Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti
Curated by Salwa Mikdadi and Bana Kattan
February 24 – June 9th, 2018
New York University Abu Dhabi Art Gallery
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
This mid-career retrospective exhibition of works by the artists and architects Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti covers their research and art produced over the last fifteen years. The curatorial premise for Permanent Temporariness questions the state of ‘refugeeness,’ a condition meant to be temporary, but that can become a permanent state of being. The artists examine temporariness, giving agency to refugees, both Palestinians under occupation and others, through alternative modes of articulating refugeeness at a time when the voice of the refugee is easily drowned in a sea of victimhood and alienation. As a result of political and natural calamities, there are currently over 70 million forcibly displaced people around the world. At the same time, globalization resulted in the movement of large numbers of professionals and a labor force from their native ‘home’ to temporary work locations, a move that subsequently turned into a life of permanent temporariness. This condition in the Gulf countries is referred to by the novelist Deepak Unnikrishnan as ‘Temporary People,’ living in between two homes, one an unattainable dream and another an economic necessity. Living more years away from home than at home imposes conditions and initiates new realities that characterize permanent temporariness. The artists examine this condition, focusing on Palestinian refugees, and also the recent waves of refugees from other nations.
The artists’ work lies between conceptual speculation and an artistic practice that is based on spatial interventions in art, architecture, discourse, public research, and communal learning. Through research, publication, performance, video, film, photography, and interventions, the artists examine the relation between politics and architecture.
Hilal and Petti’s art practice is fundamentally collaborative. They adopted this approach early in their career, establishing a collaborative residency in 2007, along with Eyal Weizman: the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency (DAAR), in Beit Sahour, Palestine. Since then hundreds of resident artists, architects and other collaborators have worked on a variety of projects that aim “… to find and utilize cracks and loopholes within existing colonial systems of separation and control [which] include built structures, infrastructure, land ownerships, and legal systems.” The Common Assembly installation in the main gallery is an example of such a project. In another interdisciplinary collaboration, The Book of Exile, an Emirati calligrapher inscribes the collected narratives of Palestinian refugees. As in the Refugee Heritage photo project, this is in conjunction with an on-going conversation that migrates between continents, from Palestine, to North and South America, Europe, and now in the UAE at NYU Abu Dhabi. Community engagement and collaboration is also at the heart of Mujawarah / The Tree School. This project is based on Campus in Camps, an ongoing, non-hierarchical learning initiative where Mujawarah is the sharing of knowledge steeped in the social, intellectual, and spiritual experience of the participants. Sharing and collaboration are key to all the artists’ projects, which in turn are related conceptually and/or in practice. For example, The Concrete Tent installation was one of the sites for Campus in Camps that led to The Tree School installation, activated internationally and now at NYUAD.
In 2016, Hilal and Petti initiated a discourse on ‘refugeeness’ as a state of being with a history and a heritage, both tangible and intangible, that should be explored, documented, interpreted, and officially inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The same proposition could apply to refugees from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and the Rohingya or WWII European refugees.
Hilal and Petti, along with their collaborators – teams of academics, architects, heritage specialist, and refugee camp committees – prepared the UNESCO nomination dossier as a DAAR proposal to inscribe the Palestinian Dheisheh Refugee Camp, located south of Bethlehem, as a World Heritage Site. They included in the dossier the first four required support documents on Identification, Description, Justification, and Conservation. Response to the Refugee Heritage dossier and discussions on its efficacy continue to take place inside Palestinian refugee camps and internationally. A similar discussion will take place in conjunction with this exhibition at NYU Abu Dhabi.
February 25, 2018
PART I : REFUGEE HERITAGE
Salwa Mikdadi, NYU Abu Dhabi
Alessandro Petti, DAAR
Jad Thabet, Former member of UNESCO World Heritage Committee
Leila Chahid, Former Palestinian Ambassador to the EU
Ilana Feldman, The George Washington University
PART II: CLAIMS OF SUBJUGATED HERITAGE
Sandi Hilal, DAAR
Khalil Allaham, PhD Candidate Sorbonne
Zaki Aslan, ICCROM – ATHAR Sharjah
Zina Jardaneh, Palestinian Museum
February 26, 2018
PART III: DISPLACEMENTS: THE BECOMING OF ETERNAL GUESTS
Sandi Hilal, DAAR
Deepak Unnikrishnan, NYU Abu Dhabi
May Dabbagh, NYU Abu Dhabi
Nathalie Peutz, NYU Abu Dhabi
PART IV: IMPERMANENCE IN ART PRACTICES
Charles Esche, Van Abbemuseum
Diana Franssen, Van Abbemuseum
Nikolaus Hirsch, Städelschule and Portikus
George Katodrytis, American University of Sharjah
Kieran Long, ArkDes, Stockholm
Salwa Mikdadi, NYU Abu Dhabi
In the Permanent Temporariness exhibition, Refugee Heritage is presented with eighteen colored photographs taken at night, documenting the Dheisheh Refugee Camp’s architecture. The alleys are devoid of people, intentionally reinforcing the archival. The visitors maneuver around the large light boxes walking a path that recalls the narrow alleys typical of refugee camps. For several generations, these alleys and the communities that surround them have contributed to the identity and memories of their residents. In one of the interviews documented by DAAR, refugees from Dheisheh Camp described it as the place where memories are made and that for Palestinians “memories are their homeland.” For others who left the camp, “living outside the camp was like living in a hotel.” Thus, for many Palestinians the temporary appearance of the camp represented “a living archive of displacement, a marker of dispossession.”
Al Madhafah 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. 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.
At New York University Abu Dhabi Campus, The Concrete Tent, originally conceived and built in the Dheisheh refugee camp, speaks 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 visitor is invited to the library of New York University Abu Dhabi to witness a scribe/calligrapher copying “The Book of Exile”, thus upholding the longheld tradition of preserving and communicating knowledge from the Arab and Islamic civilizations to the rest of the world.
In their practice Hilal and Petti have demonstrated a remarkable determination to pursue a subject that was limited to the domain of international humanitarian agencies for seventy years. Both artists are engaged with refugee camps in the occupied territories, and now with Syrian refugees in Sweden. Until recently, Hilal headed UNRWA’s camp development program while conducting research with Petti on the spatial politics of these camps. Over the last fifteen years the artists have initiated and collaborated with inhabitants of the refugee camps and others on projects that encourage multiple perspectives, an egalitarian pedagogy through sharing life experiences. They also initiated research through the DAAR Residencies, and conducted dozens of theoretical and pedagogical discourses that examine refugeeness, displacement, migration and memory. They continue to study the decolonization of the architecture of urban spaces under occupation, and civic representation and identity in the absence of a nation state.
Their speculation on these subjects, among others, engage their audiences with the process of decolonization of discourse, examining the reconceptualization of refugee camps as sites for justice and the potentiality of refugee heritage as an agent for political change.