Photos by Antoine Derksen
A series of photo light-boxes, shown for the first time at New York University Abu Dhabi, make up part of the dossier nomination of Dheisheh Refugee Camp as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2016, Hilal and Petti commissioned the Italian photographer Luca Capuano, the same photographer whom UNESCO had commissioned to document forty- four sites in Italy inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. He was asked to document Dheisheh Refugee Camp with the same respect, care, and search for monumentality used when photographing historical centers like Venice or Rome. The artists start from an understanding that refugee camps are places rich with stories narrated through the urban fabric. Historically, refugee camps have been dismissed by states, non-governmental organizations and by refugee communities themselves, in fear that the recognition of these histories of exile could undermine the refugees’ right of return to their home country. For over two years the implications for Dheisheh’s UNESCO nomination were discussed by organizations and individuals, politicians and conservation experts, activists, governmental and non-governmental representatives, and proximate residents. Members of the camps expressed strong concerns that the nomination would change the status quo, in addition to undermining their legal right of return. Still, they expressed their desire to see refugee history acknowledged, and to bring the right of return discussion back to the center of the political debate. The end goal of the project is not UNESCO’s approval, but to start a needed conversation about the permanent temporariness of camps, and the connection between rights and space. Capuano’s eighteen life-sized photos on lightboxes make up an alley-like path to mimic the encounters and blockades one discovers while walking in the camp. The artists have included one image taken in Italy from Capuano’s UNESCO project, encouraging the visitor to consider the aesthetic values as well as the similarities and differences between the informality of historical towns and refugee camps.
Refugee Heritage is a project by DAAR: Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti in collaboration with Sandy Rishmawi, Elsa Koehler, Isshaq Al Barbary, Mais Musleh. It was produced in consultation with Campus in Camps, Dheisheh Camp Popular Committee, Finiq Cultural Center, Ibdaa Cultural Center, Riwaq Center for Architectural Conservation and Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation in Bethlehem. Special thanks to the Odah and Al Sai families. The Foundation for Art Initiatives and the 5th Riwaq Biennial provided the initial support for the development of Refugee Heritage. The light-box installation is commissioned by NYU Abu Dhabi. The Refugee Heritage project was first presented in 2016 as text in e-flux’s publishing web platform e-flux.com/architecture/refugee-heritage
Al Madhafah/The Living Room
Al Madhafah the living room is a new performance created by Sandi Hilal, based on her experience conducting fieldwork for the Public Art Agency with Syrian refugees in the city of Boden, Sweden, in November 2016. The performance is inspired by a story about a Syrian refugee couple, Yasmeen and Ibrahim, and the importance of their living room to their welfare in a refugee camp. Yasmeen and her family intend for their Syrian living room in Sweden to become a space where diverse people can gather. The act of hosting enables them to go beyond being passive guests of a refugee camp, to become active hosts. In this powerful claim to what Hilal calls “the right to host,” the living room opens the possibility for refugees like Yasmeen and Ibrahim to combine their lost life in Syria with their new life in Sweden. Hilal further explains the significance of the living room saying: In Arab culture, the living room is the part of the house that opens itself to guests, foreigners, or outsiders. It functions as a transitional space and a passage between the domestic and the public. The living room is always ready to host unexpected guests. It is the most ornamented section of the house, never in disorder, and often prepared with fruit, nuts, or black coffee ready to be offered to guests that might surprise the residents at any time. Notably, even in refugee camps, where space is extremely scarce, the living room remains the most important part of the house, representing a digni ed place regard- less of the precarious condition of the rest of the house. Paradoxically, it is likely to be the space that is least used yet most symbolic, curated, and taken care of. In a foreign country, access to public space is a challenge for refugees as they are expected to constantly perform the role of the “perfect guest” in order to be accepted. Turning private spaces, such as the living room, into social and political arenas, is often a response to a limitation of political agency in the public realm. The performance will take place during the exhibition’s opening week, whereby Hilal (a temporary guest herself at New York University Abu Dhabi) will host invited visitors at her apartment space on campus.
Al Madhafah is a project by DAAR: Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti in collaboration with Yasmeen Mahmoud, Ibrahim Muhammad Haj Abdulla, and Ayat Al-Turshan. A network of various living rooms are activated in Boden, Sweden with support from the Public Art Agency Sweden, and in Stockholm by the Arab Fund for Art and Culture (AFAC), and in Fawwar Refugee Camp in the West Bank.
The Concrete Tent
This installation takes the form of the temporary refugee tent, but is solidified in concrete: it embodies the paradox of permanent temporariness. Located on the threshold of the campus border (behind the university’s East Cafeteria) it welcomes visitors and gatherings from both worlds. The artists originally conceived and built this installation in the Dheisheh refugee camp, south of Bethlehem, as a gathering space for Campus in Camps, an experimental pedagogical program that Hilal and Petti founded in 2012. Today The Concrete Tent in Dheisheh refugee camp is used by youth as a meeting point, negotiators from the camp use it for peace resolution meetings among families, social and cultural events take place there, and newlyweds have found the tent to be a good place for taking their wedding pictures. For Hilal and Petti, the re-creation of a tent made of concrete is not only an attempt to preserve the cultural and symbolic importance of this archetype for the narration of the Nakba (the expulsion of Palestinians from their communities in 1948), but is also a way to reframe the urgency of the right of return. Palestinian refugee camps, after more than seven decades of existence, are no longer made of fragile structures, they are complex urban and social environments that challenge the common notion of what constitutes a refugee camp. The Concrete Tent enables the viewer to experience this paradox of permanent temporariness and reflect upon the present political condition of exile for so many populations. At New York University Abu Dhabi, The Concrete Tent speaks to the permanent temporariness of the newfound home of our campus for our students. It is also relevant to the many long-term residents of the city of Abu Dhabi and to the transient nature of the traditional Bedouin culture of the UAE.
The Concrete Tent is a project by DAAR: Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti with architects and artists-in-residence Haneen Abo Khiran, Lucia Disluci, Nathan Witt, Dalia Abu Hashish, Lucia Maffei, Margo Van Den Berge, Eduardo Cassina, Liva Dudareva, Arne Carpentier, Nick Axel, and Jacob Burns. This project was born out from the conversations with Campus in Camps’ participants: Marwa Allaham, Qussay Abu Aker, Alaa Al Homouz, Saleh Khannah, Shadi Ramadan, Ahmad Lahham, Aysar Dawoud, Bisan Al Jaffarri, Nedaa Hamouz, Naba Al Assi, Mohammed Abu Alia, Ibrahim Jawabreh, Ayat Al Turshan, Murad Owdah, Mohamad Al Saifi, Yazan Al Jo’aidi, Hussam Al Masri, Muhammad Al Lahham, Dyala Fararja, Adam Fararja, Naseem, Zakoot, Tariq Ramadan, Bara’a Alian, Reem Ramadan, Basil Al Lahham, Tala Ramadan, Bara’a Abed Al Nabi, Wijdan Naif, Ghazal Al Masri, Dana Ramadan, Khalil Albana, and Abed Zahran. The Dheisheh edition of The Concrete Tent was supported by a grant from the Prince Claus Fund. Photo: Anna Sara for Campus in Camps
The Common Assembly installation refers to the borderline that runs through a building that was originally designed to house the Palestinian Parliament. Today, the building – never completed – stands on the property of Al Quds University in Abu-Dis, a suburb of Jerusalem. The abandoned structure is a relic of the euphoria of the post-Oslo Accord (1993), which promised the establishment of a Palestinian State with the status of East Jerusalem postponed. The subsequent failure of the Oslo Accord to reach a peaceful settlement led to the second Intifada “uprising” followed by the construction of the separation wall a few meters from the building. This led to the abandonment of the Palestinian Parliament building project. Common Assembly was inspired by the discovery that the Israeli-imposed Jerusalem border line passes through the building, hence the building sits on three political zones: Israel expropriated territory, Palestinian-controlled territory, and a narrow strip the width of which is the thickness of the border line as drawn on the map. In 2011, DAAR was granted access to the building. The artists had noted how people marked the re-appropriation of the public spaces by the act of cleaning, during the Arab Spring. Inspired by this re-appropriation, the artists re-enacted history by cleaning the dust covering the border line in the parliament building. The video recording of this reenactment is on display in the gallery. Traversing the length of the gallery, Common Assembly is a reproduction of the exact width of the border line inside the Parliament building along with the bare concrete stepping platforms it crosses. Video interviews with Palestinians living in Palestine and in exile surround Common Assembly. DAAR describe these lines of colonial separations as “territorial cracks” that could potentially be inhabited and that, “it is possible to start seeing in these spaces the coming together of a community beyond the nation-state.” It is within this state of limbo or ‘permanent temporariness’ that DAAR invites the viewer to consider the potential for alternative forms of political participation and action for exiled communities. Common Assembly raises critical questions regarding the political participation of a dispersed population as well as the tradition of active engagement in the Common as Masha’ and its extraterritorial common interpretation within the refugee camps. There, the “common” is the shared history of displacement in the absence of private property. In distinction from the state-controlled private and public, for Palestinians, private ownership is constantly challenged and the collective land is owned by the occupying state.
Common Assembly is a project by DAAR: Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal, Eyal Weizman with Nicola Perugini and in collaboration with Yazeed Anani, Nishat Awan, Ghassan Bannoura, Benoit Burquel, Suzy Harris- Brandts, Runa Johannssen, Cressida Kocienski, Lejla Odobasic, Carina Ottino, Elizabeth Paden, Sameena Sitabkhan, and Amy Zion. Special thanks to Ghiath Nasser. Common Assembly was presented for the first time in 2011 at The Centre d’art in Neuchâtel, and later in 2012 at Nottingham Contemporary, and at The James Gallery, City University of New York, in 2015 The Asia Art Biennial in Taiwan, and in 2016 at BAK in Utrecht.
Mujawara/The Tree School
The Tree School or Mujawara, which means “neighbourliness,” is both an installation and a pedagogical artistic practice. It is based on the artists’ initiative for the decolonization of learning, where participants gather around the tree for experiential, communal learning. All participants contribute to learning in a non-hierarchical common space that encourages free and critical discourse among participants. Mujawara is based on the principles of Campus in Camps, an experimental university that Hilal and Petti established in Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Bethlehem in 2012. The practice integrates institutionalised forms of knowledge production with the marginalised forms of knowledge that are rooted in the living experience of communities, thus, blurring the distinction between theory and practice. Based on long-term engagements, site visits, and shared research, the participants contribute to a “collective dictionary” of critical essays on key words selected by participants related to their environment and daily life in the refugee camp. Mujawara was originally initiated by Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti together with Brazilian-based art collective Grupo Contrafilé as part of the 31st Biennial de São Paulo, Brazil (2015). The book placed on each seat under the tree is the product of a collaborative effort made by the Quilombola, the freed descendants of Afro-Brazilian slaves, and refugee communities (the book is also presented in Arabic at NYUAD). The project draws on analogies and differences between Palestinian refugee camps and the Brazilian “quilombo,” commu- nities established by run-away slaves in 17th-century colonial Brazil, that today encompass large areas that are spaces of refuge for the disenfranchised. The collaboration initiated a South-to-South dialogue, rarely witnessed at this level. Mujawara in Brazil brought together two worlds that share concerns around social justice and equality. The dialogue that followed examined relationships between land, exile and community. Mujawara is an on-going program that continues to seek new modalities for learning. In Brazil the participants gathered around the Baobab tree (one of the world’s oldest tree brought to Brazil from Africa). For the NYU Abu Dhabi exhibition, the artists selected the Ghaf tree, an indigenous tree in the UAE, often considered the national tree of the Emirates, as a symbol for the tree of knowledge. NYUAD students will gather around the Ghaf tree to participate in this innovative community learning; sharing knowledge through personal and group experience.
Mujawara is a project by Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti, and Grupo Contrafilé. The project was first exhibited in 2014, on the occasion of the 31st Biennial de São Paulo a second iteration in 2015, Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, and in 2017, Sharjah Biennial Act II, Beirut. Mujawara book credits: Campus in Campus: Sandi Hilal, Alessandro Petti, Ahmad Al Lahham, Isshaq Issa Barbary, David Kostenwein, Daniela Sanjinés. Grupo Contrafilé.: Cibele Lucena, Jerusa Messina, Joana Zatz Mussi, Peetssa, Rafael Leona, with Walter Solon. With the contribution of: Arthur de Oliveira Neto, Deysi Ferreira, Eugênio Lima, Floriana Breyer, Geandre Tomazoni, Giuliana Racco, Joelson F. de Oliveira, Lia Zatz, Pedro Cesarino, Shourideh Molavi, Solange Brito Santos, TC Silva. The first iteration of Mujawara was made possible in part by the Foundation for Arts Initiatives.
Ramallah Syndrome invites the viewer to reflect on the failure of the peace agreements to create a long-term resolution for the Palestinians, as they continue to dream of a normal existence, an unattainable condition under military occupation. In this work, the artists point to the delusion of the potentiality of establishing a Palestinian sovereign state under the Israeli colonial regime, a ‘hallucination of normality.’ Ramallah Syndrome is the result of a series of informal discussions that artists had with friends and invited guests, among them curators, architects, artists, and ordinary citizens, to examine the rise of Ramallah and not Jerusalem as the de facto capital of a future Palestinian State. The debate examines the consequences of the perpetual presence of a colonial regime in Palestine accompanied by the fantasy of the possible coexistence of occupation and freedom. In the process, the debate revealed the underpinnings of the “Ramallah syndrome”: the normalization of occupation, normalization of an abnormal state of suffering, house demolitions, displacement and the confiscation of Palestinian land for the expansion of Israeli settlements. Conditions in the Palestinian territories are such that people are forced to live day-to-day. The sound installation, produced in collaboration with the artists Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abourahme, captured and reworked these discus- sions picking up snippets of the conversations and mixing them with ambient and electronic music. Visitors entering the dark, padded room are forced to concentrate on ten-minutes of audio, as if eavesdrop- ping on a heated conversation that is communicated to the listener in interrupted sequences highlighting several interlocutors’ speeches. This audio composition creates a multiplicity that is the nature of the debate itself. Sentences are interrupted with sound from engines of a tractor, or heart-beats mixed with music. The visitors need to concentrate in order to piece together the words to listen to the opposing opinions on the political situation, which remains relevant today for Ramallah as well as other cities. Hilal and Petti envisioned the art of conversation as a space that continues to expand indefinitely, offering the public and the participants a discourse on the ‘potentiality’ to an imposed situation.
Ramallah Syndrome was initiated by Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti in collaboration with Nasser Abourahme, Yazeed Anani, Reem Fadda, Yazan Khalili, Laura Ribeiro, and Omar Jabary-Salamanca. The sound Installation is by Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas. Ramallah Syndrome was first commissioned by Palestine c/o Venice for the first Palestinian exhibition at the Venice Biennial (the 53rd edition, 2009), curated by Salwa Mikdadi. Different iterations of the project took place in 2009 for the Jerusalem Show and in 2010 for the Cities exhibition in Ramallah organised by the Birzeit University Museum.
The Book of Exile
The Book of Exile presents assembled stories of refugee life in Palestinian camps since the Nakba in 1948. The visitor is invited to the library of New York University Abu Dhabi to witness a scribe/calligrapher copying this book, thus upholding the long held tradition of preserving and communicating knowledge from the Arab and Islamic civilizations to the rest of the world. The texts contained in the book were authored by multiple participants, including residents of the Dheisheh, Arroub, Ayda, Beit Jebrin, and Fawwar refugee camps in occupied Palestine. The stories of exile derive from everyday experience, observations, and interactions within the refugee community. The book depicts the camp as a distinctive site of knowledge production, a source of social and political inventions, and spatial reconfigurations, in contrast to the stereotypes that have long described refugee camps as sites of poverty and repression. These stories express the vital culture that has emerged in exile in spite of the population’s suffering and deprivation. The Book of Exile also asserts the refusal of refugees to be victims of stereotypes and allows them to claim their right to make and write their history.
The Book of Exile is a project by Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti with texts by Campus in Camps participants Marwa Allaham, Qussay Abu Aker, Alaa Al Homouz, Saleh Khannah, Shadi Ramadan, Ahmad Lahham, Aysar Dawoud, Bisan Al Jaffarri, Nedaa Hamouz, Naba Al Assi, Mohammed Abu Alia, Ibrahim Jawabreh, Ayat Al Turshan, Murad Owdah, and Munir Fashi. The first book was produced in 2016 on the occasion of the 6th edition of the Marrakech Biennial by the calligrapher Abdelghani Ouida, and reenacted by the Palestinian calligrapher Saher Kabi for Qalandiya International 2016. For this exhibition, the calligrapher Mohamed bin Yehya will be present in the NYUAD Library for a limited period until the book is complete.
متلازمة رام الله