“We are not just talking culture and art for the sake of having a vision (lil-tanzir), holding exhibitions irrespective of who comes or doesn’t. To the contrary, we have a mission!” At the press conference in Ramallah on October 21, 2014 for the second edition of the Qalandiya International Biennale (QIB2), impassioned organizers responded to a pointed question about the role art could have in protecting Palestinian identity and overcoming Israeli oppression. The spokesperson, Jack Persekian, proclaimed that naming the biannual Palestine art event for the infamous checkpoint in the Israeli separation wall could transform the barrier into a bridge. Specifically, he argued that art put forth a vision of another Palestine, a historical one built from cosmopolitan connections and a present one constructed from transnational cooperation. He added that organizers had already enacted the vision of being “one body,” filling in for each other when restricted from moving between the 12 sites, 13 organizing institutions and 14 exhibitions that comprised this expansive festival. Yet lurking behind the impressive numbers and clever tactics was the shared anxiety that it was nothing more than “lil-tanzir,” for sake of having a vision.

QIB2 was a massive event, spanning 24 days and bringing together the works (and usually bodies, too) of 118 artists from 23 countries, locating artwork across historical Palestine. It centered physically and spiritually around Qalandiya checkpoint. Checkpoints stratify Palestinians into classes of “differential mobilities,” [1] and, as Helga Tawil-Souri showed in 2011, though taken from globalization’s security toolkit, they exclude Palestinians from globalization by blocking their movement and locking them into diminishing arenas of interaction. [2] A year later, in October 2012, the first edition of the Qalandiya International Biennale was launched from the village town hall neighboring the checkpoint’s terminal. It re-rooted globalization in the checkpoint and contested the immobility regime with new types of connectivity. Specifically, it incorporated the fourth edition of the Riwaq Biennale (co-organized with Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation), which in 2009 had stretched from Italy (where it inhabited a pavilion in the Fifty-Third Venice Biennale) to the Occupied Territories. The QIB project thus perpetuated a particularly Palestinian practice of what Chiara De Cesari calls “anticipatory representation, the performance or prefiguration of an institution that does not yet fully exist.” [3] In this case, it was an anticipation that countered the extant institution, the checkpoint, the separation wall and the immobility regime they enact.

QIB2’s anticipatory representation started with the event’s name. First, although now associated with the central West Bank checkpoint, Qalandiya was the name of an international airport that was located on the plain outside the village of the same name until 1967. Second, the word “biennale” is itself a bridge. Persekian, speaking Arabic, explained that it is an English word that originated in Latin, passed through Italian with the founding of the famous Biennale di Venezia, and now arrived here as a “Palestinian appropriation” in a tradition of art flows. If in its quotidian usage it invokes “the division, closure and diaspora that has happened to Palestine and Palestinians,” as Persekian put it, “the name also provides the opportunity to think historically” and reclaim that address for cosmopolitan connection. Thus, “Qalandiya Biennial International is a bridge to and from Palestine,” Persekian summarized, and in this spirit, the event included shows in parts of Palestine such as Jerusalem and Haifa to which, they knew, Palestinian audiences mostly could not go. Israel is stingy with the green-colored, biometric identification cards that West Bankers must carry to be allowed to cross the separation wall. (Palestinian citizens of Israel carry blue cards; holders of foreign passports can cross without extra documentation.)

Indeed, the organizers’ “mission” pitted people against art, not just border control. At the reception following the press conference, gossipy banter about the works to be viewed at the October 24 opening of the Jerusalem show was interwoven with updates about the ever changing procedures at Qalandiya checkpoint (“Does everyone have to get off the bus and walk through the ‘cattle queues’ or only green card holders?”) and commiserations about personal permit status (Iyad did not have a permit so he could not attend; Inass had finally gotten one and wanted to go even if she could not find child care). Transportation trumps all else. No sooner had I started making get-to-know-you small talk with Marion, a French researcher with “institutional” status who was to be my ride to Jerusalem, than I found myself yanked from the conversation by my friend Mirna, who had secured us another ride, on the condition that we leave right then. End of art event.

Transportation shaped viewing, too. In a subterranean gallery the next evening, I had just started scrutinizing Benji Boyadgian’s delicate watercolors of Wadi al-Shami when the ever conscientious Mirna arrived in a panic: Marion was staying in Jerusalem for the night. No more return ride to Ramallah. We looked around the art crowd and tried to remember who had which identity documents. Instantly everyone became “green” or “blue” according to the color of his or her card. When we finally found someone who would be returning to Ramallah in her private car but already had three passengers, we had to convince her that if we squished and ducked we could all fit and still evade Israeli traffic police who would gladly fine her or worse for exceeding the three-passenger limit. Ironically, the watercolors I was unable to see were said to document a valley that will soon be destroyed to create a ring road around Har Homa settlement, another infrastructural innovation that will aid Jewish-only travel and obstruct Palestinian traffic from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.

Several artists could not attend their own openings at QIB2. Yazid ‘Anani, a West Bank-born professor of architecture at Birzeit University and a curator of international repute, still had not received, three days prior to a film screening he had organized to occur in Jerusalem, the Israeli response to his application for a permit to attend it from his base in Ramallah. His chances, this time, looked good. Khaled Hourani, an artist world-renowned for his participation in the 2012 Documenta biennale (in Kassel, Germany), on the other hand, already knew he would not be permitted to attend his show in Haifa. He had sent his digital print, Shuhadaa Street, to the newly opened Arab Culture Association for a collective exhibition called Manam (Dream). When the buses gathered at 3 pm in Ramallah to provide free transportation to Haifa, Khaled did not bother to show up. For him Qalandiya was still, primarily, a checkpoint.

For Australian artist Tom Nicholson, the problem of Israeli border control was the exact opposite of Hourani’s. When Nicholson arrived at his art installation in Jerusalem, his work, Comparative Monument, was still in the custody of Israeli customs authorities. The work consisted of a book, or rather 500 copies of a book, which were to be stacked into a monumental sculpture in the Old City’s Khalidi Library to commemorate the uncanny convergence of Australian and Palestinian experiences of colonialism. Visitors would be encouraged to take away one copy each, helping the monument disappear. Only a 2.5 by 4-meter vinyl negative photograph of tree branches had arrived. It served as a backdrop for the artist’s emergency reconceptualization of his work as a performance piece, to be verbalized. Perhaps the audience ended up giving the piece more attention than they might have under normal circumstances, because it took Nicholson 20 minutes, with simultaneous translation, to describe the pages and images audience members were meant to touch and see, to retell the book’s story. The absent monument instead became, in dog-tired Turkish curator Başak Şenova’s description, “a very unfortunate and obligatory collaboration with the [Israeli] customs.”

Majdal Nateel, one of the ten winners of the Young Artist of the Year Award, found herself in a more difficult situation. In addition to production funds, this Award program gives selected artists six months of support through a series of “encounters” in which the curator and the ten artists listen to lectures, discuss readings and brainstorm. “Everything happened online,” explained Viviana Checchia, the Award competition curator in her opening speech, “because mobility, as you know, is quite an issue here.” As a resident of the besieged Gaza Strip, Nateel could not attend any of the curatorial meetings. To include her in the process, Award organizers developed an elaborate online platform with PDFs of readings, a video chat room and an interactive blog. Eventually, however, the planned works needed to materialize in a single space that could join them with an audience, Ramallah’s newly renovated Municipal Theater. Yet the border confining Nateel to Gaza is even tighter than the one around the West Bank: Not only was Nateel turned back at Erez checkpoint, the northern exit from Gaza, but so too was her artwork.

Nateel’s planned installation, titled Without Coffins, included pale yellow rectangular pine boxes, lying at random angles. It referred to the mass graves in which the bodies of Palestinian resistance fighters killed and kept by Israelis are buried until they become useful for political trading. The engraved metal numbers on such boxes are the only feature identifying who lies within, and these numbers cannot be deciphered without the Israeli registry, which is classified state information. In 2008, several of Nateel’s relatives were killed and are now kept in such mass graves. The other half of the installation, mounted on a facing wall, comprised faintly reprinted martyr photographs, tinged in yellow and overlaid with miniature text providing personal details. The charge of Nateel’s artwork arose from the disjuncture between the bureaucratic boxes and the homemade prints, for it was with such photographs and their obsessive, introverted script that Nateel’s family lived and mourned unremittingly in the absence of bodies.

Although this work of art never made it across Erez checkpoint, it did materialize for the Young Artist of the Year Award opening in Ramallah. Aided by the “virtual proximity” that had developed through the online forum, the curatorial staff and fellow artists located the necessary planks and plaques in Ramallah and constructed the piece anew. Ultimately, Nateel’s piece did not only address the issue of missing coffins and unending grief. Nor did it simply give the audience—in Ramallah’s large municipal theater—the chance to participate in the politics of loss. Colleagues who could reach the designated exhibition space became Nateel’s body and mind. They thereby expanded her corporality, invisibly inserting themselves to make visible Nateel’s grappling with grief and mourning. The installation’s boxes and prints were first substitute commemorations for the many bodies that could not reach their Palestinian families. Now they were made by bodies that substituted for one that could not be there, in a sense reversing the Israeli process of delocalizing and decorporalizing Palestinian resistance fighters and regular Gazans.

Another day, another book; same border, new imprint. On the evening of October 25 a small group of artists, curators, professors and college students gathered at the International Art Academy-Palestine in Ramallah to attend a discussion of the Arab Studies Journal’s spring 2014 special issue on “Cultures of Resistance in Palestine and Beyond.” Two of the contributors were present to debate the connection between culture and resistance, theater scholar Rania Jawad and curator ‘Adila Laïdi-Hanieh. Alia Rayyan, director of al-Hoash and organizer of the event, opened with an apology that she was unable to make copies of issue available to the audience, because they had been “delayed.” The speakers thought to make do with PDFs of the issue’s table of contents projected onto a large screen. But suddenly, when Laïdi-Hanieh tried to recall a point about culture Yazid ‘Anani had made in an interview in the same issue, she looked up to find ‘Anani sitting in the front row. He had surreptitiously joined the audience. His permit to travel from Ramallah to Jerusalem for his film screening had been denied. As it happened, that meant he could stand in for the missing journal in Ramallah. He later heard about the screening from his “international friends,” who had been the only ones who could make it across Qalandiya, ever the checkpoint.

Persekian’s turn of phrase, lil-tanzir, derives from the Arabic word nazara, to view. It invokes theory, philosophy and imagination—ways of seeing that are not based in substance. It points to the painful ambiguity of having vision in a place where the translation of idea into practice is vulnerable to interference. Enabling structures either do not exist or are actively pitched against the effort. Anticipatory politics requires something substantive to sustain the anticipation. Otherwise it disintegrates into sheer frustration. Tanzir’s trivializing connotation is especially poignant in relation to art, whose capacity to exist we generally credit to sheer vision. QIB2 raised a host of questions about the relationship of art to Palestinian reality and especially the immobility regime. Art is supposed to provide a vision of an alternative world, but exactly how does that vision relate to this world? If art does not cross borders, how can it provide a vision, for whom, and is it just a vision? Even as they participated, people wondered if the festival would transcend the injustices of the checkpoint regime or exacerbate them.

Lil-tanzir: the anxious expression resounded in my mind while I eyed the silk scarf draped around the neck of Mieke, an “international” I met at QIB2’s opening reception. What had turned my head was Mieke’s explanation to admirers that the scarf showed a refugee camp, but when I looked I saw, I thought, a jaguar print. The transformation was tickling, and troublesome. Could a refugee camp become a high design element? It seemed perverse. In a good way? Mieke had recently left human rights advocacy to represent Disarming Design, a new design label based in the West Bank but targeting international markets. It, too, was participating in QIB2. She commented that she had not really left her old field, but her new one “helps to make Palestine sexy, to create a political environment that makes it easier….” Her voice trailed off. I asked how the label was creating a market, and how it would export. Mieke agreed it was a problem. As was printing, when there are no high-quality printers in the Occupied Territories, and getting silk, which is not a local product. So what was the point of having this ability to re-envision the world? Just to see how far art could get from reality? Foresight becomes shortsightedness when it stumbles over troublesome issues of logistics.

Rather than asking if Qalandiya is or is not a bridge, is or is not a checkpoint, maybe we are better served with the following set of questions: How do we make sense of artwork that gets snagged at borders? Do we focus on the maker’s intent or the obstructer’s intent? Doing the former prizes the agency of the artist but overlooks the necessity of materialization for art to have impact. Doing the latter trains the focus on the guardians of power and ignores the potential of creativity to transform. Pitting the two against each other serves a tale of art overcoming boundaries, but that tends to erase the general problem of the border and all the material forms that cannot surpass it.

Closure and checkpoints are such a consistent part of Palestinian experience that Helga Tawil-Souri has argued that they constitute the core features of Palestinian existence wherever Palestinians go. [4] If Qalandiya the checkpoint is so central, literally at the heart of Palestinian existence, then Palestinian art cannot cross it and get to some other side. And what good is it for Palestinians to represent themselves to the world in art if they have no rights, including the right not to be artists, not to express themselves peacefully, the right to be evaluated for the merit of their political cause and not for how it is put forth? The cleverness and originality of Palestinian art is laudable—with its special relationship to audience, space, notions of visuality and viewing, and so on—but one should not celebrate the fact that “Palestinians get to do art” as an alternative to their attaining other rights of expression and mobility. It is crucial to avoid the danger of insinuating that if Palestinians made art that was good enough, it could cross for them, and effectively replace their rights with arts.

Yet if the Qalandiya in QIB2 was not exactly a bridge, it was not just a part of the separation wall, either. Recall Şenova’s ironic interpretation of Nicholson’s spoken monument as a form of “collaboration.” It seems that QIB2 reveals how art produces struggles over materiality that render visible unexpected aspects of Israeli dominance and Palestinian resistance. In observing the Israeli imprint on Palestinian art it is clear that the work produced does not belong entirely to the intentions of the artists or the border guards. Howard Becker introduced actor-network theory to the study of art in order to shift the focus from genius intentions to social facilities or skills that make a society capable of producing art. [5] He defined an “art world” as “a network of people whose cooperative activity, organized via their joint knowledge of conventional means of doing things, produces the kind of artwork the art world is noted for.” The problem with Becker’s model was its reliance upon shared conventions. When society is the subject of struggle, when conventions are a point of contention in the quest to define what the meaning of society will be, studying how art transforms can shed light on how certain ideas may gain traction, may become handles for thinking through quandaries particular to their place.

Consider again Khaled Hourani’s digital photograph. If Israeli “collaboration” is deemed part of the artwork, Hourani’s absence becomes integral to its overall presence. The 170 x 90 cm digital photograph on aluminum, titled Shuhadaa Street, towered over visitors to Manam, the Haifa exhibition organized by Rula Khoury to examine the dreams of Palestinian individuals, which, she holds, have been tinged by memories and longings for Palestine. For his “dream,” Hourani contributed a reproduction of a warning sign on the main road in his native Hebron, Shuhada’ Street, at the spot where, according to a 1997 agreement, Palestinian-controlled territory meets Israeli-controlled territory. In fire-red and blazing white, the bilingual sign warns those passing through which military power is “in control” on which side. Thus it brings out an intimate opposition between Hebraophones and Arabophones, because although each side of the double-faced sign speaks to both, speakers of only one language can feel safe on either side. Such signs exist throughout the Occupied Territories, but they are moot in Israeli-controlled Haifa. Yet in Haifa, where the audience would include Hebrew-speaking Arabs from that city with conflicted connections to Arab identity and the West Bank, the sign put visitors on the spot: Figure out which side addresses you. On which side will you feel properly warned, and on which will you recognize yourself as the threat? Ironically, Shuhadaa Street worked more fully in Haifa, where almost all viewers would actually read both languages, than the original does in Hebron. Its presence in the artist’s unwilled absence resonated with the identity category many Haifa Arabs also must inhabit to remain in their family’s homelands—“present absentees.” [6]

The problem with Persekian’s opening proposition—that art, and with it Palestinians, can cross borders—is the inherent suggestion that, for Palestinians, there is another side to reach. But borders and checkpoints are constitutive of contemporary Palestinian experience, given seven decades of an Israeli occupation that only tightens each year. And they are even more fundamental to the idea of art and the world that has developed since the eighteenth century to promote this aspect of human production. The art world is all about categorizing, ranking and issuing passes. If it is truly an instance of anticipatory representation, QIB2 must be an occasion for rethinking how art relates to people and relates people to each other. Artists, audiences and even artworks could not get to the event’s designated sites. Yet crossing was not completely stopped. People and objects responded to their immobilization with curious forms of shape shifting and self-refashioning. The results force us to ponder the relationship between visuality and materiality, between having a vision and having something visible.

Author’s Note: Portions of this essay first appeared in Anthropology Now.


[1] This term is Chris Harker’s. For a discussion of the social frictions that result from this ranking, see Harker’s “Student Im/mobility in Birzeit, Palestine,” Mobilities 4/1 (2009).
[2] Helga Tawil-Souri, “Qalandia Checkpoint as Space and Nonplace,” Space and Culture 14/1 (2011), p. 20.
[3] Chiara De Cesari, “Anticipatory Representation: Building the Palestinian Nation(-State) through Artistic Performance,” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 12/1 (2011), p. 95.
[4] Tawil-Souri, op cit.
[5] Howard Becker, Art Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. x.
[6] See Kiven Strohm’s insightful study, “Impossible Identification: Contemporary Art, Politics and the Palestinians in Israel,” Ph.D. dissertation, Université de Montreal, 2013.

Images: Tom Nicholson explains his artwork at the Jerusalem show; Majdal Nateel’s Without Coffins in Ramallah (Kirsten Scheid)

How to cite this article:

Kirsten Scheid "Can Art Cross Borders?," Middle East Report 274 (Spring 2015).

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