PRINT May 2015

Rasha Salti and Kristine Khouri

Ezzedine Kalak and Palestine Liberation Organization officials at “International Art Exhibition for Palestine,” 1978, Beirut Arab University, March 21, 1978. Photo: Claude Lazar.

FOUNDED IN 2010 by Rasha Salti and Kristine Khouri, the Visual Arts Study Group is an initiative dedicated to the study of Arab modernism. One of the group’s first and most significant projects was research into the “International Art Exhibition for Palestine,” a show organized by the Palestinian Liberation Organization and held in Beirut in 1978, during the early years of the Lebanese Civil War. Here, Salti and Khouri talk to Rayya Badran about the results of their research, which are being presented in “Past Disquiet” at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona through June 1.

RASHA SALTI: I learned about the “International Art Exhibition for Palestine” when I discovered its catalogue at Agial Art Gallery in Beirut while I was researching Palestinian poster art. This was around 1993 or 1994. It stuck in my mind, and when Kristine and I began formulating projects for the Visual Arts Study Group, I pulled out a catalogue page I’d photocopied all those years ago and proposed we reconstruct the exhibition’s history.

KRISTINE KHOURI: Importantly, the “International Art Exhibition for Palestine” had a practical purpose. It was conceived by the Plastic Arts Section of the Palestinian Liberation Organization to seed the collection of a future (and still unrealized) institution, an itinerant museum in solidarity with Palestine. The show was organized by Mona Saudi, a Jordanian artist, and showcased two hundred artists from nearly thirty countries: among them, the Spanish artists Joan Miró, Antoni Tàpies, and Joan Rabascall; Julio Le Parc of Argentina; Aref el-Rayess from Lebanon; the Iraqi Dia Azzawi; George Bahgory of Egypt; Ziad Dalloul of Syria; and Mohammed Melehi of Morocco. It opened in the basement hall of the Beirut Arab University, and remained on view for more than a month.

RS: The PLO was headquartered in Beirut from the early 1970s until 1982, so it was the obvious choice as a host city. At the time, Beirut was also an important node in the cartography of the international Left: a number of liberation movements, such as the Basque ETA, found a friendly haven here, and it was home to several Arab and Middle Eastern communist groups (Armenian, Iranian, Pakistani, Turkish, and Kurdish). Given the number of Arab artists in the show, as well as the works selected, the 1978 exhibition in Beirut shares interesting affinities with the two editions of the Arab biennials that took place in Baghdad and in Rabat, Morocco, in 1974 and 1976, respectively.

KK: As we quickly learned, most physical artifacts from the “International Art Exhibition for Palestine” had been lost. In 1982, the Israeli army began to shell Beirut, targeting PLO sites, and the space where the artworks were stored—an apartment rented by the PLO’s Office of Unified Information—was hit. Abdul Hay Mosallam, a Palestinian artist who lived between Beirut and Damascus and was a close friend of Saudi’s, recalls picking up as many of the works as he could and driving them in a pickup truck to Saudi’s house. Saudi left Beirut soon after, and over time, many of the artworks were stolen from her home, although some were held in safekeeping.

Last year, Palestinian artist Nasser Soumi, who was Saudi’s assistant in 1978 when the exhibition was being installed, conducted a survey to account for as many of the remaining pieces as possible.

RS: Given the tragic loss of so many artifacts, oral history became the “raw material” of our research. This, of course, is a Pandora’s box: Each story led us to many others. Over five years, we traveled to a dozen countries, interviewed some fifty people, and compiled a small library of books and publications.

KK: We were able to collect very few original documents, so the materials presented in “Past Disquiet” are mostly printed-out scans and digital photographs. These include pages from catalogues of exhibitions, posters, postcards, photographs, excerpts from newspaper and magazine clippings, books, pamphlets, art publications, and handwritten notes. Another question we had to wrestle with was how to stage our own presence and subjectivity in the exhibition; we did this by including our own voices in the edited videos and audio.

RS: Our use of reproductions echoed the theme of our very first project as the Visual Arts Study Group: an article on an exhibition in Beirut in 1957, “Liban: Aujourd’hui s’ouvre le premier musée imaginaire au monde” (Lebanon: Today the First Imaginary Museum in the World Opens). That show, which was held at the UNESCO Palace and organized by Sursock Museum curator Camille Aboussouan, was inspired by André Malraux’s famous musée imaginaire, or “museum without walls,” and included seven hundred reproductions of masterworks from around the world.

In the end, of course, the history we tell in “Part Disquiet” is only speculative. We offer various versions of the exhibition’s genesis and hope, over time, that more people will come forward with more material, stories, corrections, additions. The benefit of presenting this material in an exhibition space is that it allows for different spatial readings: Just as our history is contingent, there is no “right” way to navigate the show.

KK: The ’70s are not the distant past, yet the universe of the international, anti-imperialist leftist solidarity in which the “International Art Exhibition for Palestine” was embedded seems to have lapsed from memory—it’s not yet part of the art-historical canon. The struggle for Palestine galvanized many artists, as did opposition to the US war in Vietnam, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the United States–backed dictatorships in Chile and Central America. The 1978 Beirut exhibition became a prism through which to look at these movements and the artistic practices affiliated with them. In one of the versions of the exhibition’s press release, we had actually used the verb suturer, because at some level, we were mending tears, ruptures: This idea remains essential to our motivations.

RS: Histories of art in this part of the world have tended to receive a conservative intellectual disposition and theoretical framing. There is, however, an emerging generation of art historians and visual anthropologists whose contributions will mark a turn in how we understand our modern art history. In “Past Disquiet,” we began by unearthing the story of an exhibition for Palestine and ended up with a speculative history of artists that unpacks affinities and real connections between this exhibition and exhibitions taking place across the world. That was unexpected and emancipating—and a pure joy.

—As told to Rayya Badran

Rasha Salti is a curator and writer based in Beirut.

Kristine Khouri is a researcher and writer based in Beirut.