Jerusalem24 – Amir Elkadi – “I look for controversy,” Ahmad Aqra, curator at The Palestine Museum in Birzeit, tells Jerusalem24. “I really like to unveil the contradictions in history and ourselves.”
Controversy might not be the first word one associates with being a curator. But for Aqra, it takes on a special meaning in his field of practice – especially here in Palestine.
“I mean, we live in a place that is very rich and complex in history. So to me, controversy is a like a door to get the visitors engaged, and shock them.”
So what does a curator do?
One of the key responsibilities of a curator is acquiring new pieces to add to a collection. This involves researching and identifying valuable or relevant items, and negotiating with collectors or donors to bring them into the collection.
But a curator’s role extends beyond preserving and showcasing valuable collections of art, Aqra tells us. A curator must also convey the concept and vision behind an exhibition. When visitors come to see the exhibit, it is the curator’s job to guide them through the story being told.
“We kind of narrate the stories through exhibits,” he explains. “We have a theme for an exhibition and undergo research to understand the different topics that we want to tackle, and then we start to collect the material we want.”
Aqra is clearly enamored with his profession. When you enter the art world, he says, your social circle, professional network, and daily life become centered around art. You will constantly be in the company of “people who speak, live and share art all the time.”
He describes a curator’s life as “an ongoing exhibition” full of opportunities to meet artists and learn from them on a daily basis.
“Your life shifts and positions itself in that way where you are surrounded by a flux of information.”
“Our practices stem from our daily life”
Despite these opportunities for artistic flight, being a curator or an art creator is very dependent on funding, as well as those funders’ policies and restrictions, Aqra explains.
“Sometimes we are very limited in our narrative because the fund dictates us to have a certain kind of narrative,” he says. “All their policies influence the structure and the content of our art, since most artists in Palestine depend on this funding.”
“Particularly in Palestine, we are still developing the infrastructure for the world of art,” Aqra adds.“I know that art has been existing here for years, but the infrastructure of modern and contemporary arts means exhibits and museums – and this means finding sources to incubate, support, and sustain this infrastructure. It’s challenging.”
And Aqra believes the donors’ priorities for a particular funding cycle influence more than just the artists’ work, extending also to their cultural practices and their direct connection to their artform.
“For me, art, culture and cultural practices are very related to the context they emerge from,” Aqra explains. “Otherwise, I believe that we fall in the objectification of our culture – which we don’t want to, because for us as a people still under occupation we seek liberation of the land and the self. So I believe that our cultural practices should stem from our daily life.”
Living, breathing cultural practices
Aqra is not alone in viewing Palestinian art and culture as a daily practice rather than an actual, tangible work of art.
“I don’t really believe there is a [single] highlight of Palestinian culture, practices or art,” he muses. “I think they all have very unique context.”
And this particularity sets Palestinian artists apart from their western contemporaries – who, says Aqra, have “mummified” their own living, breathing cultural practices. “We don’t want to fall in this dangerous place like Europe and the Western world, where they have all their culture in museums. We still practice it in our daily life, and we should keep doing so.”
And what might a Palestinian art curator respond to proponents of the narrative that the Palestinians are an “invented people” with “no culture or history of their own”?
“Good for them, maybe?”
Aqra does agree – and thinks the wider community does too – that any form of cultural production Palestinians engage in is going to be reactionary to the Israeli occupation by default.
Where people live their life defying oppression, he explains, they make art from the simplest day-to-day practices.
“Our practices stem from our daily life and from our continuity in the land where we connect with each other – outside of what the oppressing Israeli regime tries to enforce on us. We deal with them in our own ways, and not in ways that they want us to.”
Listen to the full interview on Vibes.