A Conversation With Jack Persekian, Director and Head Curator of the Palestinian Museum/Artistic Director of Qalandiya International, by James Scarborough
The second Qalandiya International (Qi), also known as the Palestine Biennial, will take place from October 22 - November 15. It’s the largest contemporary art event in Palestine. Exhibitions and programs will be staged throughout the country. Sites include Jerusalem, Haifa, Ramallah, Gaza, and Hebron. It will feature the work of over 100 Palestinian and international artists. Each artist’s work will contribute to the theme “Archives, Lived and Shared.” Along with the exhibited art, QI will include lectures, tours, and performances. The first Qi, with 250 artists and speakers, attracted 6,500 visitors.
Everything about the Qi is significant. The “Qalandiya” of the title refers to a notorious West Bank checkpoint. It also refers to life in pre-Occupation Palestine. A collaborative project that focuses more on collectives than individuals, it serves as an act of defiance in response to oppressive and Occupation events. Its aim is two-fold. Encouraging public dialogue, it will present an undistorted image of Palestine to the rest of the world. It will also allow Palestinians to examine their cultural heritage and its place in world culture.
Below is a conversation with Jack Persekian, the Artistic Director of Qalandiya International. He’s also the Director and Head Curator of the Palestinian Museum.
JS: What was the impetus to stage the first Qi in 2012? What were initial responses of the local community? What did local critics and other cultural commentators say?
JP: I think we had an urge to unite our efforts, to prove that we could do something together that is greater than what we’re all doing individually yet separately. The local community, from what I can perceive, welcomed the initiative - in fact, they embraced our unashamed interference in their daily routines! And the press and so forth were also very positive. You have to understand that it was an extraordinary thing to undertake at the time, when on so many fronts we were experiencing a lot of instability and fragmentation. We still are, of course.
JS: Why hadn’t it been done before?
JP: I think each institution is so overwhelmed with its struggle for survival, that we do not tend to think of raising our heads above the water to look around and see each other! This was a chance to talk and think together how we could do more than simply survive - how we could try to make our home a better place to live in despite of all the difficulties we were facing.
JS: What were its criteria for success? Did you meet them? Is there anything you would have done differently?
JP: Honestly, I think the only criteria for success that we had at the start was to get the institutions to buy into the idea and give it a chance. Now that we’re presenting its second edition, with a far bigger number of participating institutions, I think, goes to show that it’s been pretty successful, so far.
I can’t think of much that I would have done differently. It is what it is not because I took the initiative, but because all the various partner institutions and all the people who were involved in its establishment worked seriously together to made Qi happen. I was pushing from one end, but this project was like a snowball: once we got the ball rolling it took its shape from everything it met on its way.
JS: What was the biggest challenge in mounting it? What did it teach you when you planned this year’s Qi?
JP: The biggest challenge was to give direction to Qi, in its first edition, whilst still allowing it the freedom to respond to and change with the diverse environments it came in contact with, letting it engage with and learn from these distinct contexts.
I learnt that proprietorship, possession and control, main drivers of art production and its circulation nowadays, can be irrelevant and counterproductive in a place like Palestine where art still has a long way to be able to claim its place amongst the people.
JS: What was your biggest surprise?
JP: I was surprised and very happy with the warm reception Qi received in the various towns and villages where events and project took place, but what I remember most clearly is a certain moment during the opening ceremony of Qi in Qalandiya village, when one after another, the various people involved (the head of the village council, the movement against the apartheid wall, the different partner institutions etc) all came on stage to congratulate everybody on the successful realization of the project and the uplifting positive message it brought when so many other things were so far from positive. It was an extraordinary atmosphere of joy and hope.
JS: What was the origin and evolution of this year’s theme, “Archives, Lived and Shared”?
JP: This has a long story. My work at the Palestinian Museum exposed me to the work several institutions are doing in archives. Learning a bit about the nature of these many different archives, the kind of research they’re conducting and the difficulties they’re facing, I became dismayed by the fact that all these institutions were still dealing with the challenges of figuring out the modalities of digitization, classification, storage and public access to their archives separately, not thinking about the fact that so many other organisations were struggling with these exact same questions. I began to think about how they might share ideas and solutions: resources are scarce here and sharing can definitely produce a result far greater than the sum of its parts, as I think was proven by Qi. Qi 2014 became a way of raising awareness of the urgency of the situation and the possibilities that lie ahead if the “owners” of archives adopt a model similar to Qi.
JS: What message do you want to convey to your various audiences: Palestinians? The Middle East? International? Or might it be the same message for each audience?
JS: Exhibitions and programs are taking place in venues that are both historically significant and politically charged. Please explain how the staging of the Qi is an act of defiance.
JP: If defiance is a visible outcome of Qi from your far corner of the world then I can deduce that we’re at least defying the forces that are seeking to quiet us and to shut us down. Qi in essence is an act of living, of learning, of inspiration and self-actualization, on the individual, group, community, and national levels. These things are extraordinarily defiant.
JS: Do the various artistic collaborations have anything in common in terms of subjects themes, styles, and materials?
JP: Qi II (2014) has agreed to look at archives as a practice not only of documenting and preserving the past, but more importantly as an element shaping our future. Several institutions have taken the challenge and delved deep into their archives, bringing them to life through exhibition projects, art productions, talks etc. to be disseminated through the wide network of Qi. Qi II is titled: Archives, lived and shared.
JS: What’s the walkaway you’d like visitors to have as they work through the various artistic collaborations and educational programs?
JP: I hope that they will walk away with some profound sense of these words by Mahmoud Darwish: “We have on this earth what makes life worth living”
JS: More than anything else, the show seems to be about identity. How is that manifested here?
JP: In our unstable environment everything is challenged, distorted and threatened, including and in particular the deepest foundations of our identity. Hence from the outside acts that are quite normal elsewhere are seen as acts of steadfastness and defiance by a nation whose very existence is challenged and disputed.
JS: Qi seems to be much greater than the sum of its parts. How does it differ from, say, the Sharjah Biennial, in terms of its staging and its constituent parts?
JP: Sharjah Biennial is a top down act, while Qi is grassroots, working from below and not attempting to move up. If you like, it acts like a tectonic plate, shifting and moving and sliding to produce, hopefully, change and difference in the landscape.