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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 September 2006, 13:22 GMT 14:22 UK
Modern art comes to the West Bank
By Richard Stafford
West Bank

One weekday lunchtime in September, 40 residents of Ramallah in the West Bank board a bus in the city centre. Their destination is a contemporary art exhibition at the Peace Centre in Bethlehem's Manger Square, the first of its kind to be held in the West Bank.

A woman examines Damien Hirst's spot painting
Damien Hirst's spot painting was made by artists in the West Bank
Until 4 October the walls of the centre are covered with works by 25 of Europe and North America's foremost contemporary artists, among them Damien Hirst, Wolfgang Tillmans, Martin Creed, Douglas Gordon, Michael Fullerton, Jim Lambie, Michael Craig-Martin, Daniel Buren and Simon Periton.

The bus journey is only a few miles. It should take no longer than 30 minutes, but an Israeli checkpoint midway adds over an hour to the journey as everyone's identification papers are rigorously checked.

The passengers disembark, smoke endless cigarettes and chatter idly in the baking sun.

One of the artists on the bus, Mohanad Yaqubi, will shortly be opening his own photographic exhibition in a small gallery in Ramallah.

The title of his exhibition is The Art of Waiting.

Daily ritual

Over the years, Palestinians have had to learn how to wait. They wait for freedom, for democracy, even to be paid by their own government - they wait for the chance to shape their own destiny.

Waiting at Israeli checkpoints is a daily ritual.

A Palestinian artist drills Nathan Coley's installation into the walls of the Bethlehem Peace Centre.

When the bus eventually moves on, it is without two passengers who are turned back for holding "inappropriate papers", the Israeli soldier at the checkpoint says.

One of them is Suleiman Mansour, the Palestinian artist who won the coveted Nile Prize at the 1998 Cairo Biennale. His papers allow him into Bethlehem only from the Jerusalem checkpoint.

"For us, it's not only the exhibition, it's the trip also. The process of getting there is a part of the show itself," the artist Khaled Hourani says.

Crossing boundaries

The two British curators behind the ground-breaking exhibition in Bethlehem, entitled As If By Magic, are Charles Asprey and Kay Pallister.

"Because restriction of movement makes it impossible for Palestinians to view international art we wanted to bring it to them," Mr Asprey says.

The bus stops at an Israeli checkpoint while papers are checked
Waiting: For Palestinians, Israeli checkpoints are a daily ritual

The curators chose neither to transport the artists nor their artwork to Bethlehem.

Instead the work was produced at home and then executed, or built, in Bethlehem by local Palestinian artists, Peace Centre staff and even the curators themselves.

In this part of the world every action is politically charged and the sight of a Palestinian man or woman completing one of Hirst's spot paintings may illustrate the versatility of contemporary art, but more significantly it helps break down geographical and political boundaries.

Boundaries dominate the West Bank landscape. The West Bank barrier is the most shocking physical boundary, separating Israeli-controlled and Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank.

Invited to UK

Therefore, 18 months ago Mr Asprey and art critic Sacha Craddock launched the website www.artschoolpalestine.com, an archival diary of events past and present of all things Palestinian.

Sacha Craddock talks about Michael Fullerton's Gainsborough Screen print
Sacha Craddock at the opening of As If By Magic

Two million hits is testament to the appetite worldwide for overcoming intellectual boundaries and better understanding Palestinian culture.

Mr Asprey and Ms Craddock have also set up a programme for Palestinian artists to come to Britain to take up temporary residency in an art studio.

"Imagine someone in the Gaza Strip who has been making art for 15 years, using whatever materials he can afford or scrounge", Mr Asprey says.

"We set that artist up in a studio in London, give them all the materials they could hope for and access to every major museum and collection in the country."

Mohanad Yaqubi spent a month at the Delfina Studios in Bermondsey last year.

"I was given a list of about 45 galleries and museums to visit. I went to as many as I could," Yaqubi recalls with a smile.

"I ticked them off one by one. Tate, tick; British Museum, tick."

He remembers each one with great joy, but Yaqubi's abiding memory of London is waiting for tube trains.

It seems the inspiration for his new exhibition isn't drawn solely from experiences at home.


As If By Magic is at the Bethlehem Peace Centre, Bethlehem, until 4 October.

The Art of Waiting, by Mohanad Yaqubi and Yazan Khalili, is at the Arif al-Arif Gallery, Ramallah, from 19 September to 3 October.




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