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Standing Face to Face – Picasso in Palestine in Hildesheim

December 3rd, 2012 by Steven ten Thije

Last Friday evening, I picked up the newspaper to read about what is called the ‘birth certificate’ of Palestine by president Abbas. What I understand of it is that the new status of Palestine doesn’t change much, but does open new possibilities for the Palestinians. For instance they can now potentially go to the International Criminal Court and press charges against Israel if it acts in contradiction with international regulations like building settlements in occupied territory. This sounds significant. However, what the paper considers as more noteworthy is the small support Israel has left in the International community. Within Europe only the Czechs support Israel, even Germany refrained from voting and as result have given up their unquestioning support.

Perhaps I wouldn’t have thought so much about the waning support, if not earlier this week the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the subject of a heated debate within the seminar that I teach at Hildesheim University. The seminar is entitled ‘The Art of Describing Art’ and the subject of it is also very simply writing about art. I teach the seminar together with Julia Heuser, an almost-graduate student who studies creative writing. In the seminar the first assignment was to write a description of Picasso ‘Buste de Femme’ from the Van Abbe-collection, the painting that was sent to Palestine a year ago. When giving the first assignment however we did not yet reveal the trip the painting made and asked them to stay close to the work itself. In the second assignment we asked the students to now use their understanding of the picture and try to integrate it into a text in which they also reflect on the Picasso in Palestine-project.

Being part of the Van Abbe-team, I’ve heard so many things about the project and have been in or at so many discussions about it that I perhaps start to become blind to the challenging nature of the project. So when I proposed this trajectory of two assignments, in my naivety, I thought that the biggest challenge would be to connect the content of the painting in some meaningful way to the content of the project of bringing the painting to Palestine; a challenge many students dealt with very beautifully. However, when we discussed some of the texts in class – using a creative writing method that is new to my dry, academic deformed art historical eyes – suddenly all the emotional historical booby-traps located right underneath the surface exploded.

One girl corrected a fellow student who had dared to connect in two paragraphs the Nazis and Israel, stating more or less that ‘this can never be done.’ Something said with such a conviction that I myself started to feel guilty that I wasn’t as shocked as she was when reading the text. Another international exchange student who was born neither in Israel nor Palestine, but close, had a hard time to sit still and not comment on each attempt of her fellow students to describe the political situation in the region. In a friendly, but also persistent tone, she offered an inside account of the conflict. And, minute after minute, I saw the whole class become more and more uncomfortable, becoming more and more afraid about what to say, and what they wrote. The image of Picasso’s painting projected silently on the wall slowly stopped being the subject of our discussion, more the still observer of a tense, but also beautiful encounter of a group of people talking about a subject which they feel unable to talk about, but still feel the necessity to do so.

By starting this discussion through an artwork, however, it seems we had a possibility that perhaps is absent from normal discussions on the topic. Based in both personal experience and abstract reflection, through or with art, one is invited to be personal and general at the same time. Your own observations are translated in a ‘judgement’ that transcends your individual position; an ability that has a distinct significance in democratic society. Because in such a society it is demanded of each member that he or she can develop a position based on the ideas and experiences of others and yourself. What the discussion during the class made clear again is that even if it may sound quite complex and abstract, the reality of democratic exchange is that it is a very emotional process and the challenge of it is to balance and make productive those emotions in a public discussion. Something that cannot be learned through theory alone, as the discussion also showed, it has to be mastered through practice as well. And teaching such a practice perhaps does not so much requires ‘instructing’ but a levelling of the playing field in which teacher and student stand ‘eye’ to ‘eye’.

And by accident, writing this down, I stumble on a new reading of ‘Picasso in Palestine’. Perhaps the point of similarity between bringing the painting to Ramallah and the painting itself is located in this standing face to face. The museum facing the International Art Academy of Palestine; the women painted by Picasso with her strange and intriguing eyes, facing the Palestinians. What is seen; what is said during this encounter is neither complete affirmation, nor negation; what is seen is the other as a presence that cannot be ignored and which existence is complex. Addressing this complexity is difficult, close too impossible, but we have to try and for this trying we need both physical and mental space. Perhaps this is what the acclimatised white-cube space in Ramallah, with its solitary Picasso painting, helped to create: an open space to speak about a conflict that is so emotional, but which affects us all as members of a ‘general’ or global public. We in Hildesheim could share this space by simply talking about the project and the news of last weeks showed a change in international relations, which makes this discussion more urgent and open than it has been for a long time.

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