Palestinian Museum in West Bank Reopens After Months of Closure

In an act of hope and defiance, the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit in the Occupied West Bank has opened its doors again after an almost four-month closure due to Israel’s ongoing attacks on Gaza.

Three separate exhibitions that together “stand against the atrocities and systematic annihilation of Gaza,” according to a statement, opened to a crowd of 350 last Sunday, February 11. A WhatsApp audio from displaced artist Mohammed Al-Hawajri, recorded from his tent in Gaza and originally intended as a video but foiled by a weak internet connection, was displayed on a screen that greeted visitors. “We are still alive,” he said as he introduced the seven artists from his erstwhile Eltiqa Art Gallery, in the midst of background noise of the camp and the sound of Israeli drones.

The museum, designed by Heneghan Peng Architects as an organic extension of the land it celebrates, opened in 2016 about four and a half miles north of Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank. At once a hub for Palestinian culture and a connector to the larger diaspora via global satellite galleries and an extensive online archive, the museum boasts spaces for exhibitions and performance as well as research and education, all set within nearly 10 acres of gardens.

The main gallery, designed as a kind of loping trapezoid with variegated ceiling heights, hosts This is Not an Exhibition, curated by Eltiqa Art Gallery and Shababek Gallery in Gaza. Both venues were destroyed by recent Israeli bombing. Showcasing over 280 artworks by more than 100 Gazan artists, the pieces, collected from across historic Palestine, offer a powerful and poignant sense of creative resistance in the face of horror.

The museum’s Glass Gallery features Disappeared, Gazan artist Tayseer Barakat’s solo exhibition described as an examination of “a world built on loss.” His haunting depictions of life during wartime are augmented by his poignant poems.

The third exhibition, Women of Gaza, an ethnographic display in the museum lobby, includes traditional jewelry and thobes, dresses that narrate the stories of cities, towns, and villages through intricate folk-art motifs. Palestinian embroidery was added to UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2021, and some of the symbols are said to date from Canaanite times. As so much of Gazan heritage has disappeared in recent months, the exhibition is a moving testament to the endurance of Gazan culture.

Reached at her home in Ramallah, Obour Hashash, the program manager at the Palestinian Museum, told Hyperallergic that Palestinians are “losing our history, our dreams.”

“Beyond the horror of the ongoing massacres, it was devastating for us in the West Bank to see the destruction of so much cultural heritage, historical places, art galleries, artifacts stolen and looted,” Hashash said.

At a time when, Hashash added, Gazan art is being used as firewood by families desperate to stay warm in the winter cold, the exhibition serves as a reminder that “we’re still here and the artworks are still here.” With this in mind, she noted that the exhibition will continue for several months, even “after the war ends.”

This is Not an Exhibition, featuring mixed-media work by Gazan artists from the 1970s to the present on loan from private Palestinian collectors and galleries, is conceived as a collective work. In a darkened gallery designed as a kind of shrine to Gaza, four 23-foot-high walls painted indigo and featuring a collage of paintings separated by a bridge of video works on both sides act as a single installation. The walls are embedded with social media messages about Gaza and the sound of Israeli drones plays in a continuous audio loop as a large screen video piece by Shareef Sarhan juxtaposes mediatized images of the war on Gaza.

Works by Malak Mattar, Hazem Harb, and Aissa Deebi rub shoulders with lesser-known artists and four recent martyrs: Mohammed Sami QariqaShad Nafez Saudi, Fuad Abu Khammash, and Heba Zagout, who was killed by an Israeli airstrike on October 13. According to Hashash, a West Bank collector had traveled to Gaza and purchased her works just a week before her death; he brought them to the opening as a gift to the museum.

“I consider art a message that I deliver to the outside world through my expression of the Palestinian cause and Palestinian identity,” Zagout said in a YouTube video about her work.

As communication with artists in Gaza continues to be difficult, the museum, said Hashash, will issue an open call next week to collectors of Gazan art across the West Bank with the aim of adding more works to the show — at once a group exhibition and a singular voice of solidarity.

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