The Palestinian answer to Charles Saatchi pursues the elusive dream of a permanent home for his unique but unheralded collection
Mazen Qupty had always planned to study film – the seventh art as he calls it. Yet the irony is that if he hadn’t reluctantly taken a friend’s advice to do a law degree instead, he wouldn’t now, at 52, be embarked on the great project of his life, the establishment of a national museum of contemporary Palestinian art. For even in the negligible market there is for Palestinian painting, Mr Qupty, a successful lawyer whose clients include most of the churches in the Holy Land, would never have been able to afford to collect the 170 pieces that he and his wife, Yvette, have promised to donate as the nucleus of the museum that is their dream.
It says something about international ignorance of contemporary Palestinian art that the richness, technical mastery and vibrancy of the works Mr Qupty has hung and stored in his home in the East Jerusalem suburb of Beit Hanina come as a complete shock. Sip a glass of wine in Mr Qupty’s living room and you are mesmerised by the variety of the works on the opposite wall, its centrepiece the first picture Mr Qupty ever bought and the only one from his collection – the largest single one of Palestinian art assembled anywhere – that he never rotates back into storage to make way for others. By Taysir Barakat, born in the Jabalya refugee camp in Gaza 48 years ago and a graduate of the College of Fine Arts in Alexandria, it’s a haunting, memory-laden oil painting just over a metre square, its colours dominated by a luminous dark red, of a boy standing in a swing, with female figures in the background framed by open windows, entitled “The Children of Our Neighbourhood”.
In the current circumstances, in which Palestinians have more pressing priorities than the arts, the dream of a national museum might seem as impossible as indeed it did to Mr Qupty when it first came up at a dinner he was giving for a group of diplomats in 2004. But he has shown since then that if anyone can make it happen, he can. Mainly thanks to Mr Qupty – whose mantra is that “everything starts with a dream” – the museum, albeit in embryonic form, already exists. A few months after that dinner, Mr Qupty assembled a group of artists together with sympathetic businessmen and professionals – including Tim Rothermel, the former Jerusalem head of the UNDP which provided some of the initial funding – to found a new, and these days the only, gallery in the heart of East Jerusalem. By any standards Al Hoash, which opened December 2005, is a busy place, its modest but airy, first-floor space in the Nablus road rapidly turning into a cultural focal point for Palestinians in the city and – on the all too rare occasions when closures and roadblocks in the West Bank permit – well beyond.
The National Museum of Norway has taken an interest in Mr Qupty’s longer-term project. He hasn’t yet put a figure on what it might cost, beyond saying with a smile that it would be nothing like the staggering price tag that Abu Dhabi is paying for a satellite version of the Louvre. But with help from the Oslo Art Academy and the Norwegian government, Mr Qupty has taken another decisive step by launching a contemporary art academy in Ramallah.
Al Hoash’s opening show, appropriately enough, was a retrospective of the work of Hassan Hourani, a brilliant young artist from Hebron who studied at art school in Baghdad in the 1990s and was working in New York on an illustrated children’s book, Hassan Everywhere, when, on a trip home in 2003, he and his nephew drowned off Jaffa beach after stealing out of Ramallah for a family day – at once illegal and innocent – by the seaside. (The Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan, who formed a close friendship with Hourani in New York of the sort, as she said, they would never have had at home, described in a tribute to the painter after his death how, when she feared that her admiration for his stories and illustrations had been “biased” by their friendship, a children’s book agent had told Hourani he had an “eerie” talent.)
Since its opening, and despite its shortage of funding, Al Hoash has mounted a different exhibition every month. And it shows Palestinian films almost every week. It prides itself on serving not just the elite but the local community. It runs a series of workshops, most of which are free and which target, among others, underprivileged children and women facing abuse. Last week more than 200 people attended the vernissage for this month’s show. There was the usual notable Jerusalem Palestinians and diplomats, of course, but nearly the last guest to leave was 13-year-old Ismail from the building next door where his and other poor families have been squatting. “He kept tugging at me,” Mr Qupty said with satisfaction, “and saying, ‘Mazen, when’s the next workshop going to start?’.”
This month’s exhibition at Al Hoash is timed to coincide with International Women’s Day but instead of carrying a clunkingly worthy political message, it celebrates the work of five Palestinian female artists. They include oils by Sophie Halaby, a Palestinian from Jerusalem who lived in Paris in the 1930s – an influence felt in her impressionistic work (they were rescued by Mr Qupty after her in 1998). “She was quite rich and single, with no relations,” he explains. “One of her neighbours was a lawyer, who claimed she had left him all her property. But he didn’t care for the art. I rang him and he said, ‘Come and take it’. When I saw it, I said how much do you want and he said pay what you like. So I said, ‘$5,000?’, and he agreed.”
In fact, because Mr Qupty, who generally buys direct from the artists, has collected mainly paintings by Palestinian artists in the West Bank and Gaza, rather than those in North America or Europe who are more connected to the international market, he has never paid more than $5,000 for a picture. But whereas Israeli works art of often range between $5,000 and $100,000 in value, the equivalent for Palestinian pictures is $1,000-$5,000, not least because only a handful of Palestinians can afford higher prices.
The Israeli authorities no longer raid or close down Palestinian exhibitions as they did in the Seventies and Eighties. But, although there was more interest in the post-Oslo Nineties, Mr Qupty says these days few Israelis even know about Palestinian art – although there are exceptions. The owner of the newspaper Haaretz, Amos Schocken, has a large collection of works by Palestinian Israeli painter Ibrahim Nubani who, like several of his fellow-Palestinian artists, trained at the Israeli Bezalel art school in Jerusalem.
It’s hardly surprising that Mr Qupty wants the national museum to be in East Jerusalem, designated as the capital of a future Palestinian state. But Sophie Halaby’s pictures are a reminder of another reason; Islamist trends across the West Bank and Gaza mean that her nudes could be shown in few, if any, other places.
At Al Hoash there is also a very different piece by the 65-year-old artist Vera Tamari. It uses a series of photographs to depict the woman’s ticking biological and emotional clock; arranged like a calendar, the work consists of 28 plates containing a fried egg, with knives and forks positioned like the hands of a real clock. A series of almost expressionist paintings by Maha Dayeh depicts the sea, but, appropriately enough, as something almost claustrophobic and enclosing, as the museum’s director, Rawan Sharaf, points out. “All these sharp corners and confined spaces – this isn’t a sea you want to jump into,” he says.
Yet it’s striking how relatively little of the work is overtly, noisily political. Mr Qupty, a Christian Palestinian born in Nazareth, points out that in the beautiful “primitive” paintings of the famous West Bank artist Suleiman Mansour – such as the picture of a family passing in front of an olive grove shaped against the sea like the map of historic Palestine – there is a national as well as an aesthetic point. But the Qupty vision extends far beyond the politics of the conflict. Palestinian art is little more than a century old; it started with iconography for visiting Christian pilgrims but extended rapidly to embrace the Muslim – and Druze – communities as an expression of Palestinian cultural identity.
“It’s crucial to collect our heritage and to show what we can do,” Mr Qupty says. “The United States and Israel have succeeded in convincing the world that we are terrorists. But we just want to be human beings, and, in this perspective, art has a major role to play… The one thing that is making the Palestinian nation one people is their dream [of a state] and their culture. Realising the dream seems to be a long-term process so maybe we should do something practical about the culture now.”
Cultural centres of the Arab world
Louvre and Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi
As part of a $27bn (£14bn) initiative by Abu Dhabi’s government, projects were unveiled last year to build branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums on an island outside the city. The Guggenheim should be completed within five years and the Louvre is expected to open shortly afterwards.
Qatar Museum of Islamic Arts, Doha
The ruling al-Thani family of Qatar have a reputation for being fervent collectors of art from across the Arab world and are building a 45,000 sq m museum to hold their collection of paintings, weaponry, glassware, coins, books and manuscripts. It will open later this year.
Grand Egyptian Museum, Cairo
Set to open in 2011, the museum is hoping to attract more than 5 million visitors a year. The building will be adjacent to the pyramids in Giza.
National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad
Opened in 1926, the museum once held a fine collection. It was looted after the US-led invasion of Iraq and much has not been recovered.