Picasso in Palestine for the Very First Time: An Interview with Khaled Hourani

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Picasso in PalestineAll photos courtesy of the Van Abbemuseum

This summer, for the first time, an original painting by Pablo Picasso was exhibited  in the West Bank city of Ramallah. What’s the big deal, right? Museums and galleries loan each other works of art all the time. But in Israel and the West Bank, where politics, borders, and security concerns rule the day, organizing a public exhibition of Picasso’s $7.1 million "Buste de Femme" turned out to be no easy feat. Who would insure the painting? How could its physical security be guaranteed? How would it be transported across military checkpoints?

For the last two years, Khaled Hourani has been doggedly figuring out answers to those questions together with the Van Abbemuseum in Holland. Hourani is arts director at the International Academy of Art Palestine (IAAP) in Ramallah where the “Buste de Femme” was on display. The Van Abbemuseum holds Picasso’s painting in its collection. Theirs is a story of a cross-cultural team triumphing over bureaucratic hurdles.

The Van Abbemuseum sent us over one hundred pictures documenting the painting’s careful voyage from Holland to Ramallah. The photographs tell their own story with the “Buste de Femme” as a silent, cipher-like protagonist. The painting is a magnet for attention and inspection and yet it also seems a little lonely and plaintive as it winds its way through customs and checkpoints into the IAAP’s exhibition room.

We reached out to Hourani to learn why he wanted to exhibit a single Picasso painting in Ramallah, and how the experience of working on this project affected him personally. Here’s his answers to my questions via email:

Picasso in PalestineStaff at the Van Abbemuseum in Holland prepare the “Buste de Femme” for its journey to Ramallah. (photo: Perry van Duijnhoven)

Why Picasso?
There are several reasons for this choice. The students of the Art Academy were at the center of the selection process from its early stages. The students voted in full consensus for Picasso as an artist and for the chosen painting in particular.

The Academy conducted a thorough research in Palestine about “who is the most popular international artist in our region?” The answer was Picasso. I recall asking my mother about the most well-known artist or painting she favored. Her answer was Picasso as an artist, and “Mona Lisa” as her favorite painting.

I had other personal reasons for selecting Picasso. His name was carved in the memory of my childhood in the early stages of my upbringing. When I was a child and used to paint, my teachers nicknamed me “Picasso.” Later in my life, when I started working, the name Picasso accompanied me. In our culture it is very popular to give a nickname to someone after a well-known figure; and, for me, Picasso became my nickname.

Picasso in PalestinePalestinian guards pose in front of Picasso’s “Buste de Femme” while on display in Ramallah at the International Academy of Art Palestine.

Picasso is similar to a myth, and his works are iconic in our culture. I remember we had a neighbor in Hebron called Abu-Talab. He had Picasso’s features. I discovered this one day after I read an interview in the Egyptian Crescent magazine that showed Picasso’s illustrated picture.

Most important is the fact that Picasso represents for us, and for the international world, the most celebrated contemporary artist. He’s renowned for his works, which demonstrate messages such as freedom and resistance to oppression and wars.

Picasso in Palestine

Why did the students choose this painting in particular?
We had several discussions and there was another Picasso painting that the students considered. It was a portrait of a woman painted in 1912. Finally, we all selected “Buste de Femme” as it carries an important historical meaning.

Picasso painted this portrait in 1943. The discussion with the students highlighted many important aspects about this painting, including its importance for how art represents a woman in an era of war. This idea raised issues about how, in Palestinian art, the Palestinian woman symbolizes identity, land, and the homeland and vice-versa. Finally, we conceived that this painting is important as it draws upon Picasso’s unique art style of cubism which adds more value to this painting as well as its beauty.

Why exhibit a single painting?
The route and the method of bringing Picasso’s painting to Palestine to be displayed in front of public audience is a major part of this project. Perhaps this symbolic meaning would have been lost if the project was about bringing more than one painting.

We have perceived that the goal of this art project is living its various stages and confronting the obstacles to make the achievement of bringing one single Picasso painting to arrive safe and sound in Palestine. The goal is not merely obtaining an art project but living the art project as an art practice.

Picasso in PalestineThe “Buste de Femme” is ushered through the cargo area at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands on its way to Tel Aviv and then Ramallah.

Picasso in PalestineA van carries the “Buste de Femme” through a checkpoint in Kalandia en route to Ramallah.

It is true that generally people are stuck with the belief “the more, the merrier” or that “bigger and more” is celebrated and appreciated more than “smaller and less.” The goal of this art project was to create from our small academy of contemporary arts a small museum that is able to celebrate and host a great artist and one of his greatest art works. We decided to celebrate with less in terms of numbers but more in terms of value, content, and meaning.

Picasso in PalestineJournalists vie to view the “Buste de Femme.”

Several important paintings deserve a unique solo presentation without being presented in relation to any other works. It is in this context that one major piece of Picasso’s work arrived for the first time to Palestine. I believe one portrait is enough to demonstrate Picasso’s style of work as a contemporary art practice.

This presentation of Picasso’s painting is an outcome of an agreement between the Art Academy and Van Abbemuseum in Holland to lend Palestine this painting. Thus, here we have Picasso becoming an art practice of a grand meaning arriving from powerful Europe to Palestine, a small country living under military occupation.

Picasso in Palestine(l to r) Fatima Abdul Karim and Khaled Hourani from the Academy in Ramallah pose together with Bettine Verkuijlen and Louis Baltussen from the Van Abbemuseum. They are standing in front of the box that was used to transport the “Buste de Femme” from the the Van Abbemuseum in the Holland to Ramallah.

What were some of the other paintings and artists the students considered?
We have a comprehensive academic program here in contemporary visual arts. We considered exhibiting video works or contemporary installations, which I can’t recall in specific detail. There were some suggestions to exhibit a Dutch artist’s work rather than a Spanish artist’s work coming from Holland, such as Van Gogh or Rembrandt, but we decided finally, through voting, that Picasso was our first choice.

Picasso in Palestine
People wait on line to see the “Picasso in Palestine” exhibit.

What does it mean to you personally as an artist, a curator, and an individual to have “Buste De Femme” exhibited in Ramallah?
On a personal level, it has been a very tough journey and project in its different stages. It consumed quite a long time and had its effects on my family life. It took two full years of working on this project to make it happen. On another level, I am proud and delighted to exhibit the painting for the first time in Palestine. It is a big dream that came true despite of all the hardships and challenges and now the result has trumped everything.

I am very grateful that the Academy is receiving good feedback in the media and from official levels. This project surfaces many questions, such as the importance of establishing a museum in Palestine, in creating a space for art to nourish and develop — also questioning the role of the artist in this era and in a country living in political conditions like Palestine.

Picasso in PalestineA traditional Palestinian wedding march is performed to mark the opening of Picasso in Palestine.

The fact that this project brought in a lot of ideas, questions, impressions, and challenges made it a learning process and a great experience for all those who participated in its different stages. The unique political conditions of Palestine made this experience more of an adventure where we really had to take risks and create a safe hosting environment for Picasso’s painting. We’re going to release a book and a film later to document and share this experience on a wider level.

This project brought in a lot of reasonable concerns about the possibility of actually achieving our goal, but it also brought a lot of insight and pleasure for all of us.

I have invested all my time, efforts, networks for achieving this goal, and I am glad to have this dream come true in Palestine.

Picasso in PalestineThe “Buste de Femme” is covered up during the exhibition’s quiet hours.

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