The Palestinian architect and researcher Nadi Abusaada spent five years tracking down artwork and artefacts from the historic Arab Exhibitions held at Jerusalem’s Palace Hotel in the 1930s to stop these materials from being lost forever.
The Ramallah event’s simple sounding title is a reference to the historical events it explores, the two Arab Exhibitions, also called titled “Al-Ma‘rad,” that were held in Jerusalem in 1933 and 1934.
The 1930s exhibitions primarily celebrated Arab agricultural and industrial achievements, but also exhibited arts and crafts.
The new exhibition in Ramallah showcased oil paintings and embroidered works by top Arab artists whose work was part of the 1930s events. Architectural artefacts from the Palace Hotel were also on display.
“The exhibitions I explored in my study represent important events in Palestine’s modern history. They emphasised the role of the city of Jerusalem, and Palestine in general, in the Arab world’s cultural and economic renaissance at the time.”Nadi Abusaada, a Palestinian architect and scholar.
The exhibition brought back names, features, and artwork from that historic era, when several Arab countries were under British or French mandates.
Abusaada studied the Jerusalem exhibitions while doing wider research for his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. He found that the exhibitions brought industries and crafts from all over the Arab world to Palestine. He wrote about his findings in the “Jerusalem Quarterly,” a journal dedicated to scholarly works about the city of Jerusalem.
“The exhibitions I explored in my study represent important events in Palestine’s modern history,” he told Al-Fanar Media. “They emphasized the role of the city of Jerusalem, and Palestine in general, in the Arab world’s cultural and economic renaissance at the time.”
A Journey into History
Abusaada described curating the Ramallah exhibition as a journey of another kind. The exhibition, which ran from August 10 to November 30, included documents, art and crafts from that the earlier exhibitions, which Abusaada pulled together from archives and collections around the world. Elements from the Palace Hotel included restaurant utensils and the remains of decorative stones from a fountain.
The Palace Hotel was built in 1929 by Turkish architects Ahmet Kemaledin and Mehmed Nehad on the orders of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during the British Mandate. It operated as a hotel for only six years, including the period of the Arab Exhibitions, before closing in 1935 for financial reasons. It was later owned by the British and then Israel, according to documents displayed in Abusaada’s exhibition. It was finally restored as a luxury hotel in the new Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem, which opened in 2014.
In his doctoral dissertation, Abusaada explored urban planning and governance in Palestine during the late Ottoman era and the British Mandate. Since completing his Ph.D., he has worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the United States. He also co-founded “Arab Urbanism,” a magazine dedicated to studying historical and contemporary urban issues in the Arab world.
For the Ramallah exhibition, Abusaada obtained rare works and materials from archives in Palestine and abroad, specifically in London, Paris, and New York. He also managed to get hold of the original paintings and artworks with help from scholars and experts like George Al’Ama and Amjad Ghannam, and local institutions such as the Bank of Palestine, the Antonine Society in Bethlehem, the Tuqan Soap Factory, among others.
Colonialism’s Distorting Effect
Luzan Munayer, an architecture scholar from Jerusalem, designed the recent exhibition at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center. She called the event “an attempt to open a window of research and knowledge about the city’s history, which colonialism has always sought to distort and fragment, in a way that serves its interests and imposes its illegitimate hegemony.”
“The biggest motive behind my designing the exhibition is my belief in the importance of research, and the passion to transform this research material, including artwork, crafts, and archival historical materials, into paintings that are easy to view and interact with.”Luzan Munayer, an architectural scholar.
In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Munayer said: “This exhibition played a double role in reviving a network of lines, each of which has enriched and strengthened Jerusalem’s role in the local and regional cultural and economic renaissance, while making it available to an audience of diverse cultures, languages, backgrounds, and ages.”
She added: “The biggest motive behind my designing the exhibition is my belief in the importance of research, and the passion to transform this research material, including artwork, crafts, and archival historical materials, into paintings that are easy to view and interact with.”
Art Foundation’s Support
The exhibition in Ramallah was held with the support of the Barjeel Art Foundation. Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, an Emirati researcher and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, told Al-Fanar Media, that it was in the interest of the foundation to support exhibitions that focus on the modern history of the Arab world and the region’s art, modern architecture, and social history.
Al-Qassemi said the exhibition was important because it “shed light on an era when Jerusalem was the Arab world’s cultural and commercial capital before the creation of Israel on the Palestinian territories, and the attempts to erase the Arab identity of this important Arab capital.”
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