In the second 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 middle four days.
Tuesday 13th March.
Merna arrives first thing, we are grateful for her constant support as we finalise arrangements for our first day, which is to be occupied with filming on location in Aboud. Mahmoud, artistic collaborator, arrives too, and since it is early and his room is not yet ready, we leave his bags at reception and board the bus, with Emy, to take us out to the stone quarry, the chosen location.
Ali, lead collaborator, has not made it to the Red Crescent, from Hebron, yet, and so reluctantly we decide we must set off without him, hoping to have the opportunity to catch up with extra filming later in the week; and slot some footage of him in.
But as the bus is just about to depart—Ali arrives at the hotel.
We have a 45-minute drive ahead of us, and as we get closer to Aboud we pass by the military posts that mark the entrances to settlements, and other Israeli installations. It is hot and sunny, and there appears today to be an even thicker carpet of wild flowers in the countryside.
Rachel has devised a theatrical ritual to be filmed that will ‘signal’ the commencement of the artistic collaboration, and at the site she rolls out a 5 metre by 1.5metre blank art canvas, and the four collaborators, carry this together in procession along the leafy lane that leads to the open area in front of the quarry. The canvas is ‘unfurled’ and anchored to the ground with stones taken from the quarry workings, and each of the artists makes their initial marks upon this with charcoal blocks.
A local farmer is here with us, collecting firewood, and has left his own means of transport, a battered and very elderly racing-car, in the line of the film-camera. But he cannot be convinced to move it out of shot! And so we work around it. There are almond trees growing in the grove where we are filming, another famous Palestinian delicacy in season, which when fresh like this, taste like small chunks of cucumber. Israh our filmmaker, and her colleague, Firas, collect them by the bagful.
The farmer returns, and, genuinely and very helpfully, offers to move his car, but by the time he has finished manoeuvring, seems to have become disorientated, and puts the car back pretty much where it was when he started. No matter!
Anis, the director of the Society, has come again today, and in the village he bumps into a man whom he knows, and whom, he tells us, he has not set eyes on for over fifty years. ‘He has not changed a bit!’ says Anis.
It is much hotter than we think, and we all get sunburned.
When we get back to the Red Crescent, we are delighted to find that regional market stalls have been set up all the way along the long ground floor reception area, in all the alcoved seating areas, and so we are able to buy dates, soap (lemon, honey and vanilla) and a Palestinian embroidered bag from Gaza. We hop down then to the dining-room buffet, Ali, Emy, Mahmoud, Rachel and I.
Wednesday 14th March.
Red Crescent has reserved a workroom for us on the third floor, and Rachel and I arrive very early to set up, art materials, and the work canvas, which we mount up on a series of boards against one wall. The collaborators arrive, the canvas represents the land, and the stories played out upon it will be of the world that the collaborators experience and see. There is huge excitement as we hand over digital cameras to each of the artists and Amani. A generous crowd funding activity in UK now means that the artists now each have a camera each to photo their artworks properly.
At midday, we are visited by British Council Director of the Arts for the Middle East and North Africa, David Codling, and Deputy Director of British Council Palestine, Caroline Khalaf. The arts projects in Palestine are an important element of the regional programme, and David Codling asks each of the artists, Mahmoud, Emy and Ali, to introduce him to their practices.
The collaborative team are advised by Caroline that there is a BC initiative to consider supporting three members of It was Paradise project to attend the South Bank Unlimited Festival in UK in the Autumn 2018, as part of a proposed study programme, along with a small number of other BC representatives; and that BC will be considering the means whereby the art initiative may be rolled out in the region and developed into a longer-term programme. Caroline further advises that there are grants, bursaries and scholarships available for the arts from BC, and that Merna will visit the group to advise accordingly.
The scale, content and focus of the collaborators proposed contribution to the Unlimited Festival Exhibition is considered, for both here in the West Bank, at South Bank, London and at DaDaFest, Liverpool at the endo of the year. The core artwork will be the 5m x 1.5m canvas, with imprints on both faces of the contributing artists, hung freely in the exhibition space so that both sides are displayed. An artistic contribution will also be made by the Bereaved Women’s Group, working at the Women’s Study Centre, East Jerusalem, who are also part of this Unlimited commission.
The collaborators begin work also on other smaller paintings and freestanding canvases.
Thursday 15th March
The studio atmosphere is serious; and, conscious that their time together is limited, the artists all set to to create new work, to some degree Rachel is both mentor and collaborator, she has had the opportunity to undertake formal art-training and wherever possible she shares this knowledge with her collaborators. Ali is the lead Palestinian collaborator but the ambition of this commission was also to invite 3 emerging Palestinian artists to be part of the vision too. There is a hope that one day Mahmoud and Emy may also have the chance to undertake an art scholarship to further their artistic studies.
In the afternoon, Tim sets out by taxi with our local disabled producer, Amani, to visit the venues for the outreach workshops planned for the weekend. There are to be two workshops, neither of which are funded by Unlimited, but funded locally by support groups, including the Palestinian Community Based Rehabilitation Association – along with the generous support of the British Council. The first workshop is at Khan al-Bireh Museum in Ramallah, the venue donated by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiques; and the second is in the Al Am’ari refugee camp, which sits adjacent to the Red Crescent. We ask the organisers at Al Am’ari if the workshop would be better held in the Red Crescent, using their comprehensive facilities, but despite the advantages, they much prefer the event to take place on site, for convenient access and to deliver the event at the location where it is needed.
Friday 16th March
There is something wonderful about all working in the studio together at last. For many months Rachel and the Palestinian artists have worked alone, independently creating their individual artistic contributions for the project, and at last they have a chance to share their ideas together and to build a collective voice.
They return again and again to the words from the poem that has inspired the project for further conversations, insight, inspiration and reflection:
Under Siege by Mahmoud Darwish
Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time.
Close to the gardens of broken shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
And what the jobless do:
We cultivate hope.
Each of the artists has their own unique creative motivations, Ali often creates huge Mosque murals, Mahmoud is a photo-realist painter, and Emy is constantly inspired by the landscape and the nature that she sees daily in her village, whereas Rachel is driven by a consideration and enquiry of the human condition. Having a collective platform where the artists can share their ideas in one space has been the highlight of the project.
It is a very productive day and the artists work throughout the day generating new ideas and their artworks.
We finish early in the evening and head off to visit a local art shop, for personal art supplies, and each artist is given a sum of money to choose art materials. For practical reasons and because there is not the full choice of art materials in the region, most of this project’s art materials are purchased in UK and brought to the region, but there is no doubt that the artists really enjoy the chance to handpick materials that best suit their individual practices too. Tim collects colouring books and pens to give to the children at Al Am’ari. We stop off on the high street for Arabic coffee and Kanafa (Arabic sweet made with honey and cheese); and tonight as there is a large UN delegation staying at the Red Crescent, there is a enormous and very varied buffet laid on in the dining room.