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All for art's sake

GUNVANTHI BALARAM

If it weren't for Jack Persekian, there would be no art scene in East Jerusalem.



SURMOUNTING BARRIERS: Jack Persekian

JACK PERSEKIAN is the director of the Al-Ma'Mal Foundation for Contemporary Art and runs the only gallery dedicated to contemporary art in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. Through these two organisations, the U.S.-educated accountant-turned-curator tries to support Palestinian artists despite the volatile nature of their environment. He has tried to give them a reason for staying in East Jerusalem.

On an average day, Israeli West Jerusalem offers perhaps 17 different films, eight concerts and ten art exhibitions. Palestinian East Jerusalem offers almost none. "So, Persekian's work, though certainly out of the mainstream, provides an uncommon life-source of culture to the people in this part of the city," Tate magazine pronounced after seeing his work there.

Strong and engaging

Persekian steers his private gallery, Anadiel, set up in 1992, and the Al-Ma'Mal Foundation, a non-profit organisation set up with six others in 1998, with unswerving resolve. "What began as a business with the Anadiel soon became socially and politically driven," Persekian said at the recently concluded Sharjah Biennial 7, of which he was head curator. The exhibition was not flawless, but it was strong and engaging, with 74 artists from 36 countries expressing their view of "Belonging" — an issue terribly familiar to the curator.

"I've grappled with the issues of identity and dislocation all my life," declared Persekian, whose forefathers came to the Holy City in the Fifth Century A.D. "My personal concern and investment in the Sharjah Biennial stem from my identity, a person from Palestine, a place completely torn apart. There's my Armenian descent, my Arab identity, my American passport, and there's my encounter with the UAE."

Al-Ma'Mal (`workshop' in Arabic) runs programmes in community centres and schools in East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank as well as artist-in-residency programmes, which take Palestinian artists to India, Switzerland and England. And the Anadiel was where it all began.

"The Old City was dying, my father had just died, and our bookbinding business was going nowhere. After the first Gulf War, the Madrid Conference brought a glimmer of hope. People started to return. I turned my father's workshop — whose magnificent books sparked my love for travel and for art — into a gallery. I hoped it would provide a decent livelihood; moreover, I wanted to contribute to the community by sharing with it works of art that allow everyone to fly beyond the walls surrounding them," Persekian muses. "Connections needed to be made, voices needed to be heard, and, most important, opportunities and resources needed to be provided for art to happen."

The budding curator ran from post to ancient post, from Nazareth to Nablus to Haifa to Gaza, talking to local artists, begging for funds, and organising one-man shows. Working with resident and international artists on new projects soon became "an obsession", and finding connections between their work and the context in which they were conceived — in this case, Palestine/Jerusalem — the principal focus of his curatorial work.

Letting in new blood

"As Jerusalem became more and more constricted, I felt this surging need to let the world in, so new blood could be injected into the local scene. The artists' interest in a dialogue with an environment, a situation, combined with my enthusiasm for a visual/conceptual discourse with the place, the people and the politics provided the ingredients for realising works addressing social, political and humanistic issues from firsthand experience."

1995 Turner Prize nominee Mona Hatoum, Nasser Soumi, Jumana El-Husseini, and Susan Hijab are among those in the Palestinian Diaspora who worked with Persekian, testing the internal Palestinian discourse on forms of representation, reflections on identity and modernity, the relationship to homeland, origins and history. Persekian also succeeded in attracting international names, some of whose works left a lasting impact: Beate Streuli's "East Jerusalem"; Jean-Luc Vimouth's "Café de l'Olivier"; Emily Jacir's "Where We Come From"; Jean-Marc Bustamente's "Something is Missing — Suspension"; Phil Collin's marathon dance-video installation, "They Shoot Horses", the documentation of two groups of Palestinian youths dancing for an uninterrupted 18 hours until they drop — a work that deals with heroism, collapse, exploitation, and the will to survive.

This continuing drive to gather artists from outside is Persekian's attempt to surmount the barriers and walls being erected every day to the point that mobility becomes limited to five-km stretches between military checkpoints. "where one's further passage rests upon the mood of an Israeli soldier," as he pointed put, his dark eyes flashing with anger.

To apply balm on the collective wound inflicted by Israel, Persekian hosted three joint Palestinian-Israeli group shows, "Sharing Jerusalem", "Down with the Occupation" and "Home" at Anadiel. "Communication is critical if we want salvation from this situation."

Constant difficulties

Though he is gratified at having resurrected the local art scene and enabled young Palestinian and Arab artists to make the leap to the global art platform, the curator is frustrated by the relentless difficulties of working in East Jerusalem. Business is never rich, plus it's always a "struggle" to bring artists in.

Has he ever wanted to leave? "I'm always leaving," he quipped with black humour. Of course, he's always leaving — to search for fresh talent and support, address art seminars, to curate shows abroad. His shows in Germany were reportedly successful. So was his Sharjah Biennial. But he always returns. "Life is tough in Jerusalem. My brothers, who live in the U.S., keep urging me to join them," he said. "But Jerusalem is where my place is. I have a role to play in my homeland, and I believe I stand a fair chance of seeing my ideas come to fruition."

One of those ideas is to set up CAMP — Contemporary Art Museum Palestine. The museum will be a travelling exhibition featuring works from the holdings of Al-Ma'mal and the Anadiel, as well as special projects and commissions. It will be presented every year, at a different international museum, with a visiting curator.

"We would like CAMP to reflect one of the core Palestinian experiences — displacement — without illustrating a political narrative," says Persekian. "Moreover, we hope to transform its nomadic status, which reflects a tragic reality, into a lever for new opportunities and dynamic multicultural productivity. The cross-fertilization between CAMP and its hosts will be a way of engaging in creative discourse and breaking down boundaries between different cultures and nationalities."

How long will their CAMP roam the world if and when it gets going? Persekian's retort still stings: "As long as we have to wait for the founding of the Palestinian State."

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