This Sea is Mine: Reflections on the Qalandiya Biennial

Commissioned by REORIENT in 2016.

Twitching restlessly on a makeshift rooftop shed, forty pigeons jostle and jingle – tiny light bulbs tethered to pink ankles. Opposite them, perched in a row on a low concrete wall, we wait, watching the red sky darken. Shouts indicate two other rooftops with ready flocks, and with a muted flap the birds launch into motion, their collective bodies gaining air. Mahmoud, the son of this flock’s owner, leaps onto a battered tin roof with a flag and beats the sky to make them fly higher. The bright blue bulbs carve loops in the sky, and are caught as tiny comet bolts on digital monitors and cell phone screens. The birds dance in and out of each other, wheeling and racing until we feel giddy. A group of outliers flies almost out of sight – wisps of blue darting between buildings – as cries from children elsewhere in the camp indicate their circling nearby. Mahmoud nets one from the sky and pulls it in with a thickening of feathers and rattle of the LED, his practiced hand emerging with it clutched, warm, and alert, in his clasp. We inspect the way the little light has been attached to the leg, and admire the tiny battery embedded behind it.

Pigeons hold an important place in Palestinian culture, and Flight – Jalazone, organised by artist Nida Sinnokrot, played on a fascination with their motion, freedom, and intimacy. Jalazone is a refugee camp not far from Ramallah, built in 1949 after the Nakba and home to 10,000 refugees in barely more than a quarter of a square kilometre. The birds’ giddy liberty was a reminder of the many freedoms denied to Palestinians, whose movement is controlled by identity cards, regimented by checkpoints, and maintained through violence. That night, just before the pigeons took off, a deep V slipped slowly through the sky above us, very high up. A flock of different birds in formation, backed against the clouds, flew steadily southwards. In a place where human movement is so consistently limited, fraught, and structured, aching with anxiety and fear, there was something brazen about the pigeons’ autonomy, so deeply natural and inviolable. The pigeons’ own blue-tipped flight paths recalled these patterns of migration and boundless travel, but the performance ended not with their emancipation. Returned to their roost, it was the integrity of the group we were left with, the presence of the whole subsuming the individual, back on earth.

Sinnakrot’s work was part of Sites of Return, a project of Qalandiya International 2016 curated by Sahar Qawasmi and Beth Stryker. The Palestinian biennial – named for the village, refugee camp, and checkpoint that cuts Ramallah from Jerusalem, and all the complexities embodied therein – was this year entitled This Sea is Mine, and hosted exhibitions, events, talks, and performances, many of which took place outside of traditional art spaces. The night before the gathering in Jalazone, I had walked to Manara, the main square in Ramallah, for an evening organised by artist Mirna Bamieh for her Potato Talks series. On one side of the square sat 10 storytellers on low wooden stools, with identical seats opposite them, open to the public to sit and listen. I nestled myself with Fidaa, who arranged my hands below hers and peeled potatoes into my palms as she told me her story.

As a professional storyteller, Fidaa has told tales all over Palestine. Seeking somewhere new to tell a story, a friend of hers suggested his natal village in the Jordan valley, a hamlet near Jericho where she had never been. Thrilled at the prospect, she set off, enjoying the long journey; and once she arrived, she walked the dusty roads nearing the village with growing excitement. Pausing under the only tree in sight, she realised she could see no one – not even a single child – and began to feel the tangible remoteness of the place around her. Suddenly she heard them, a group of children, bubbling over the crest of a hill, home from school. They gathered round her, and she asked if they would like to hear a story. They did, and she took out a parachute for them to play with and crayons to draw with as she wove her tale. One small girl found a crayon in her bag, and asked if she could draw with it. Fidaa explained it was a crayon for one’s face, to colour one’s mouth with. The girl was intrigued, so Fidaa painted a sticky red flower on her cheek, to the crowd’s delight. All the other children wanted the same, so she drew lipstick gardens on their cheeks, before they were called away for dinner, happy and shrieking. Resting under a single tree, delighted at the children’s joy, she felt satisfied that her work as a storyteller had been done. She then saw a mother striding towards her from down the road, pulling by the hand the little girl on whose cheek she had first drawn a flower. ‘Did you draw this on my daughter’s cheek?’ she asked. Fidaa felt suddenly uneasy. ‘Did I do something wrong?’ she replied. The mother told her, ‘This week, I searched three days for a cup of water for my child to drink. From where will I find a cup of water to wash her face, so she can go to school tomorrow?’

Sinnokrot’s Flight used the visceral experience of airborne pigeons to make connections between the bird and the Palestinian, the coop and the camp, the freedom denied to the individual, and the power of the group. Bamieh’s Potato Talks, on the other hand, engaged the potency of the teller and listener, each story imbricated in its political reality, such as the theft of water from the Jordan Valley, a resource-rich site being sucked dry by the occupation.

The most striking works in Qalandiya International thus employed the architecture of the conditions of Palestine to magnify them and turn them outwards. Especially within the often cynical space of contemporary art, there is something twee about storytelling. The word, the verb, conjures Hans Christian Andersen, bedtime with papa, and the warmth of cocoa. Telling a story implies the tired rehearsal of childhood tropes, of hidden morals and unsurprising endings; yet, Bamieh’s work insisted upon storytelling as a simple political act. When one’s stories are systematically erased or appropriated; when one’s national and familial culture, history, and present geography are stolen; and when one’s voice is silenced, a story grants both the opportunity to bear witness to the real, and exercise the rich space of the imaginative. The telling of a story is catharsis, connection, resistance.

The winner of this year’s Young Artist of the Year Award, Inas Halabi, also played on the slipperiness of the story. Mnemosyne is a short film for which Halabi interviewed 17 family members (each instructed to keep secret from each other what she had asked them) and requested they tell the story of how her grandfather had acquired the scar on his forehead. Seated on the same sofa as the viewer, sunk within the exhibition space, family member after family member – skinny-jeaned teenager, cane-wielding granny, coiffed aunty – gestured vaguely to their heads, describing flights to Lebanon, altercations on the way back to Palestine, injuries acquired in tussles with Israelis, and bullets caught by accident. Through this approach, Halabi revealed the obvious slinkiness of memory and the verbal threads that weave through families, warped by Chinese whispers and dulled with time.

At Beirut’s Dar el-Nimer, the work of Hana Sleiman and Ahmad Barclay constructed an archive of archives, tracing the way Palestinian stories have themselves spanned diasporic journeys connecting Lebanon, Algeria, Cyprus, Italy, and Palestine. Far from static rows on dusty shelves, dutifully recording reality, archives are human constructs whose subjective making, eternal incompleteness, destruction, and loss testify to their continued power of testimony. The PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) Research Centre archives in Beirut were repeatedly targeted by Israel and finally confiscated during the Israeli occupation of West Beirut in September 1982. The archives themselves formed part of a prisoner exchange agreement in 1983, and were returned to the PLO in Algeria, where they have remained somewhat mysteriously ever since. Sleiman and Barclay’s work revealed the way archives are treated politically as pseudo-human subjects, with bodies and memories. In this way, Sea of Stories literally visualised the infrastructure of institutionalised storytelling, drawing attention to archival absence.

As curator Lara Khaldi asked artist Jumana Emil Abboud in a conversation published as part of O Whale Don’t Swallow Our Moon, an exhibition of Abboud’s work revolving around talismans, folk tales, and the enduring power of magical spaces, ‘If we bring back the stories, are we surrendering to the loss of the land? Or are we in a sense returning poetically until we do so physically?’ This question echoes the implicit stakes raised by Sinnokrot’s work. Operating from the rooftops of a refugee camp, from which vantage point the architecture of the camp – a temporary shelter given semi-permanence by concrete – was visible, Flight brought to mind a question central to Palestinian return as a political project: does building a stable home for oneself in displacement diminish one’s right to return to one’s original land? Does a person not have both a right to return and a real home in the meantime?

While these questions of return – the real theme at stake in This Sea is Mine – are pressing ones, the sea, by contrast, is a poor metaphor for anything. The sea is unavoidably literal, inviting endlessly similar representation, and simultaneously too fundamentally abstract to act as a meaty hermeneutic with firm political bite. It is a catch-all vessel for a variety of issues and questions, but rarely does it force new interpretation of either. It is, of course, both these qualities – the tangible and the abstract – that give the sea importance in the Palestinian context: the water is a rich site for the visual imaginary of refugees, a potent embodiment of the human rights denied those cut from their home. The shore is a porous, liminal space, exemplifying the absurd arbitrariness of borders; a utopian body owned by no one, its indolent power is greater than that of any individual.

If its theme is, literally, too liquid to feel useful, then Qalandiya International may be no different from the average biennial, where, in the words of Tirdad Zolghadr, ‘on the rare occasions curatorial agendas are spelled out for the audience, the rhetoric is mostly so sweeping, and the proposals so broad, that no one can possibly hold you to them’. And yet, this biennial is, contrary to most large-scale arts festivals, inherently local, embedded in its own context un-self-consciously and absolutely. It is organised not by a singular institution, but as a collaboration between multiple art spaces and foundations – 16 this year – across ’48, the West Bank, Beirut, Amman, and London. As a result, the sea ended up serving as a fitting metaphor for the experience of the biennial, with each international node acting as a pole with tidal pull.

Zolghadr argues that it is the indeterminacy of contemporary art that allows a viewer ‘to feel complicit in art’s critical virtue. To feel privy to the transgressions at play, and to gain a conspiratorial sense of being on the right side of history.’ The sea is the ultimate indeterminate, making space for the political and the opposition of power without ever being called to account for real effects. Are we buffeted along on the waves of Qalandiya International, virtuously playing the good tourist, the engaged observer, the globalised, politicised art traveller? Should we ask that a biennial does more than just reflect and communicate the imbricated politics of its context? Can a large-scale arts event such as Qalandiya International – with power in its collaboration, autonomy in its content, and finances at its disposal – not leverage its connections and operationalise its ideas to actually shift the conditions of which it speaks? Perhaps this is an ultimately reductive ambition, one that disregards the power of critical reflection in and of itself, and assumes that active structural change be the purview or raison d’être of artistic practice, as opposed to the fields of activism or politics.

Clearly this was not a tight biennial interested in the articulation of a singular argument, the development of specific research, or incisive commentary on the state of contemporary global conditions. Qalandiya International will never be curated by DIS, or land in Athens; yet, in a place as fractured as Palestine, geographically and politically, does this collaborative project amongst 16 organisations not constitute something of a paradigm? There is importance, as well as something refreshing, in its creation of space for Palestinian artists across generations and levels of experience. The student competition, the young group show, the solo exhibition for the mid-career artist, the open studios of local art world giants – all of these converged in Ramallah alone during Qalandiya International. Regardless of whether or not the biennial is capable of, or responsible for changing the landscape in which it operates, its content speaks to the potential to do so – both artistically and politically – using the most simple of tools: the telling of stories and the flight of birds.

- Rachel Dedman

‘This Sea is Mine’, the third edition of Qalandiya International, ran 5 - 31 October 2016.

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