, Sliman Mansour, Hosni Radwan, and a selection of works by Italian artists. But the exhibition never returned, and the artists still do not know what happened to their work.
Doha/Qatar Exhibition, 1996
During Palestine Week in Qatar in 1996, this exhibition, alongside a photo gallery, a cartoon exhibition and an exhibition of children's drawings, was organised by Faisal Al-Husseini as a fundraiser for Jerusalem. It contained 40 artworks, including some by Sliman Mansour. Only ten paintings from the exhibition now remain, and no one knows what happened to the remaining works; the same goes for the contents of the photographic exhibition, though all of the children's drawings were returned.
A Self-Portrait Exhibition, 1996
Organised at the Al-Wasiti Centre for Arts in Jerusalem in collaboration with the band Sabreen and the French Cultural Centre, this exhibition brought together paintings by a group of artists including Sliman Mansour, Nabil Anani, Taysir Barakat, Jawad Al’Malihi, Fayez Al-Sirsawi, Khalil Rabah, and various others. The exhibition later moved abroad, and no information is now available about the paintings or their whereabouts.
Made in Palestine, 2003
Designed to tour the United States of America, this exhibition involved 23 Palestinian artists, including Zuhdi Al-Adawi, Taysir Barakat, Rana Bishara, Mirvet Issa, Ashraf Fawakhiri, Samia Halabi, Mustafa Al-Halaj, Jawad Ibrahim, Emily Jaser, Vera Tamari, and others. The exhibition, which contained sculptures, ceramics, and photographs, as well as oil paintings, opened in Houston before moving on to San Francisco, and was feted by critics as one of the strongest US exhibitions of the year. Though it was scheduled to tour through more than one state, logistical problems prevented the full tour being completed, and the exhibition actually ended in The Station Museum. According to the artists who took part in the exhibition, some of the paintings were sold off cheaply, but most are still in storage at the museum.
Exhibition in Martini in Switzerland: Palestine, Key to Culture & Peace, 2005
This was a collective exhibition to which various Palestinian artists participated with around 40 works. Among the artists were Ra'ed Issa, Muhammad Al-Hawajiri, Muhammad Abu Sal, Khaled Hourani, Taysir Barakat, and various others, in addition to a solo exhibition featuring the works of Hosni Radwan. Afterwards, however, the organisers were unable to return the works to Palestine due to the fact that they had not been registered with the Israelis before they were taken out of the country. According to Hosni Radwan, the art works are now in a gallery in London belonging to Yahya Zalum, where they will be kept until their return to Palestine can be organised: "There is now no effort being made to return the artworks, though, and we have no information about them."
Beirut Exhibition, 2009
The Palestinian Ministry of Culture, in collaboration with the Lebanese Ministry of Culture, organised this exhibition as part of the Beirut celebrations of Jerusalem as the capital of Arab culture. Held at the UNESCO in Beirut, it brought together 20 works by five Palestinian artists: Sliman Mansour, Samir Salameh, Hosni Radwan, Khaled Hourani, and Muhammad Saleh Khalil. None of these works have been seen since, despite the fact that two of the participating artists were actually employees of the Palestinian Ministry of Culture. According to Muhammad Saleh Khalil, "The works are at the Palestinian embassy in Beirut, but money and organisation are needed to return them to Palestine!" Radwan added that for their part they had tried, with the Finance Ministry, to provide the money necessary for transporting the paintings, but that the funds simply weren’t available. "So the art works are still in the embassy, and they’ll be kept there until whenever we are able to return them."
Ministry of Culture Collection
In the years following its foundation in the 1990s, the Ministry of Culture worked to build up a collection of works by Palestinian artists, pledging to buy at least one work from each exhibition it sponsored. The Ministry's collection soon contained more than 50 works, including older ones by pioneering artists brought over from Beirut from the PLO collections there. The collection contains pieces by Kamel Al-Mughanni, Taleb Dweik, Awad Abu Armaneh, and Sliman Mansour, as well as original art posters and a section of the Palestinian archive returned from Tunis, none of which were ever counted, classified, or formally documented. The looting and destruction of the Ministry building by Israeli forces during the 2002 occupation left them unharmed—rather, artist Muhammad Saleh Khalil has suggested that the works disappeared from the Ministry storerooms later on, without anyone knowing anything about it.
Jack Persekian is the director and head curator of the Palestinian Museum.
- Wed, 1 Apr 2015