Unlimited 2017: Rachel Gadsden brings UK and Palestinian artists together to consider paradise


It Was Paradise is a cross-cultural collaboration between UK and Palestinian artists, located in London, Liverpool, the West Bank and Gaza, which considers the effects upon individual and community of the sense of isolation and abandonment arising from physical and psychological confinement. Rachel Gadsden introduces her R&D International Collaboration award from Unlimited 2017 Commissioning Fund to collaborate with four visual artists from the West Bank, Palestine.

Title painting for ‘It Was Paradise’. Image © Rachel Gadsden

Inspired by the theme of Palestinian poet and author Mahmoud Darwish’s poem ‘Under Siege’, the project addresses global concerns about: migration, the lingering flight of refugee, disabled and bereaved peoples.

It was spring in Palestine when Rachel Gadsden brought the artists collaborating on ‘It Was Paradise’ together for their initial residency in Palestine.

We arrived in the beautiful and bustling old city of Nablus with its fabulous, sprawling and colourful souk. It was evening by the time we got to the art and literary centre, Hamdi Manco. We set to straightaway, hanging British Council Palestine’s exhibition ‘Disability Art – the Successes and Challenges’, a showcase of paintings and drawings by disabled and non-disabled people, which had had its first showing in January 2017 at the Red Crescent in Ramallah.

We finished work late that night and the exhibition was ready for the opening ceremony next day with a representative from the Ministry of Culture, Eng. Sameeh Tubaila, recently elected Nablus Mayor, local dignitaries and David Elliott, British Council Director Arts, Middle East and North Africa.

Rachel Gadsden at the ‘Disability Art – the Successes and Challenges’, Nablus

Rachel followed up the opening by conducting an art workshop the next day for approximately thirty adults at the centre coming from a number of organisations including the Women’s Study Centre and the Red Crescent, Nablus.

Their visit coincided with the penultimate evening event of PalFest 2017 (The Palestinian Literary Festival), which was held in a grand old one-time residence within the city.

As usual throughout all of this we received huge support from our lead project partner, British Council Palestine (Occupied Territories), and British Council Art Program Manager Suha Khuffash, and Arts Program Assistant Haneen Tartir.

The West Bank remains fraught with protests connected to occupation. When these are taking place it can make travelling between towns more difficult to organize. And for this reason we remained in Nablus for an extra night, which it has to be said, is no kind of a hardship, as the city is such a richly interesting place. We spent the evening meandering around the many interconnecting lanes of the souk.

And early in the morning we travelled back towards Ramallah, though still with time to admire the fabulous views of springtime Palestinian countryside and stretches of unspoilt olive groves. Our next destination was the Star Mountain Centre, high on a hill just outside Ramallah, where we had arranged to meet up with the four disabled Palestinian artists I have chosen to collaborate with, as part of It Was Paradise.

The group came together to spend seven intense residency days together to work in collaboration, painting and drawing. Ali Saied Ashour is an accomplished painter of calligraphy, whose work adorns the ceilings and walls of many mosques and other public buildings, not only in his hometown Hebron, but many locations throughout the West Bank. Ali is the lead Palestinian co-collaborator with Rachel for the It Was Paradise project.

Artwork using Arabic script

Artwork by Ali Saied Ashour

Photo of Mahmoud Abu Daghash

Amna Hussein is from Beit Duqoo, near Jerusalem. Amna graduated from Birzeit University with a BA hons degree in English Language and Literature. Art is her passion too and she creates delicate watercolour and acrylic paintings inspired by the beauty of her father’s farmland and the Palestinian landscape.

Mahmoud Abu Daghash is from Tulkarm, a small town north of Nablus. He is a photo-realist painter and the youngest in the team, who is rapidly extending his creative skills.

Hossam Khadeir is a mouth-painter from Ramallah who creates artworks that embrace his faith and his love of his homeland.

Amani Samara has joined the team as project manager. She has a keen interest in art and paints in watercolour. Amani has been invaluable as a local contact who has made most of the arrangements locally to facilitate the coming together of the artists the venue, and the artistic residency logistics.

Importantly the primary objective of this research and development period was thrashing out the motives and objectives of the It Was Paradise project, the nature and character of the work to be produced and the content of the ultimate touring exhibition.

A page from Rachel Gadsden's sketchbook

Sketchbook. Image © Rachel Gadsden

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.

You can read a diary account of the week the group of artists spent together by clicking on this link to Rachel Gadsden’s blog