From Palestine with Art: The US Palestine Museum's journey to Europe

From Palestine with Art: Heritage and struggles through time
6 min read
08 February, 2024

Six years ago, Faisal Saleh envisioned a project and space to celebrate his heritage – after attaining a scholarship in the United States and spending time building businesses and contributing jobs to the US economy, he wanted to give something back to Palestine.

So began the US Palestine Museum in Woodbridge, Connecticut. Since then, the museum has exhibited in Europe, including the Venice Biennale, which it is re-exhibiting this February in London.

The US Palestine Museum launched in the US in 2018 and was the first of its kind in the Americas. Since then, it has exhibited and represented Palestinian artwork at the Venice Biennale and exhibited its curations around Italy. 

In 2022, it showcased From Palestine with Art during the Venice Biennale and its success spurred it to re-exhibit it at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma.

It is now bringing it to London at the P21 Gallery, a London-based space that promotes contemporary Arab art and culture, between February 2-March 2. The New Arab attended the opening. 

"We let them know that we’re here and we’re here to stay… And there is a Palestine. We have dozens of things at the museum confirming that Palestine exists, and it has existed for hundreds of years, including old maps and photographs from 1900"

The exhibit highlights the growing recognition of Palestinian art and culture globally, featuring 20 artists with different styles and mediums of choice.

According to the curator, Saleh, the exhibition aims to foster dialogue, create awareness and promote a deeper understanding of the Palestinian narrative. 

Among those exhibiting include Nabil Anani, considered one of the founders of the contemporary Palestinian art movement whose work invokes Palestinian folklore and pride.

His work in the exhibition includes a three-metre wide by one-metre and 40-centimetre high landscape, the largest he has painted that captures the overlapping hills and trees that dominated Palestine’s land.

Samia Halaby, Venetian Red, 2021, Acrylic on canvas, 177.8x177.8cm [photo credit: Samia Halaby]
Samia Halaby, Venetian Red, 2021, Acrylic on canvas  [photo credit: Samia Halaby]

Also featured will be 87-year-old Samia Halaby who caught recent press attention when her first retrospective in the United States – which took three years to organise – was cancelled by Indiana University because of her criticism of Israel’s bombing of Gaza. 

Halaby is an abstract artist, with her paintings often signified by deep and vibrant colours. Her piece Venetian Red, a seven-inch by seven-inch square painting, is showcased at the P21 exhibition.

The exhibit also includes works from Gaza artist Mohammed Alhaj currently displaced by the war whose displayed work includes a piece called Immigration part of a series called Transition.

Other artists include Sana Farah Bishara, whose feminine sculptures in bronze aim to express the complexity of a woman’s life, split between her work, aspirations, family and soul.

Karim Abu Shakra, Salman Abu Sitta, Ghassan Abu Laban, Ibrahim Alazza, Nabil Anani, Hanan Awad, Samira Badran, Jacqueline Bejani, Susan Bushnaq, Lux Eterna, Nadia Irshaid Gilbert, Rula Halawani, Samar Hussaini, Mohamed Khalil, Rania Matar, Sobhiya Hasan Qais, Nameer Qassim and Taqi Sabatee are also featured, all of the various capabilities with works spanning paintings, sculptures, installations, embroidery and multimedia presentations. 

Sana Farah Bishara, Woman in All Her Moods, Two pieces legs and body, 2021, 44x39
Sana Farah Bishara, Woman in All Her Moods, Two Pieces Legs and Body, 2021, 44x39cm
[photo credit: Sana Farah Bishara]

“Each artist has its own different style. Some of them are simple some of them are complex. So each one tells a different story,” said Saleh, speaking to The New Arab

'There is a Palestine'

Saleh hopes for the exhibition and the US Palestine Museum to reach a global audience and to humanise Palestinians who have been “dehumanised and marginalised by the Western media,” said Saleh.

Both projects have had a two-fold effect, with Palestinian audiences feeling immense emotion walking into a place that’s all about Palestine. “It just enhances their feeling of Palestinian identity,” he says. 

Non-Palestinian audiences have also been impacted, says Saleh, to the point that he believes most of their perspectives have changed and at least an awareness that there is a lot of art being created from the region.

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Even for those not supportive of the Palestinian cause, the museum’s presence is still beneficial, according to Saleh: “We let them know that we’re here and we’re here to stay… And there is a Palestine. We have dozens of things at the museum confirming that Palestine exists, and it has existed for hundreds of years, including old maps and photographs from 1900.” 

His ambition to take Palestinian art to the highest platforms succeeded, as evidenced in 2022 when the museum was one of 31 “Collateral Events” to participate in the 59th annual La Biennale di Venezia – the category allows arts non-profits to hold the major exhibitions at the festival; it couldn’t submit for national participation as Italy does not recognise Palestine as a state.

Saleh recognises that Palestine with Art avoided the political while focusing on the culture and history. Since then, the museum’s contributions have broached the themes of the 75th anniversary of the Nakba and foreigners in their homeland, in line with the Biennale’s overall theme of “foreigners everywhere” last year but the Venice festival has not invited them back.

Nameer Qassim, “Enough†, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 100x100 cm. Photo courtesy Nameer Qassim
Nameer Qassim, Enough, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 100x100 cm
[photo credit: Nameer Qassim]

Why art in Palestine is political

However, themes of catastrophe and occupation are intertwined with Palestine and resistance and art have always been likely bedfellows.

Art is resistance, in the sense that it’s a way to communicate humanity. It’s the way to communicate feelings. It’s a way to say we all belong to the same humanity,” said Jacqueline Berjani, a Luxembourg-based artist who has contributed nine portraits of Palestinian personalities to the exhibition.

“I wanted to show that we have brilliant poets, brilliant thinkers and writers,” said Berajni, saying it is much more than the suffering people see in the media.

“We know the horror but there’s so much determination and hope and beauty,” said Corinna Lotz who attended the opening with fellow Londoner Robbie Griffiths.

Griffiths was particularly struck by the embroidered work, suspended on display as you walk into the space: “When you think that there’s an attempt to wipe out Palestine through its people but also its culture – so to have things like this is very powerful. It’s a representation of people.”

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Saleh says some of the artwork will be for sale, with proceeds going to help artists struggling in Gaza and the West Bank under the current situation. However, it is hoped that visitors will at least come away from the exhibition with a different perspective.

“I hope people will realise that the production, the thinkers, the Palestinians are so rich and interesting that they will go further and try to read their books, to see their paintings, to hear their music,” said Berjani, “and that they will that they will go a little farther and try to discover that it is a very rich and unique culture.”

Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights, particularly across the Middle East.

Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram