Conflicts of a fictive future
Wafa Hourani (guest artist at Villa Romana 2009) in talk with Angelika Stepken.
You studied film in Tunisia, then you worked on the relationship between photography and real objects (Photo-Life, 2006) and finally you created the installations Future Cities in the last couple of years. Why did your path take you from technical visual media back to three-dimensional work with space?
In fact, I started with photography at the age of thirteen. My brother is a photographer and had a small commercial studio with a printing machine in Hebron. I always used to go and work there after school, until I was about 16 or 17 years old. Then I went to Tunisia and studied cinema. I was interested in stories, novels and motion pictures and not so much in the technical aspects of film. When I then returned to Palestine, I was very eager to make feature films. But it was the time that the Second Intifada broke out and so I began to film what was happening in the streets. These were strong images that were spontaneously filmed. I worked rather like a video artist, playing music with the shots in order to alter their reality and open up a cinematographic dimension.
So at that time you began to fictionalize everyday life. Up to now that has been a fundamental technique in your works: providing access to the actual living conditions and conflicts of a fictitious future.
I like science fiction. But my works have not only been characterised by how I could film Palestine differently in this difficult situation, but also by, how can people outside of Palestine understand the pictures and act towards them.
Do you understand art as a medium of communication?
In a way, yes. The first city of the future Qalandia 2067 developed from the project One image is not enough, to understand the complexity of conditions in Palestine. That is why I decided to build this refugee camp and the wall and put sounds in the houses and the checkpoint for visitors to pass. I feel responsibility towards my people. I understand the various layers, the details, also the hope for a better future when they look into the mirror. Palestine's only chance is a cultural and educational movement, and uniting with the world by means of this cultural movement.
You say that Palestine has been determined by outside factors for decades. You yourself even went to study in Tunisia. Under what conditions does visual production function within Palestine?
You see many cameras in Palestine, but they belong to journalists. That is why cinema is so important to me. Palestinians are accustomed to seeing images as news, and producing images as part of their resistance. There is some film industry, the classical generation of filmmakers and the young generation between documentation, fiction and video art. Most young Palestinian artists work with fast digital formats.
How does the new academy of art in Ramallah work?
This academy has actually existed only since two years. There are great hopes attached to it and it receives a lot of input from the outside: artists and professors went there and gave lectures. Of course, everything happens very fast, it is a very contemporary academy. This energy of rapid change can also be perceived in students.
During this time of rapid visual transition, you yourself created an archive of children's drawings. Is there a connection there?
It is important to get children motivated about art. They are the artists of tomorrow. The Palestinian Children's Gallery is a space where children can show their drawings and connect with other children and see other art works. It is open to children from all over the world, not just the Palestinians. Also I work on organizing exhibitions in Palestine and abroad. This archive is important for research about the younger generation, for anyone who wants to help and work for these children. I decided not to give up, even though the conflicts are very large and there is much work to be done. One person or one work of art cannot accomplish it, a movement is needed, many people, who think on a long-term basis. Such projects need time.
In your film Yousef (2005), children and young people can be seen, whose playing is street fighting against Israeli soldiers. The film is very multilayered; among other things it shows the extent to which the children follow this Palestinian super guy …
Yes, all of them want to become like Yousef and see themselves printed on posters one day. They all run away, Yousef remains where he is. It is like a game and they want to be heroes. A sad game.
You have your roots in Palestine and feel a responsibility there. On the other hand you are a guest at the biennales in Taiwan, Berlin and Istanbul or in the Saatchi Gallery in London. Therefore, you work in an international art business, which only has a limited amount to do with the principle of hope. How do you deal with these two main pillars?
I concentrate on what I do to the Palestinians. A work, which is rather a movement. I like one artwork, one idea, but I would prefer even more to create connections with these works of art, stir up an art movement in Palestine. Outside of Palestine I am a Palestinian artist, who works politically. That is an aspect that is attractive for galleries and biennales. But not all my art refers to the political situation in the Middle-East. There are works which deal with London or Greece in the future and others which are simply human.
This experience was of course also true for example of the first generation of Turkish artists on the international scene: people wanted to see political resistance artists…
When artist become famous they can exhibit anything… But also in Palestine it is easier to deal with political topics.
You are currently preparing a new complex of works. Are the Future Cities completed?
In the new works that follow Future Cities I return to the Palestinian archive and try to take it to life again, which gives hope. I want to show the hidden pictures of the first Intifada 1987 and the difference between the two Intifadas, when Palestinians did not use rifles but stones. There will be a group of 20-25 sculptures, men and women, set like a cinematic scene: stone throwers in various positions. Throwing stones as martial art of Palestine, like Karate and Kung Fu. During these weeks I am working on the text, which will be published in a small book together with the installation. It will explain the different positions of the stones throwers and their tools, how to move the body for each position, how to cover the face… It describes the different stages of perfecting this martial art. It is of course sci-fi. I invent all these positions as well as their names. Also there are also true short stories about the first Intifada, stories that I heard from friends or that I experienced myself.
Can these new works be seen at the next biennales?
No, nothing has been decided yet on that matter. I am producing the work and I will exhibit it next year in Palestine.
Final question: You have now spent almost two months at Villa Romana in Florence. Last year you were a resident at the Delfina studios in London. What does this change of environment mean for you?
I believe in direct contact with people and not just through media and Internet, in meeting people and work with them. Then new bridges are built between me and the world, new stories, new life. I like to learn and to open myself not only within the Palestinian conditions. I love Villa Romana and my time here. Artists also need breaks. I have a high opinion of the program because it does not oblige artists to produce new artwork. The space here helped me to write the texts for the new artwork and to look at the project from outside.