The path remains rocky, and uneven. To arrive at the two main buildings, you must scale the mountain to the east of Ein Qiniya for just over ten minutes. The founders of Sakiya, Sahar Qawasmi and Nida Sinnokrot, set out with the help of the people in the village to clean and maintain parts of the path, adding earthen steps where needed but without making any radical changes to the rugged essence of the space, and without going against nature’s authority over the land. Perhaps the way is uneven, I say to myself as I walk up, but that may provide a chance to reconnect our disjointed relationship with place and to rediscover it through the feet. It is a culture we have distanced ourselves from perhaps, and from our organic relationship with the land as growers, but which we are returning to with steadiness and calm. Therein lies a call to optimism.
At the end of the dirt track there is an oak tree to the right of the earthen steps through whose leaves sunlight gently flows. Its softness is a call to curl up and sleep underneath it, and I tell the tree of my devotion. “Her leaves shimmer, perhaps in response”. Behind the tree, on a lower, flat area of ground, there are eggplants and other vegetables that have been grown in cooperation with the villagers who sleep between the two mountains. Nothing shakes their beds except for the settlement on the western mountain that nibbles at the lands of the village and those surrounding it, like a field mouse, irritating the farmers but not distracting them from their work, year after year, harvest after harvest. One of their last pushes was to seize lands in al-Mazra’a al-Qibliya. Spread in front of me on the horizon are the two buildings on the site. The structures were built in different stages. The upper building is from the Ottoman period whereas the lower one is from the time of the British Mandate, both owned along with the surrounding land by the Zalatimo family, which included the artist Daoud Zalatimo, and who used them as summer houses at different periods. Behind, to the right of a hazelnut, appears part of the upper dwelling, and on the left the dirt track runs underneath the leaning oak trees, the maple, the carob and the others. “Can you see how the big trees seem to the young saplings?”. We see the lower building adjoining a fountain now devoid of water, but whose voice we cannot help but hearing coming through from the past. And after a timely breeze, the great trees swayed above the waters of the pond.
Between Carob and Oak
Exhibition opened 2 August 2019, 5pm
Taking part in the exhibition in both the upper and lower buildings were a number of artists, researchers and students. They are: Samia Halabi, the late Daoud Zalatimo, Shada Safadi, Yara Bamieh, Dina Amro, a group of masters’ students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, a group of architectural students from Westminster University in the UK, and students from the design department at Birzeit University in Palestine. The exhibition also included archival photos from the collection of the Zalatimo family, and the work of a group of Sakiya’s friends and supporters, including writers, musicians, builders, farmers and workers, whose efforts can be seen in the exhibition and beyond in Sakiya.
The participants produced works and designs inspired by the nature of the place – or for some, their participation in the exhibition came from attempts to improve the site itself. The removing of almond saplings emerging from the ceiling of the old building, caring for its protection: these are the invisible installations that are not the classically understood conventions of what constitutes a work of art. The art is not merely the ‘works’, the interventions and installations in the building; it is what complements the picture, what lies between the unseen work, the architecture and the end result. It is what Sakiya aims to protect and to keep the balance of. On a first glance, as I visited the exhibition, I thought why isn’t there a publication with the names of the participants (as artists)? And now I say to myself: whether intentional or not, it helps to crystallize all works and efforts into one entity, as parts of the whole, without delineating the identity or role of the artist, or excluding non-artists.
It is all part of the cooperative, progressive outlook adopted by Sakiya. This small detail, in this small local initiative, provides such a stark contrast to what happened during the building of the Louvre Abu Dhabi with all its resources, and with the exploitation and violations of workers and their lives being put in danger – a contradiction for an institution that houses some of the most progressive art humans have to offer. Perhaps it is not enough for us to pay workers for their ability to work, but to also not separate their effort from the whole product: in this instance, the opening of the exhibition. From farmers, artists, cooks, writers and academics, Sakiya acknowledged in the exhibition catalogue the names of all those involved, valuing them all as mentors. In this they are trying to break the prevailing hierarchies about who produces knowledge, and who does not.
An exhibition from, about, and for nature
There is a delicate balance between the two houses as human structures, and the surrounding nature. The buildings feel transparent, permeated by wind and light. It could not be said that the exhibition was in a closed space, shut off from nature. The windows were thrown open to the valley and the sun, the doors unhinged. The upkeep of the buildings has been light and delicate; no radical changes over time, only simple procedures to slow the building’s decay and return to the earth -– although this process is not denied. Floors whose tiles have left them over time have not been relaid, and enormous tree roots can be seen that have broken into the space, announcing perhaps that it is time.
Shrubs and plants can be seen growing in the folds of the ceilings, the remnants of spiders’ nests and dusty remains in the corners of the buildings. Nothing has been removed except that which hastens the process of decay and the disappearance of the two buildings, like the almond tree that could have brought the roof of the kitchen down if it had not been removed. Finding ourselves in this space, at this time, is a peaceful moment in step with nature’s intentions. We have slowed it a little and are sharing the journey until the end. This precise balance invites non-human visitors to the exhibition too: the buildings are frequented by cats and insects, intermingling fearlessly with the other visitors and celebrating the diversity of the space. I hope that no further repairs radically change the building in the future, and that Sakiya keeps its balance. The lower building contains the student projects from the architecture department at London’s Westminster University, and the work of Julia Topley and her architectural project entitled The Fruits of Labour Network: Re-activating the marginal lands of Palestine, facilitated by Yara Sharif and Nasser Golzari; Himali Rathud and her project Material and Digital Production Gardens. The works of the MIT students supervised by Nida Sinnokrot included the work of Matt Ledwige, who did a scanning of the upper house using photogrammetry; the work of Ellen McConnel and Cyrus Chin, featuring tile designs inspired by the soil map; Catherine Lee’s project entitled Mintar; Arenzazo De Arenio Pipo’s project entitled Dry Panoramic Toilet; Kevin Shum’s project Sensors of Stone Terraces; Ray Yoping Hsu’s Witness; and from Harvard, Nadia Asfour’s project entitled Playing Cards: Stories of Indigenous Plants that explores the folklore and mythology behind flowers and plants present in the Palestinian landscape and particularly in Sakiya. Students from the design department at Birzeit University also presented several projects, including Standard Pyramid by Dima Nassar, Tharife’s Saddle by Fatmeh Bawatneh, Musical Chair by Amani Dahadha, and Bricks and Natural Seeds by Nooreddin Soos. The students derived their concepts from the rich natural site and its needs; they also later presented some of the local architectural methods and concepts in their original universities in a re-emulation of these elements.
Alongside the students’ projects could be found artworks by Yara Bamieh with her experiments in producing inks from natural materials, and Shada Safadi’s photography project. Both artists had been part of Sakiya’s artist residencies programme, which also hosted the artists Dina Amro and Samia Halabi. In the upper house could be found the artworks of Daoud Zalatimo, a pioneering yet unsung Palestinian artist who did not exhibit or sell any of his paintings, but who gifted some to his circle of family and friends where they have remained hidden away. The painting in the upper house was released and displayed for the first time in Sakiya: an oil painting depicting Zalatimo’s son riding a toy car and staring at his father. The boy is surrounded by garden plants, whose tenderness contradicts the solid tiles and pillars*. The scene is in the Zalatimo house in Lydda, the house the family were forced to leave after the Nakba; its floor were inspired by the tiles currently relaid on site in Sakiya; the car resting on glossy chessboard-like tiles. The objects featured in the painting reveal the class of the owners in that period.
Visual Approaches: The Subject
The painting cannot help but remind us in its style and elements of paintings produced in Europe, particularly those painted in the period between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries – paintings that documented families, royalty and nobility, and eventually rich traders and others. The portrait of Jose Costa y Bonells (named ‘Pepito’) by Francisco de Goya comes to mind. It is hard not to notice the similarity between the two. Two children both look at the camera, their games visible to us and their innocence. But what is the truth of this visual similarity? Pepito appears preoccupied; he wears bright white trousers and a green waistcoat with a frilly, flamboyantly designed embroidered collar which seems too big for him. Behind the child is his toy – a wooden horse. The painting seems innocent: but it carries hidden political import. Looking towards the left corner, a toy rifle can be seen. Pepito is wearing clothing and has a haircut that likens him to Napoleon. The portrait was painted during the Napoleonic era and the clothes symbolise military might, with the horse and the gun pointing to the conquest of Spain.
It cannot be denied that the painting, regardless of its own internal significance, is also a testament to the level to which this prestigious family had risen, engaging Goya to paint a portrait of their child (the painting has come to bear a likeness to staged images captured in photography studios). Pepito’s father was a doctor to the royal family of King Ferdinand VII. The view of the child does not differ greatly from how the nobility display their property, their jewels, banquets and guns. The method also displays their coloniality: the child and his toys are in one way or another an ideological tool. Perhaps the painting is glorifying a national occasion, although visually it carries a different sense. With the elements of the painting itself, with the child absorbed in his games, are the gloss of the tiles and the toy car, and the garden of the house with its marble columns; each part displays simple details of the family’s life, although perhaps not intentionally so.
Where are these conclusions drawn from? Firstly, the painting is by the child’s father and there is an intimacy and affection motivating the depiction. Painting was Daoud’s craft, and perhaps he used it as a tool to preserve the painting for his son when he grew up. Daoud never exhibited his work, and it stayed hidden away between a small circle of friends and family. The painting does not differ from the photographs that we take of our own children, in the forgotten albums in our drawers, or those we put on social media platforms. The painting is closer to a ‘picture’ than a decorative painting, in the traditional (and obsolete) sense. The glossiness of the tiles is real, captured by the eye of the artist like a camera lens focused on the child but capturing the surrounding details. The axis of the painting is the child, Suleiman, whom he loves, not the lustre, not the tiles, not the possessions around him. There is a stability and steadiness in the child and his toy car, as if he has belonged to the place for ever. What helps create this strength is the bipolar perspective, whereas in Goya’s painting, we feel that the child and his belongings are prone to disruption.
Visual Approaches: The Method
As his painting shows, Zalatimo (according to Samia Halabi and the late Kamal Boullata) was influenced at an early age by the Jerusalemite painter Nicola Saig, and the Mexican Muralist movement with its bringing together of politics and art. It is art that conjoins the social and the political, a collective, monumental, public expression looking to the multitudes. Most of this mural art takes place on enormous walls, and expresses the hopes of Mexicans after the revolution of the 1920s. Among the most well-known of the Mexican mural painters is Diego Rivera, who was a Marxist. It is clear that Daoud was influenced in his painting, with his use of warm, earthy colours: red, shades of brown, sour yellow, colours that are closest to the people, the rich, the workers and farmers alike. They are the colours of flowers, the soil and the bricks of the houses. They are used to ensure that this art is rooted in the people, and cohesive to the public, from how the features of the child are drawn somewhat inflexibly, and the eyes fixed open, to the colour of the skin like that of the ground and how he has painted the sun. I Zalatimo was influenced by many schools and movements; the postmodernists, calligraphy, abstraction, Arab nationalism, Art Nouveau, and European surrealism, and the methods of cubism and muralism. Despite the private, apolitical subjects of his painting, which does not operate under the ideologies of the muralists, the artist was truly engaged in opening up the world in Palestine. We find in this painting the lightest touch, perhaps unintentional, of cubism. The perspective is not entirely accurate, and the view of the car and the boy slightly deviate off the vanishing point, and the sizes of the different elements vary, like the last column adjacent to the wall.
The other works displayed in the upper house are by the artist Samia Halabi, a pioneer of abstract art. Samia expresses a delightful radicalism when it comes to her knowledge of revolutionary art. She sees abstract art as the first revolutionary art, something that she has expressed on several occasions: “It is the art that accompanies revolution, and against regimes of oppression in its many forms”. In this exhibition, Halabi’s abstract works acquire additional revolutionary aspects, not only in their abstract methods but in the materials she uses. She uses different types of soil found in Sakiya that are then mixed with glue and sometimes small amounts of acrylic. With this she makes paintings from, of – and to – mother earth, in its widest universal sense, and in its closer human understanding of nature, and our tendency to use what is around us. Nature that is strangled and exiled by neoliberalism. In the history of Palestinian art there are similar examples of such techniques, such as the work of Sliman Mansour in Towards Experiment and Creativity, in a collaboration with the great Vera Tamari, Nabil Anani and Taysir Barakat.
The difference, however, is the relationship of the painting to the world. Sliman Mansour’s works that he produced using mud have a relationship with the world that is specifically local, and deeply personal. They were made in the condition of coloniality, with artists boycotting the materials produced by such conditions and exchanging them for other materials available locally. Halabi begins in her works with the global – the ‘universal’ which is mother nature in its broadest sense – and moves to the specific, using the different types of soil found in Ein Qiniya. Her work can also be compared to other global experiences, such as the mud installations in gallery spaces by the Japanese artist Yusuke Asai. But Halabi’s path begins from the site, from nature, where she may have asked herself: “How can I make art and colours in the wilderness?” in a similar way to such survival questions as “Where can I find food in the forest?”. Fundamentally, her aim here was not just to produce art from mud, but to create the tools to produce art. Through such experimentation, Samia Halabi is beginning a new revolution. As she has explained in many previous interviews, the reason that her work adopts abstract form is her belief that abstraction is revolution. As Halabi claimed in one of her talks: Abstract art was the companion and the catalyst of many historical revolutions, and the revolutionary art against dictatorship.
Zalatimo’s archive photos and canvases as evidence of temporal transformation
Archival images do not long for the past or to access it as much as they are evidence that ‘something was’. Spread around the Sakiya site are metal stands, holding archival photographs of the building’s owners, the Zalatimo family, who bought the land between the 1920s and ’30s, and the classification of the land as area ‘C’ according to the divisions of the Israeli occupation. Sahar Qawasmi says in this regard that the land benefited from the commons (masha’I) system in cultivating lands, flipping the colonial intentions of the move and subverting them to be used in our interest. The great grandfather of the family who bought the land intended to bring his relatives closer to nature with a personal initiviate. The photographs show the family using the two houses as a refuge, far from the clamour of the city in their rural, rustic home. They farmed the land and swam in the fountain, and sang and played music in the wild mountain nights.
Today there are parallels between these archival images and the current collective use of the land. The spot was ‘commonised’, by agreement with the family, for public use, land reclamation and learning, extending beyond strict familial ownership and into communal public ownership. This image is manifested in the following two photographs: one of the families’ private evening enjoyment, and the other of collective dabke dancing and singing initiated by the families of the village, returning to place and nature on the day of Sakiya’s opening. This transformation would not have happened if it wasn’t for the involvement of the family itself in this initiative. We hope to witness an extension of communal ownership, or ‘commoning’, since the land is currently not owned by all residents but by private individuals who reversed its function and opened it for ‘commoning’. This was enacted through a mediator who made it possible for the land to be rented from its owners: Sakiya, as a non-profit organisation. Will other practices be found like this?
Environmental issues as shared global common ground for solidarity
Since 1990 we have witnessed a catastrophic increase in pollution levels, the steady melting of the two polar ice caps, the extinction of hundreds of species and an increase in average temperatures due to global warming. We have seen life-threatening heatwaves in Japan and Europe, sea levels rising and forest fires in the Amazon, Siberia, Portugal, Australia, California, and Algeria. Experts state that in 2014 we entered a new environmental age, the anthropocene, as a result of the arrival of unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide. The most optimistic scholars expect that within the next twenty years, life on this earth will not be as we now know it. In the shadow of these all-encompassing changes for our lives, which reach every corner of the globe, how can we engage in resistance and change? How can there be global solidarity, with the environment at its core, placing our protection on the land and earth in its widest, most inclusive, while also protecting and solving our specific issues? The pollution from the fires in the Amazon is on the hands of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, hungry for profit, and is inextricably linked to his extremist politics, his hatred of women and the disabled, and his threats against human rights. In the Gaza Strip, pollution will render the land uninhabitable by the end of the year 2020. It will become an environmental nightmare, with polluted seas and health conditions. Neither can this be separated from – or, rather, it is part of – oppressive, colonialist policies. We will not see the great change that the planet needs through changes in individual behaviour; this is the exact mode used by neoliberal regimes to shift the responsibility to individuals. They exclaim ‘Don’t use plastic cups every time you go to the supermarket!’ whilst at the same time continuing the production of plastic cups in their thousands. The causes of the current destruction is the oppressive, all-powerful political and economic machines. They do not respect human beings or their rights and have no goal but profit. It is essential for us to change our perspective on every problem, and especially the question of our environment. Then the environment becomes, whirring with urgency in the heads of every inhabitant on earth, threatening their existence, a global common ground for solidarity and a defence for localised issues. Will we see real movements to boycott the most polluting companies in the world? Perhaps the time has come to form a collective movement, formed of ‘political consumers’; after all, the society of consumerism is a global society, not that of the workers. It is globalised consumers who are free of any spatial, material, contractual and temporal links to the workers. There is no capitalist strategy in the face of the weapon that is non-purchasing as part of an organised campaign by ‘globalised consumers’. Their power is connected to their power to organise. Can they really produce movements that will pressure oppressive, extremist governments? Can they liberate the individual, or promote gender issues, as part of a green global movement? The question is not one just of the trees themselves but of all of the ecosystem. In our situation in Palestine, a colonial economic regime has broken the relationship between us humans and our surroundings, presiding over organic relationships and taking advantage of the land – that is to say, nature. It is breaking all forms of relationship with and different ownerships of our surroundings and turning ways of life into commodities. Here lies the importance of these local initiatives such as farming cooperatives, and forms of artistic practice that adopt an organic relationship with nature and the land as the starting point for new projects of liberation.
The role of art in change, and the articles of Abu Ibrahim
Many argue over the role of civil society institutions as one of the global actors, and the declining role of nations, political parties and the institutions of state in a geographical sense. Others argue about the ineffectiveness of these institutions, and their entrenched links to global economic systems – playing against them, but operating within their confines. Can they affect change, even on a low level within those margins?
Sakiya was awarded a grant from the Visual Arts: A Flourishing Field (VAFF) project that is supported by the Swedish government and organised by the A.M. Qattan Foundation. The three co-operating partners in Sakiya are non-profit organisations. Sakiya is registered as a non-profit company, so how can it go beyond the limited roles and glass ceiling for change enforced by the global systems on such entities? And can Sakiya participate in that? It will come to change and invert its role, by building ideas and creating art that is aware of the conventional roles played by the institutions of today, building strong foundations that will be used to further its independence – in funding its future goals. The aim of this is not reform but has the purpose of creating progressive change in how we use the tools that we have, and how we try and change mainstream thought. It posits a new way to focus on students and learning. Sakiya believes that it is a progressive, alternative academy trying to reimagine how we produce knowledge. Newly founded, progressive thinking initiatives like Sakiya can benefit much more than those established long ago, since they do not follow mainstream institutional modes of producing knowledge and culture. In the case of Sakiya, the aim is to revive the idea of the Palestinian mashaa’ (commons), lost since the Ottoman period and the coming into being of the organisations created by the nation state. Sakiya is also trying to create learning processes with close bonds to local needs, and fundamentally with farming. New additional voices are being amplified and having an effect, as part of a chorus of similar calls. The importance of academies such as Sakiya stems also from its location, as Nida Sinnokrot has said in one of the interviews he has given, which took place with Jari Jahi Jan in a non-central place on the margins in contrast to somewhere such as Ramallah where ‘High Art’ is produced and where political, economic and neoliberal power is wielded. The team at Sakiya are pointing to the importance of land in Palestinian history, as a place of rebellion and life, and to the ancient commonalities that pass between the villagers in the production of crops. The founders of the project stress that Sakiya is trying to become an alternative academic institution, to fill the gap between official learning, as a commodity in the hand of the markets, and local knowledge – and the global need to learn from nature, and to acquaint oneself to it. It is also concerned with understanding the oneness of nature as a place that provides food, education, reflection and joy.
Sakiya’s book mentions a farmhand’s story that tells of an Abu Ibrahim who used to write articles in one of the farmers’ newspapers calling for them to change to individual private ownership and encouraging the use of tractors, exposing the fact that Abu Ibrahim was in fact a Russian Zionist writing under a pseudonym. There is an untapped power in the consciousness of art, in creating new marginal spaces, that can become a pioneering example for the environment and the economy, both globally and locally. But it is a role that will not come without an understanding of global and local realities, and the interplay between them. I would like to end with these words:
“A little sprout
Emerging towards the skies
Oblivious to the axe.”
[Quotations taken from Abbas Kiarostami’s book of poetry, Reeh wa Awraq / Wind and Leaves, published in 2017 by Al Mutawassit Publishing House. All photos provided by Sakiya. Translation courtesy of Shayma Nader.)