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Return to paradise: part 1

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In the first of a three-part blog diarising their latest trip to the West Bank as part of the Unlimited-funded It Was Paradise project, Rachel Gadsden and Tim Hayton report back on the first five days.

Thursday 8th March

Gaza's skylineWe are here in Ramallah again, in the West Bank of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We are staying at the Red Crescent building, which some people will know to be an excellent community facility, combining hostel, conference centres, school for deaf young people, Palestinian educational facility, and medical/ambulance facility.  The Red Crescent will be our base for approximately two weeks, as we continue with the next stage of our International Unlimited Award It Was Paradise collaborative art commission.

It is spring in Palestine, it is warm during the day, sometimes 24-25 degrees, and the grass is green, there is blossom on the trees, and there are wild flowers everywhere – and one of the largest concentrations of wild flowers, we understand, anywhere in the world.

This is our fifth trip to the region, and we are here this time to undertake the second artistic residency of the It was Paradise International Unlimited Commission; and are assisted in this endeavour by the generous support of the British Council (deputy director Caroline Khalaf and her fantastic team), who, as always, provide local infrastructure and organisational support, and additional funding.

Field of daisiesWe have arrived on a Thursday, the weekend, and this has given Rachel and me a day to recover after the flight, and the time to put in place the final arrangements for meeting and working with three of the four collaborative Palestinian artists, Ali, Emy and Mahmoud.  The fourth member of the group, Hosaam, is in Saudi Arabia at the moment, undertaking a pilgrimage.

Additionally, it has given us time to arrange with our local disabled producer, Amani Samira, to finalise arrangements for two large-scale art-workshops for disabled adults – between 18 and 30 participants in each group – which Rachel and the collaborating artists will conduct over a weekend towards the end of the residency, and which will take place at local community venues during free time.  These workshops are not part of the It was Paradise commission, and not funded by the Unlimited Programme. In a region where artistic opportunities are scarce and rarely available for the wider disabled community, the workshops certainly offer the chance for many emerging disabled artists to also have the chance to experience art at a professional level. Rachel understood early in her artistic career how vital it is to reach beyond professional commissions, to be inclusive wherever possible. In areas of deprivation and conflict, the process of collective creativity, not only empowers communities, but also serves to give a voice to disadvantaged individuals. This empowerment contributes to cultural and social shifts; the local Community Based Rehabilitation organisation and British Council Palestine, are generously funding the logistics of these workshops. It is paramount to pay for everyone to get to the workshop, there are no benefits for disabled individuals in the region, and without the financial help, the real reality is that most disabled individuals barely have the opportunity to leave home at all.

Friday 9th March

Market in GazaAfter a meeting with the BC Deputy Director Caroline, and her colleague Merna, we spent half a day walking in Ramallah, up to see the old city again, then stopping off for lunch at one of the famous cake and coffee shops in the city centre, and food-shopping in the busy and bustling fruit and vegetable market and the bakeries.  Strawberries are in season, and street-vendors sell huge ‘punnets’ at 10NIS a kilo (about £2.50).

Rachel has begun a photographic record – hampered, in editing only, on this particular visit by the fact that due to an scanning error as we went through departures at Heathrow, we have no laptop. It is in lost property, we are told, and we can collect it on our return!  British Council have loaned us a replacement, but unfortunately Rachel cannot edit photos, as she would like to.  Despite initial anxieties, the temporary loss is actually very liberating, and of course Rachel has never relied on her laptop to be creative.

In the old city we passed by the Ramallah memorial, an always-present reminder of the conflict; and we also bumped into a Finnish national, Merritt, a lawyer, who works for one of the NGO’s based here in the city, and whom we know from a previous visit.  Strangely, it surprises us that we meet a familiar face out in the town, though we have been here several times before.

We are additionally lucky, we have been given a room on the ninth floor, room 905, which previous visits tell us is probably the best room in the place, having very comfortable beds, and a balcony with panoramic views of the city – and also over the rooftops of the adjoining Al Am’ari refugee camp where we will be working later on in the trip. It is from the balcony that Rachel will watch both the sun rise and set from each day.

Interestingly, the 8th March when we arrived was International Women’s Day, and everywhere it was very quiet indeed, we discovered because here in the West Bank at least, everyone is given the day off for IWD.

Sunday 11th March.

Gaza sunsetSunday is the first working day of the week in Ramallah, there is washing hanging out in the yards and on the rooftops of the Al Am’ari camp, and within the Red Crescent itself, business is very busy indeed, as there is a science and technology conference and symposium underway for young people.  The lifts are full, the dining room is full, and the reception is full.  Lots of young people occupy the ninth floor, and they all get dressed up in the evening, go out for walks, and gather in each other’s rooms.  They are very happy, friendly and polite.  Despite the news we hear about embassies and consular buildings in Jerusalem and Ramallah, life here goes as usual, and so we feel very much at home and comfortable – both here in the hotel, and in the markets, bakeries, pizza and shawarma-shops (our preference at the moment for evening meals!).

Ever since we have arrived it has been windy, and many of the young people fly kites and chant from the rooftops of the Al Am’ari camp.  The kites go higher and higher, until the young people get frightened of losing them and haul them back in.  They are red, blue and multi-coloured, shaped like birds, with long trailing string tails tied with ribbons in bows.

Every morning at dawn, a cock crows from somewhere in the Al Am’ari camp; then starts again for 20 minutes or so around lunchtime.  The sky is cornflower blue, with scraps of fast-moving white cloud.

Monday 12th March.

Today is a day of preparation; and so in the morning we meet up with our patient and knowledgeable British Council contact, Merna, who is helping us to organise all of the facilities we are going to need, work-room at the Red Crescent, evening meals, collaborators’ accommodation, meals for site-visits, transport, etc., all of which may sound mundane, but which is impossible to arrange efficiently and easily any other way, in a foreign language and location.  Local knowledge and familiarity is vital.

In fact, for most Palestinians English is very much a second language, learnt at school from a very young age; but we travel with Merna first to the art shop, and on to the ironmongers, to collect supplies for the days to come – to Merna’s consternation, Rachel does not have a list, rattling off everything we need from memory!

We leave Merna and walk back to the centre of town (the famous lion roundabout) to meet up with our filmmakers, Israh and Anis, of the Palestinian Young Filmmakers Society, stopping at the khabbaz (bakery) for cake and coffee.

It is lunchtime in downtown Ramallah, and the streets are crowded with school children and office workers out for lunch.  We ‘hop’ into Anis’s car at the roundabout and drive out of town to seek out locations for the filmic element of the It was Paradise commission.  We head firstly for Anis’s home village of Aboud, about half an hour west of Ramallah.  Anis is director of the Society, Israh the mainstay (Israh, now, since our last visit, married, living in Bethlehem and with a baby boy due in about three months’ time!).

Three people pose for a pictureWe head straight for the church and tomb of Santa Barbara, an elevated plot that might suit us.  Rachel intends to spread a five-metre long canvas on the ground and kickstart the collaborative process, with the artists, laying down a collaborative charcoal foundation on the canvas, as the beginnings of an artwork.

At Santa Barbara, in addition to the tomb and church ruins, rock formations on one side of the site show the remains of grave sites, carved deep into the rock; and on the other side, carved bowl-shaped depressions, used originally for pressing grapes, and latterly for pressing olives.  The depressions are connected by furrows carved also into the rock, which feed eventually into a deep and wide – 12ft by 12ft – reservoir.  All is disused now, but the area remains a beauty spot.

We drive on to another potential location, a large open space, the site of a once upon a time stonecutting community.  Apart from the huge rock-formations, the stepped traces of stone-quarrying, there is also a single gigantic hollowed-out obelisk, three storeys high with just a single two-foot square opening for a door.  This was last lived in in 1948.  It is spring in Palestine remember, and the ground around us is a carpet of wild flowers. Aboud perches on a hilltop, and on the two adjoining hilltops stand Israeli settlements.

We head back to Ramallah to visit a final location, a windswept, high-ground overlooking distant Palestinian developments, an elegant multi-storey state-of-the-art hospital, and several multi-storey apartment blocks.

We head home, and in the evening the first of our first collaborative artists, Emy arrives at the Red Crescent, from her village, Bayt Doukou, in the greater Jerusalem area. Together we head to meet, Suha, Haneen (work-colleagues from British Council, who are no longer at British Council, but who continue to support us, and who have contributed greatly to the project) and our writer friend Alice (who has also worked with us as a translator for workshops).  Out of all the exotic drinks on offer, I end up with a Sprite.

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Return to paradise: part 2

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