Past Disquiet – Narratives and Ghosts from the International Art Exhibition for Palestine, 1978 was a special exhibition (February-June 2015) at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona or MACBA (Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art) curated by Rasha Salti and Kristine Khouri, which sought to retrace the lost history of The International Art Exhibition for Palestine (1978) organized by the Palestine Liberation Organization in Beirut. The 1978 exhibition brought together artists from around the world in solidarity with the Palestinian national struggle and reflected a broader trend of international exhibitions staged outside of traditional museums by radical and and militant artist collectives; including, inter alia, The International Resistance Museum for Salvador Allende, the Artists of the World Against Apartheid, the International Brigades of Anti-Fascist Painters, and the Japan Afro-Asian Latin American Artists Association.
Below curators Salti and Khouri offer an introduction to their research followed by an interview conducted by Palestine Square.
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The International Art Exhibition in Solidarity with Palestine was inaugurated in Beirut (Lebanon), March 1978, and was intended as the seed collection for a museum-in-exile. Inspired by the Museum of Resistance in Exile in Solidarity with Salvador Allende, the deposed Chilean president, the collection took the form of an traveling exhibition that was meant to tour until it could “repatriate” to historic Palestine. Organized by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); it comprising almost 200 works donated by 200 artists from nearly 30 countries, the exhibition remains one of the most ambitious, in scale and scope, to have ever been showcased in the Arab world until this day. Tragically, during the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982, sustained shelling destroyed the building where many of the works were stored as well as the exhibition’s archival and documentary traces.
The research to reconstruct its narrative and traces began with a copy of the exhibition catalogue, which lists artists and acknowledges people and institutions whose contributions and support made it possible. Past Disquiet – Narratives and Ghosts from the International Art Exhibition for Palestine, 1978 is the exhibition centered on this research and the world of art and political engagement among the international anti-imperialist Left during the 1970s. The exhibition, which opened at the MACBA Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona in February 2015, uncovers extraordinary networks of individuals and practices behind the PLO’s exhibition. Illustrating the multiple themes and interrogations that have guided the investigation, Past Disquiet stitches forgotten histories and maps lost cartographies from recorded testimonies and private archives. It retraces the complicated mesh of networks of affiliation and solidarity that linked militant artists across the world in the context of the Cold War. In addition, the exhibition revisits stories of similar museographic initiatives centered on the impassioned defense of political and national causes and emerging from shared soil, such as the struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
Past Disquiet investigates exhibition history and the historiography of artistic practice and perception. The exhibition addresses the problematics of oral history, the trappings of memory, and writing history in the absence of cogent archives. Last, but not least, it also explores the significance of political engagement in the decade of the 1970s, specifically in mediums deemed neither vanguard nor mainstream, and thus rarely studied in prevailing contemporary historical narratives.
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How did you encounter the ’78 exhibition?
We found the catalogue in the library of an art gallery in Beirut by pure coincidence, and needless to say, we were intrigued. The exhibition was organized by the Plastic Arts Section of the PLO’s Unified Information Office. When we asked around the usual suspects in Beirut (i.e. art critics of a certain generation and the Palestinian intelligentsia), we realized that all recollections were very vague. With 197 artists from 30 countries credited to have donated work, the scale and scope of the exhibition was remarkable. To imagine, furthermore, that such an exhibition was organized in Beirut during the 1975-90 Civil War; and inaugurated less than two weeks after the Israeli army invaded south Lebanon and the UN peacekeeping forces were deployed to “observe” cessation of violence, we decided to probe further.
The catalogue indicated that the exhibition was destined to lay the foundation for a museum for Palestine: the collection was its seed, and its itinerant showcase across the world was the embodiment of a museum in exile. Ultimately, it was intended to repatriate to a free and democratic Palestine. After some investigating, we learned that after the opening in Beirut in the Spring of 1978, the Unified Information Office rented an apartment to store the artworks and became invested in organizing the exhibition’s international showcase. One hundred artworks were exhibited in Japan, another selection in Norway and yet another in Iran. In 1982, as the Israeli army held Beirut under siege and began to shell the city mercilessly, the Unified Information building, as well as the works, were shelled badly. It seems that some of the works were “rescued” prior to the total destruction of the building, but certainly the paper trail and documentary traces were lost for good.
We had so many questions: How can the list of artists who donated works be explained? What was their connection to Palestine? Did they choose the works themselves, or did the exhibition organizers choose them? Who are the people acknowledged in the list of thank yous? Where did the idea of a museum come from? We began by trying to find out whom among the artists listed in the catalogue and those thanked were alive and if we could find a way to contact them. It was like detective work. However, we were interested in unearthing the story of the exhibition’s making, and not in the fate of the artworks and the collection. That latter matter should be the mandate of the Palestinian Ministry of Culture or the Palestinian Delegation at the UNESCO.
The art works and files involved were scattered. How did you go about recollection? And what were your big breakthroughs?
We recognized a few names in the list of artists and those acknowledged, and because we had no funding to cover the cost of travel, we began interviewing those in our close vicinity: Beirut, Damascus and Jordan. Eventually, we contacted Claude Lazar, a French artist who donated work and seemed to have traveled to Beirut for the installation of the exhibition and opening. We found a few interviews with him in the Lebanese newspapers. When we wrote him about the project, he seemed very enthusiastic and willing to share with us his personal archive. In June of 2011, when Lazar welcomed us into his Paris atelier, he told us: “I’ve been waiting for you for 30 years,” and handed us three boxes; one with photographs, one with documents, and the third one with newspaper clippings. This was the first time we saw photographs of the exhibition besides a couple of small ones reproduced in the press articles that we had found. Our meeting with Claude Lazar was, and remains, our most significant breakthrough. He is still our most generous supporter.
After that encounter, he opened his address book and gave us names, contacts, phone numbers, vouched for us and basically propelled the research into realms we could have never been able to break through to without his help. Research of this type – that relies on people’s testimonies, their personal stories, and their private archives – requires a great deal of building trust. Every time we were granted an interview and people received us, we were deeply moved and grateful by the privilege we were granted. We were also very aware of the degree of responsibility that comes with such an undertaking. The reason we were able to surface forgotten – or unsuspected – histories is mostly due to the complicity of people who accepted to participate in writing the subaltern narratives with us. Or more accurately, in allowing us to write these narratives with them.
Who were the key characters involved in 1978?
Mona Saudi, a Jordanian artist who was living in Beirut at the time, and deeply engaged in the struggle for the liberation of Palestine, was the head of the Plastic Arts Section within the Unified Information Office. She was the exhibition’s custodian and played a central role in the making of the exhibition.
The acknowledgements page of the catalogue points to a number of other people who were also crucial. Ezzedine Kalak (the PLO’s representative in France from 1972 until 1978) is featured on the list, but his name also came up often enough in the interviews that we understood that he was also very important. He was assassinated in Paris in August 1978 [by the Abu Nidal faction due to an intra-Palestinian feud]. We also came to understand that other PLO representatives played an important role, like Fathi Abdulhamid, who was in Japan, and Wagih Qassem, in Morocco. Their names appear in the catalogue of an art exhibition, because they were the kind of militants who were deeply invested in establishing grassroots solidarities with workers, students, writers and artist unions. In fact, they believed that political change (or revolution) could not be imagined without artists.
How did the PLO come to believe that such an exhibition was worth its efforts?
A couple of years ago, Ahmad Abdel-Rahman, who was the head of the Unified Information Office at the time, published his memoirs; in which he transcribes rather effectively the mindset of the PLO leadership. Firstly, the establishment of a Plastic Arts Section within the Unified Information Office was the organic crystallization of a salient reality: artists rallied around the PLO, organized exhibitions of all kinds, produced posters and artworks to illustrate a representation of Palestinians and of the struggle on their own terms. The PLO had also established a Film Unit, a Photography Unit, a Department of National Culture and a publishing house (Dar al-Fata al-Arabi). Palestinian artists were involved in all of these entities, but there were also Arab and international artists who mobilized around the cause. The PLO leadership understood that representation was as much the realm of politics as aesthetics. Posters were a key element in creating a visual imaginary of nationhood and peoplehood to a population dispersed in refugee camps in the Arab world or in the diaspora in Europe and North America.
In addition, posters communicated a representation of the struggle. The Plastic Arts Section had organized several exhibitions prior to the one we researched, as had the Department of Arts and National Culture. The idea of a “museum in exile” was inspired from the experience of Chileans exiled in Paris after the Pinochet coup d’état, whom had set-up a Museum of Resistance in Solidarity with Salvador Allende in exile.
During your research, what was the most amusing and illustrative moment, illustrative of the Palestinian struggle at the time?
Perhaps the one we could share here is from Claude Lazar, who accompanied the other foreign artists attending the opening. The PLO had organized a program of visits, including refugee camps, and a visit to the “front” or one of the battlefields in the south to meet fida’is [Fadayyin]. Claude recalls that they carried catalogues in their hands and had to crawl through bushes and fortifications to reach a forest clearing where they sat with fighters and told them about the exhibition and proudly handed them copies of the catalogue. It was surreal!
What role did international artists play?
The name of the exhibition says it all: The International Art Exhibition for Palestine. The exhibition featured artists from 30 countries, with the highest number of contributions from France, Italy, Poland, and Japan. International artists and figures were key in making it happen: these networks and links between artists, via friendships with other artists, or through PLO representatives, and other networks, are at the heart of our research.
How and why did these artists came together around the Palestinian cause?
Most of the artists from France who donated work belonged to the Jeune Peinture, an association of artists established after the end of WWII with a decided anti-establishment position. After May ’68, the Jeune Peinture was radicalized and their “salon” only showcased the works of collectives, individual artists were not included. Many of the artists forming collectives were Maoists and engaged in various political struggles for freedom and justice (Vietnam, South Africa, Chile, as well as Palestine).
Claude Lazar recalls that after May ’68, Palestine became a federating cause to a French Left that was divided around a variety of issues. Moreover, there were French filmmakers who were also engaged with these causes, most notably, Jean-Luc Godard, as well as the Cinema Vincennes group, which were invited by the PLO to direct a documentary film about the Palestinian struggle. They made L’Olivier (1975) around the same time as Godard directed Ici et Ailleurs (1976).
Were there any moments of despondence during your research? For instance, the emphasis on international solidarity by the PLO and its evident absence among the Palestinian Authority (PA), which administers the isolated pockets of Palestinian cities and villages in the occupied West Bank?
In general, it would not be fair to compare the PLO with the PA; it was an entirely different time, the stakes were different and so were the resources, terrains of maneuver and language. Perhaps the PLO cadres at the time were more imaginative, or at least, some were. We did not have to deal with PA officials: We are in Beirut and they are in Ramallah. Through friends in Ramallah, we asked some of those who were active in Beirut in 1978 and are still active in Ramallah today, if they were interested in having their testimonies recorded and they were not. We asked about “surviving” archival traces, and these were destroyed. If your question is whether anyone from the PA tried to reach out to us to give us support, the answer is no. However, important Palestinian foundations gave us invaluable support, as well as individuals. But that is a different question.
What was the reception in Lebanon? A civil war was going on and was there any effort to sabotage the exhibition, say, by the right-wing, anti-Palestinian militias?
The reception in Lebanon was fairly amazing, considering everything that was going on at the time. The division of Beirut into its eastern and western flanks made movement across dangerous and complicated, and there was the Israeli invasion of south Lebanon, which happened while the exhibition was being installed. No one mentioned sabotage by anyone, neither the Lebanese Forces, nor any other political force. However, one of the likely reasons that the exhibition was staged at the Beirut Arab University is that the location was at the heart of what was known as “Fatah-land,” or the area under the total control of the PLO and the hall was large enough to host an exhibition of this scale. The exhibition was the PLO’s most ambitious and costly arts initiative, but there was never any doubt about its significance and power. Six foreign artists were invited to attend the opening as well as a few Arab artists. Prior to the Israeli army’s tanks rolling into Lebanese territory, [PLO Chairman Yassir] Arafat was expected to attend the opening, but, considering the degree of alertness and caution, by opening day the organizers no longer expected him to come. Everyone was surprised when his security team announced that he was on his way, it underlined the importance of the event for the PLO.
The Palestinian intelligentsia was particularly elated with the exhibition, to most visitors it felt as if artists worldwide were rallying with their cause and giving it legitimacy. The major Lebanese dailies covered the exhibition extensively and interviewed artists and visitors. A young fida’i visited the exhibition and was interviewed by a journalist from As-Safir, he said he felt vindicated because artists from the entire world countered the prevailing representation of Palestinians as “barbarians.” Palestinian artist Nasser Soumi was working at the Plastic Arts Section at the time, he had assisted Mona Saudi in organizing the exhibition. He conducted a survey with the visitors and published it in al-Kateb al-Filastini, in which he asked people what was their favorite work?, and what themes moved them most?
What do you want individuals to learn from your exhibition? And what roadmap does this exhibition provide for other projects retracing global artistic solidarity?
This is a documentary and archival exhibition that aims to inspire questions about prevailing perceptions of art and political engagement, activate forgotten histories, and surface complex cartographies of solidarities. We are not historians, and we did not showcase a “revisionist” narrative, nor did we stage a pedagogical exhibition. There are aspects of Past Disquiet that suggest a revision, and there is certainly a pedagogical virtue to the research; however, our intention was to recreate a world that doesn’t exist anymore and of which scant traces remain. A world connected through perceptions of shared struggles, empathy and a brotherhood in the struggles against dictatorships, occupation, and imperialism. A world where art played a vital and central role in giving these causes representation and visibility.
What was the reception for Past Disquiet in Barcelona?
Past Disquiet was hosted by the MACBA because it intersected with two of the museum’s guiding thematic motifs at the time, namely “decolonizing the museum” and “exhibition histories as a means of interrogating art history.” In essence, Past Disquiet is an exhibition of stories, told in myriad ways, in myriad voices (and languages). We really had no clue what to expect in terms of the museum’s audience, whether it raised themes relevant for Barcelona, or the museum’s visitors. And we were very happily surprised! The press was attentive and curious, and we saw that visitors were taking the time to discover, listen, look… It was really rewarding.
What are your future plans for exhibition, including in the U.S.?
We will be touring the exhibition in the coming years, but will be adapting the exhibition to the local context or to the institution’s interest in the project. Confirmed venues are the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (March 2016) and Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm (October 2016). We hope to bring it to other cities that had a strong link to the project: Rome, Paris, Tokyo, Cape Town, Santiago de Chile, and, of course, we will be showing it in Beirut in 2017 and hopefully eventually in Palestine. We do not yet have any venues hosting it in the U.S., but are looking into it.
Interview conducted by Khelil Bouarrouj.