Two years ago I visited Palestine for the first time when I travelled there as an independent critic with the intention of talking to artists about their work rather than their situation. Obviously one feeds the other, but it soon became clear that real critical discussion around an artwork is rare; what you more often get is whispered reverence for the plight of the person who made it.
My friend Jawad al-Malhi and his wife, artist Tina Sherwell, arranged for a group of artists to bring their work to the Qattan Foundation in Ramallah for me to see. Once I arrived there (after travelling via numerous checkpoints - a terrible amount of time is wasted planning even the most simple short journey), I soon discovered that there are of course real limitations to the critical, practical and educational role of the artistic community: openings, discussions and exchanges are rare, and very localised, as most artists are unable to travel anywhere out of the equivalent of their small city-state.
Some of the artists I met in Ramallah have not even been able to move the small distance into Jerusalem for over five years and, despite the fact that there are some excellent arts organisations in the city, these restrictions do affect and demoralise them. There is a constant battle between the need to show and be proud of what goes on and a compulsion to expose the reality of being under occupation. Some artists seem keen to explain the difficulties while others, perhaps those a little older, talk of change and say that things cannot stay like this forever.
So the "crit" took place around work by artists from a range of practices and backgrounds, from the very traditional painter and potter, through to Emily Jacir, a young artist who is able to travel on her American passport and whose work is currently on show at Modern Art Oxford. Despite an apparent mistrust by some of the more traditional artists for some of the newer video work, the session ended in a positive way.
The next day we gathered together again in a cafe. The artists expressed a range of concerns: one is that there is no art school in Palestine, as such, and few facilities. As a result a new generation of artists is not emerging. In fact, the very notion of visual art is problematic. What on earth would you make art about in Palestine if not the overpowering, all-pervasive situation? But there is also real anger at the inanimate object, the crumbling painting. As Khaled Hourani, a local sculptor, pointed out, "When you are moving your child from the front to the back of the house to avoid it being killed, what do you care about art? …