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No Good Time for an Exhibition: Reflections on the Picasso in Palestine Project, Part I


There is no vision without details.

—Hussein Barghouti

The psychic and geographical center of Ramallah is Al Manarah Square, a traffic roundabout where five streets converge at irregular angles. Cars and people circulate in apparent chaos around five carved lions statues—symbolizing Ramallah’s five prominent families—which encircle a single Corinthian column, as if standing guard. One lion wears a wristwatch, and depending on one’s sense of the ironic, this detail can be read today as a cryptic joke about the materialist slant evident in contemporary Palestinian society, or as a mordant commentary on the duration of its status as an occupied territory. During the Second Intifada, the story goes, some of the lions had their carved tails smashed off by Israeli soldiers—an action that can also be read doubly, a term of endearment for the fedayeen being achebals, “young lions,” while Palestinian slang for a collaborator is to say he or she has a “fat tail.” The West Bank is full of such polyvalent significations, an indication of how the conflict between Palestine and Israel is carried out at the level of semiosis as much as territoriality.

From Al Manarah, it is a five-minute walk up Ada’a Street to the building of the International Academy of Art Palestine (IAAP), a villa that once housed Gallery 79, a well-known art space shuttered by the IDF during the First Intifada, and in the ‘90s, offices of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Ministry of Culture. Although surrounded on two sides by pavement and concealed from the street by a nondescript office building, the villa retains a certain elegance. Its front entrance, surmounted by an uncovered patio, is lined by an iron balustrade, its portico flanked by twin columns with a hint of Arabesque filigree. It was there in 2010 that I first learned about Khaled Hourani’s idea of bringing a Picasso painting to Ramallah. I recall students saying it was to be exhibited there at the Academy. I recall being startled by the prospect. I may even have been told this while sitting in the IAAP’s single classroom, the room where, now subdivided, the Picasso hung for a month last summer.

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