It all started with a simple conversation between Palestinian artists twenty years ago. It was shortly after the outbreak of the Second Intifada that some of the most recognized Palestinian artists on the scene, including
It all started with a simple conversation between Palestinian artists twenty years ago. It was shortly after the outbreak of the Second Intifada that some of the most recognized Palestinian artists on the scene, including Muhammad Saleh Khalil and Hani Zurob, began discussing how to use art as a tool to express devastating political and social reality in which they lived.
“At the time of the Israeli invasion of the West Bank,” Rafat Asad recalls, “we all lived in the same neighborhood, in Beitunia, a small town near Ramallah.” Born in Nablus in 1974, Asad is an artist who produces sound and light installations, videos and performances, although he describes himself as a painter primarily interested in the Palestinian landscape. He has been part of the Visual Arts Forum since its inception and works there as an art teacher, while developing the Forum’s gallery program and supporting students who organize exhibitions and travel to art fairs.
Asad points out that in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there were no art schools in the Ramallah area; most teachers gave classes in private homes. “Young people were hanging out in the street doing nothing, and we were thinking about how we could help them. We really wanted to help them overcome the trauma, and we decided to use what we know best: art. “
Most of the artists involved in the Forum have all worked with local communities before, and they started by establishing art workshops in Palestinian towns and villages. This led to the creation of the Visual Arts Forum in 2002; today it is a leading Palestinian institution in the field of culture and visual arts.
“The Visual Arts Forum started on the streets with the idea that art is an important tool for transformation,” explains Deema Ershaid, Executive Director of the Forum. “Palestinian artists felt a strong sense of responsibility during this phase, a sense that they had to do something; they wanted to have a say in what was happening; they yearned to be part of people’s lives.” The artists traveled throughout the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, with their art supplies and tools in their bags. “They crossed valleys and hills, traversed numerous Israeli checkpoints to reach the most marginalized communities.”
According to Asad, it was truly amazing to see some of his artist friends doing so well with young people. He started giving lessons mainly to adults, and at first he focused more on technique and skills. As his initial involvement was part-time through planning, teaching classes and workshops, he managed to pursue his own artistic practice in parallel. “If you’re an art teacher, you must have developed your own art practice,” he tells me, “otherwise you’d just be giving information without any lived experience. What we want to teach our students is not just artistic techniques, but above all how to live as an artist.”
A true labor of love, before becoming an institution, the Visual Arts Forum was supported by the artists’ own financial resources. At the end of 2002, it became a non-profit organization and was officially licensed and registered by the Palestinian Ministry of Interior in Ramallah: “It was a very difficult process, because at the time there was a lot of official paperwork to do with a lot of skepticism about art,” Ershaid points out.
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For the initial project application, the artists exaggerated the resources available to them to increase their chances of being accepted. “In the application, they wrote that they had space, computers, and art supplies that they didn’t actually have at this point,” she laughs. “However, the request was approved and they were informed that the donors would visit them in three days. The group therefore had to find and furnish accommodation quickly. With no money, Wisal Khalil Mohammad’s wife sold her car and the group managed to find and rent a place, buy two desks and chairs and a computer. And with the arrival of the donors, they were satisfied, and the Forum obtained the financing. It did not look back .
Art for all
Most of the people who attend the Visual Arts Forum today have had a personal connection to the school. Deema Ershaid herself was a student there. “I have loved drawing and coloring since I was little, and since my parents are both doctors, I wanted to make them proud by drawing human anatomy. So I joined the Forum, I followed art courses and master classes and workshops and I participated in many exhibitions, and became a member of the board of directors. The forum opened up new horizons for me, but I studied accounting and finance I did my masters and eventually found a non-art job at a well-known institution with good I always dreamed of being more involved in the art scene so when the board asked to consider running the Forum, I had no doubts; I had to get back to what I loved the most, which was art.
She tells me that the basis of the school is that art is for everyone. “Anyone can join the school, in Palestine and around the world; it’s for anyone who wants to get involved in art, whether they want to become artists or just art lovers; if they are kids or retired seniors looking for a creative outlet.”
There are no prerequisites to be a member of the Forum, and there are no compulsory courses. “You come because you want to learn, and over time you give and receive students’ trust and loyalty to the idea of art as an important tool in life.”
The new orientations of the Forum
Although the Forum initially focused on theater used in the psychosocial support of traumatized children, the focus is currently solely on the visual arts. “It makes us different. We have a niche, a competitive advantage in this field, using visual arts in community awareness, psychosocial support and human rights advocacy, etc.
However, evolving in an ever-changing world is something that is always at the forefront of the Visual Arts Forum’s strategy. “For example, we know that technology is crucial in our world today, so we have developed a program called ‘Youth Economic Empowerment Using the Arts’, which includes crash courses in animation, illustration and of graphic design, with the idea of bringing students into the labor market at the highest level.”
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After twenty years of cumulative efforts, the Forum is at the stage where the results of the efforts are palpable. Deema and Rafat show me a catalog from 15 years ago that contains photos of young people and their art at the forum; many have become recognized artists and active participants in the Palestinian and international art scene.
In this sense, the Forum gallery space – “For now, it’s just a wall that we use to display works”, explains Asad, “but we plan to transform the space into a real gallery” – also works as a learning tool. “It’s a process of teaching our students how to present their work, allowing them to become familiar with the process and structure of creating an exhibition, from the physical placement of paintings to lighting and captions. It is one of the central subjects of the advanced courses at school. The whole process is a learning tool.”
New projects are under development. From May 26 to 29, the Visual Arts Forum participates in the Stockholm Supermarket Art Fair. Additionally, in July, it will have its first art residency, which will host mid-career Palestinian professional artists, art school graduate students, and Forum School of Arts students for seven days as well as international artists with their Belgian students.
The artist and the community
Rafat Asad says that the Forum started with the idea of introducing young Palestinians to the idea of producing art and providing them with access to art in a systematic and continuous way, especially for those who are based in the West Bank, including Jerusalem. However, in recent years, it is oriented more and more towards the general public. “Our vision with the Forum is to convey what it means to work as an artist professionally. To be an artist, you can’t just lock yourself in a studio; I believe you need to be connected with your community.”
In conclusion, Deema tells me that everyone at the Forum wants Palestinians to feel that art is an important tool in their lives. “If art could become as big a topic as politics in Palestinian families, I would say our biggest dreams have come true.”
The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.