How Green Was My Valley?
Mary Evangelista is the Director of ArtPalestine International, a New York–based cultural organization that facilitates artistic exchanges between Palestine and the US. Evangelista recently curated the exhibition How Green Was My Valley at Whitebox in New York, introducing a new generation of Palestinian artists to the city. Previous exhibitions include The Thousand and One Nights at Postmasters Gallery – an exhibition of contemporary artists from Palestine curated by Evangelista and Michael Connor, editor / curator of Rhizome.
How Green Was My Valley featured works critical of the occupation, as well as those imaging new beginnings. Works such as Samira Badran’s viscerally charged but cold-as-steel-installation, Have a Pleasant Stay! - modeled on a security checkpoint in Kalandia, Jerusalem - or Taysir Batniji's, Transit, a series of slides taken in border passages between Egypt and Gaza - demonstrate the hard edge of bureaucracy and militarily enforced boundaries. But throughout the exhibition there is also a sense of improvisation, emerging networks and the persistence of community, despite the matrix of the world's most technological police state.
Underscoring the severity of the situation in Gaza, and the challenges facingPalestinian artists, one of the artists featured in the show, Mohammed Musallam, was unable to to attend the opening due to the closure of the Egyptian border, due to the siege on Gaza . “Rafah check point,” Musallam says, “which is the only entry point to Egypt and to the world for us, only opens for two days a month and a very limited number of Palestinians are allowed to leave Gaza.” Musallam did later make it to New York to see the exhibition, and a function was organised to greet him, but his return home is also uncertain. “I am flying back to Cairo tonight and I really do not know when I will be back in Gaza, as the border is still closed. Most probably I’ll be detained at Cairo Airport until the border is open and then will be deported to Gaza. It sounds crazy to have to struggle to get out and in to Gaza, but this is the hard reality of our life in Gaza”.
White Fungus editor Ron Hanson caught up with Mary Evangelista recently and asked her a few questions.
Ron Hanson: You set up Art Palestine in 2005 to increase visibility of Palestinian artists in the US, but your involvement with this art stretches back further than that. Can you tell me how you first became involved in Palestinian art.
Mary Evangelista: I first became involved with art in Israel when sent there by my publisher boss, Milton Esterow, Artnews. (1985) I had just recently completed a huge New York city-wide exhibition of contemporary Israeli art to coincide with the Metropolitan Museum’s display of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Twenty seven New York galleries participated. I begged a $250,000 barter from Lufthansa Airlines—they were in the process of opening up their route between Frankfurt and Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv and were happy to use my exhibition— Artisrael-- to promote this new route.
After completing two contemporary Israeli exhibitions in NYC, I was sent back again by ARTnews to check on what effects the Intifada was having, or had, on the art world. I traveled with my son, Cotton Coulson, a photographer with National Geographic. We were shocked and disheartened to see the way the Israelis were treating Palestinians —most noticeably at “checkpoints” and inside the Palestinian refugee camps we visited outside Jerusalem and in Ramallah.
My involvement progressed. I wanted very much to tell my New York friends that conditions in Israel were not being accurately reported in our media. I believed that Palestinian artists could tell that story and I curated a number of exhibitions of their art work. Raising funds, finding concerned venues, bringing the art and artists over has been my mission. I believe that gradually, we are being heard.
RH: The extreme nature of the political situation in Palestine strongly emphasizes many of the themes that artists are dealing with all over the world in regards to cultural identity under the conditions of globalization. For How Green Was My Valley, you've brought together a number of Palestinian artists to explore these ideas. But, of course, these artists are located all over the world in the diaspora, with some still located locally. How strong is the connection between these artists given the geographical distance that separates many of them?
ME: Palestinian artists maintain very strong connections! Palestinian artists ‘return’ to Ramallah, Hebron, Jerusalem, and Gaza as often as they can; keep in touch with each other via the internet and Facebook - seem to know what kind of art each one is producing, pay attention to each other's work, bump into each other at gallery openings, keep watch through websites, and seem very well connected.
RH: What is the situation like on the ground for the artists who reside in Palestine? What kind of infrastructure do these artists have available to them?
ME: Art has been promoted in Palestine for the past 20 years, in part because almost nothing else can receive support, in part because artists are able to link the occupation with imaginative or other possibilities. There have been a small number of art academies in occupied Palestine. Since the Oslo accords EU countries have supported art education and development, all the artists know each other and their work, and artists who have succeeded in leaving Palestine, residing in Europe or the United States, return on a regular basis. The art scene has expanded throughout, with the first biennial international exhibit in November 2012, Qalandiya International. Qalandiya is the name of the most notorious refugee camp just outside Jerusalem and Ramallah.
RH: The issue of the occupation and Palestinian statehood is extremely heated in the US where the media coverage appears much more tightly controlled. I've met Americans who have quite progressive views on a number of issues, but support Israel in lockstep on this particular issue. What kind of responses have you gotten in the US to this exhibition and others you have produced?
ME: There is no question that in the United States as a whole, the AIPAC lobby controls most of the public image of Israel and Palestine. This made getting support for the exhibition very difficult. At the same time, there have been shifts in the uncritical support of US Jews, especially in New York. The opening of the show was a blockbuster, far exceeding anything we imagined.