Chiara De Cesari, Heritage and the Cultural Struggle for Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2019). 

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Chiara De Cesari (CDC): The seeds for this book were sown in the late 1990s when, as a young student of Middle East Studies, I became involved in museum and heritage work in Syria. I have very vivid memories of a visit to the Deir Ez-Zor museum of antiquities together with a team of European archaeologists and Syrian ministry personnel—a museum later to be shelled in the recent war. I left when I began to question what exactly we were doing there: the blatant denial of heritage’s political nature; the distinctive colonial legacy informing settings, relations, and practices; the paradox, if not outright scandal, of self-declared liberals effectively collaborating with a brutal dictatorship in the name of scientific advancement and popular enlightenment, knowledge, and progress.

Later, I encountered the work of Palestinian cultural organizations, which appeared to hold the promise of a very different cultural politics. Organizations like Riwaq regenerated historic houses for public use and organized artistic activities in and around them. This work differed through the anticolonial politics it enacted (helping Palestinians stay put) but also through the temporality it inhabited: eyes on the future, while embracing the past. That movement held an anticipatory force giving this work of preservation a whole new quality, far off the dustiness of old museums and deeply compromised projects like the Syrian one sketched above. The drawing on the book’s cover, by late artist Hassan Hourani, heading from Hebron’s old city up into the sky, stands for that.

In the contexts I have described above, two different types of heritagized landscape, the archaeological site and the historic neighborhood, and a powerful device, the museum, are mobilized to produce very different kinds of bodies and souls. Many scholars, most prominently Nadia Abu El-Haj, have illuminated the potent connection of these sites (and related knowledge practices) with both colonial and national ideology and state formation—as well as neoliberal urbanism. Zionism, for example, mobilized Biblical archaeology as key tool for refashioning Palestine into Israel and for obscuring its settler-colonial dimension; the cult of antiquities has undergirded the propaganda of many postcolonial nationalist leaders. Historically, state (but also non-state) actors have utilized heritage to rule, govern, dispossess, and eliminate the enemy, most often, and in a way paradoxically, natives.

There is a strong interest in both popular and academic interests in issues of heritage and conflict—Daesh’s destruction of monuments, heritage “in the cross-hairs,” and authoritarian heritage as propaganda. While not denying the role of this scholarship, to which I myself have contributed, I have grown impatient with it. This book and my new project testify to how the Palestinian cultural work I portray tells another, important but often unnoticed story: one of future-making, of worlding by heritage preservation. So, the book explores how Palestinians rearticulate this instrument of colonial state power to resist it—and specifically how Palestinian organizations refashion heritage and global cultural formats into something new, a set of generative experiments. Although I do not use their theory in the book, I now see these rearticulations as akin to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s “fugitive planning” as the fragmentary, improvised arts of an emancipatory cultural governmentality.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

CDC: The book is about urban regeneration enacted as a project of counter-settlement and counter-governmentality, in order to stop colonization and the destruction of the historic lived environment, and make Palestinian cities, villages, and lives more livable. It is also about proliferating museums as particular public spaces where visions of the future are debated and creatively (pre)figured.

The Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC) and Riwaq are good examples. The Israeli army controls Hebron’s old city and, with Israeli settlers, terrorizes its Palestinian population while the Palestinian Authority (PA) cannot enter. Many Palestinians have left. The HRC has run a large urban regeneration project since the 1990s. It has restored many historic buildings and organized public services, allowing Palestinians to stay and stopping the expansion of the settlements. Over the years, the PA not being present, the HRC has taken over many functions of a municipality. It has become a fundamental presence in the life of local people. To protect Palestinian heritage and identity, it has developed a mixed form of governmentality combining the classic instruments of state bureaucracy (maps, surveys, and so on) with more informal logics (organic local knowledge).

In Palestine, it is indeed the case that NGOs and local organizations do the job of a (mostly) absent “state.” Riwaq is an NGO that has worked as the shadow Palestinian ministry of cultural heritage throughout the post-Oslo period. There has been a lot of criticism of NGOs in Palestine and beyond, especially for their role within globalized, donors-driven economies, as conduits of neocolonial rule and interests other than those of constituents. But, especially in the cultural field, Palestinian civil society organizations like Riwaq have constituted true laboratories for resourceful experiments with institutions and the process of “instituting” itself in a context where formal politics have failed people. Palestinian organizations have set up smaller and bigger museums, local heritage management units, heritage-led planning infrastructure, and national biennials. Partnership arrangements between organizations have coalesced into an informal infrastructure of cultural management. This creative institutionalism emerges out of a broader cultural mobilization, of which the so-called Palestinian museum fever is a part: a flowering of the arts that has opened up important spaces for debate and for thinking of a political otherwise.

What is key here is this cross-pollination between heritage, memory, and artistic practices, this swinging movement between past and future, as well as the fundamental tensions between institutions and counter-institutions, governmentality and counter-governmentality. Palestinian organizations do two things at once: “institution-building,” in the language of policy, and “institutional critique,” in the language of art. They do what I call anticipatory representation; they critically (re)present the institutions of the future in the here and now. These tensions and these oscillations give Palestinian experiments a peculiar generative power.

In a way, heritage and culture at large might be said—although it is perhaps a little too early to say this—to harbor a new (cultural) politics, after the failure of formal political structures, parties, and the “state” to produce meaningful assemblies, even a semblance of publics. So, Palestinian cultural organizing poses a number of key questions around radical museology and art, but also issues of government/ality and instituting. Jim Ferguson has argued for developing a “left art of government.” The cultural work that is the subject of the book goes some way in that direction. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

CDC: I hope the book is helpful to people working on the ground as a space of reflection generative of new questions and ideas. I also hope that a broader readership will learn from this seemingly exceptional space, Palestine, and come to see it as an imaginative place to think the future, to plan and rebuild out of the rubble produced by colonialism and the failure of progressive state projects.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

CDC: My current work comes from “Palestine out”—it takes some of the ideas that have emerged from my engagement with Palestine and explores them in a broader context, particularly in Europe where I am now located. One strand of my research attends to struggles over colonial heritage in contemporary museums.

The other concerns the question of instituting in and through culture. Indeed, the problem of state failure and how to reimagine it are central to politics both in the Global South and Global North, where states have been reconfigured, if not partly dismantled, by neoliberal policy. In many places, artistic practices have played an important role in recent protest movements, as artists have conducted a variety of social experiments in the vacuum resulting from such state failure. So, my current project on “Imagining Institutions Otherwise: Art, Politics and State Transformation” focuses on transforming (cultural) institutions and artist-run spaces as producing an institutional otherwise that prefigures the future—also in places like Lebanon, Hungary, and Italy. Can the failure of the state open inroads for artists to reinvent (some of) our organized ways of being together? Can there be “activist statehood,” to use a term by Davina Cooper, and, if so, at what scale? What is a radical, emancipatory institution?

J: What part of the book did you enjoy writing the most? 

CDC: What I enjoyed the most was writing about folklore and museums. If today Palestine’s political heritage lies in the historic houses being restored, in the past it lay in folklore, particularly embroideries, on which preservation once centered. It is a fascinating history. In the 1970s and 1980s folklore preservation became an important site of political mobilization and subjectivation. Folklorists involved have been criticized especially for their essentializing view of Palestinian culture. Nonetheless, in their full embrace of the political and the participatory, in their twin goal of popular education and emancipation, these folklore studies and preservation practices were avant-garde. They can be said to have anticipated participatory practices that are widespread today in heritage (and whose origins tend to be located, wrongly, in the West). Women started producing embroideries as national heritage, and became political subjects, nationalist and resistant, through this labor of preservation; popularizing scientific practices of preservation were part of the process of mass mobilization that then led to the First Intifada. Interestingly, some artists like Jumana Emil Abboud now propose a “return to folklore” and the folkloric imagination to re-enchant the Palestinian landscape as a renewed political tool.


Excerpt from the book (from chapter 4: Palestinian National Museums Post-Oslo, pp.158-162, 189-192)

[In Palestine,] State attempts to create a national museum have thus far proved fraught with difficulties, a symptom of both the PA’ s failure to complete its project of state building under an enduring occupation and its fundamental problem of (political and aesthetic) representation. […]

Yet alternative projects have mushroomed: there is talk of a Palestinian “museum fever” that is gripping the West Bank in particular. […] Many of these museums and exhibition spaces, like older, pre-1993 ones, display collections of folklore objects, but contemporary art initiatives are gaining increasing visibility. These are mostly run by Palestinian artists and cultural producers, not bureaucrats. Several of these Palestinian cultural operators worked for the PA in the 1990s. But with the collapse of the peace process and the shattering of the promise the PA embodied — viable and democratic statehood — they set aside the project of creating large-scale national institutions, at least from within the PA. Instead, they have variously experimented with the format of the national museum — creating virtual museums, museums in exile, nomadic museums, or art installations staging national museums.

Over the years, their scattered initiatives have dovetailed into an emerging, unplanned infrastructure of museums, cultural centers, exhibition and art spaces, biennials, and artist residency programs. Based in the West Bank, this infrastructure extends transnationally, along the routes of a growing Palestinian cultural network encompassing the globe. This emerging infrastructure is virtual in the sense of something “imagined” (a quality like that of works of art) and something “in essence, potentiality, or effect, although not in form or actuality,” imbued with Latin potentia or (imaginative) power, containing the seeds of possible futures within itself. Or rather it is both potentiality, a projected future, and a partial form in the here and now. By creating alternative, critical national institutions, Palestinian cultural producers effectively participate in a form of “experimental statecraft” from without, at the threshold of the state. […]

National museums in Palestine are a “practical impossibility,” as Jack Persekian, a key Palestinian curator, has argued. Museums seem unfeasible and unmanageable under a military occupation. […] Crucially, in Palestine there are hardly any objects to display and no national collection, as objects have been looted and relocated elsewhere. This impossibility, in other words, rests on a fundamental material loss, a lack of being. The majority of movable Palestinian cultural property is in Jerusalem or in Israel, which means out of reach for most Palestinians, or in the collections of international, colonial institutions such as the British Museum. Also, the location of such a museum is in question. As the quintessential sign of the nation, such a museum can be located only in Jerusalem, the Palestinian center of gravity and symbolic capital. However, Israel opposes any kind of Palestinian institutional presence in the city that it has administered since 1967 as its own “eternal and undivided” capital, despite the fact that Jerusalem’ s annexation is against international law and various UN resolutions. […]

Impossibility and failures produce interesting experiments, if not without contradictions. I argue that these creative Palestinian ventures and experimentations with the format of the national museum open up spaces for representing and negotiating the Palestinian state and its attendant institutions; in so doing, they function as productive imaginings of the state-to-come as well as institutions for the here and now. […]

Picasso in Palestine 

In the Dutch Van Abbemuseum, visitors can also admire a painting by Pablo Picasso known as the “Picasso that visited Palestine.” On June 24, 2011, one of modernism’ s key icons, the Buste de Femme (1943) was put on public display in Ramallah for several thousand Palestinians, Israelis, and international visitors who came to a room of the International Art Academy Palestine especially prepared for this extraordinary show. This widely covered event included a speech by then Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad as well as folkloric dances and performances, the object of pride but also derision by inhabitants of the Palestinian cultural capital (“Is there a wedding today?” was the circulating joke). Picasso’ s 1943 portrait of his lover had been loaned to the academy by the Van Abbemuseum and had arrived in Palestine at the end of an “epochal logistical challenge” in the words of its initiator, Khaled Hourani, artist and then academy director, and a long trip from Eindhoven to Ramallah, via a number of checkpoints, which itself received a lot of media attention. The transnational circulation of works of art for public display is standard museum practice, yet this “attempt to realize the ordinary” in museum business clashed against conditions on the ground and especially the exceptional and legally uncertain status of Palestine. It produced an extraordinary journey that marked the social life of the painting and revealed something important about the nature of institutions and institution building in Palestine.

The point of this exhibit, called Picasso in Palestine, was to stage a Palestinian modern art museum — even if a temporary, transient, and miniature one. A story about the beginning of this project, which took at least two years to be realized, indicates both its predicaments and its promise. Reacting to the Van Abbemuseum director’ s proposal to lend the painting to Palestine, the museum’s director of collections in the Netherlands is reported to have gone mad and to have shouted, “You can’t do that! There isn’t a museum [in Palestine], there aren’t the conditions, there isn’t insurance. It’ s ridiculous.” But the lack of a proper museum venue was not the only obstacle. As a nonstate, or not-yet-a-state, Palestine had not signed any of the international agreements and conventions that allow paintings, among other things, to cross international borders and to circulate. Following two years of complex negotiations and inventive solutions, however, Khaled Hourani saw the project come to fruition. Despite the lack of official papers and permits, the van transporting the Picasso arrived in the gray area and nonplace (from the point of view of international cultural property treaties) that is Ramallah.

While revealing a fundamental lack, a legal and institutional void, the initiative was precisely about creating a semblance of such institutionality, evoking and prefiguring a set of institutions to come. For Khaled Hourani, what was needed to dramatically expose and confront the Palestinian institutional lack was a Picasso, as synecdochical representation of modern art and the modern museum institution in itself. When I interviewed him, he emphasized how Picasso in Palestine was first and foremost “about institution building … [about] creating a space and capacity for it [to host the Picasso]” in a place lacking a museum infrastructure, but it was also, simultaneously, about “questioning these institutions, [about] revisiting them.” In other words, the initiative reproduced a modern art museum – like assemblage of objects, sites, and people, and in so doing, it proposed an exercise in imagining what a Palestinian museum could and should be like.

Setting in place a temporary “national museum,” Picasso in Palestine was a performative ritual of nation-statehood. At that time, rumors circulated that the initiative was actually a celebration for Prime Minister Fayyad, who had opened the exhibit with a speech about the successes of the PA in taking care and providing security for the painting. Yet this particular ritual, this “ritual symbolization of nationhood and state power,” differs from the classic ones discussed by Raymond Williams and Jim McGuigan. First, as I have argued before, this ritual is an anticipatory one, in that the state that is the object of representation and celebration is not fully in place yet; it is a work in progress — state power, in this case, has to be produced rather than reproduced. Also, and this is crucial for the argument I have been exploring in this book, the agents of such representation are not state actors but a nongovernmental organization, an international institution and, crucially, artists and cultural producers. Despite Fayyad’ s symbolic presence, the PA did not have much to do with Picasso in Palestine. The project was almost entirely run from the Palestinian side by the Art Academy Palestine, then a (Norwegian-funded) Palestinian NGO. Hourani, another key figure in the Palestinian cultural scene, had previously worked for the PA ministry of culture, and has himself a long family history of militancy within Fatah, but Picasso in Palestine was clearly not a PA project. Or is it so? Hourani’ s life trajectory should be familiar to the readers of this book in that it is similar to those of other Palestinian cultural producers: after a long political militancy mostly in the leftist factions of the PLO, many ended up establishing, post-Oslo, their own NGOs and cultural institutions — often after an unsuccessful stint as bureaucrats of the PA, what some call the “project of our life” that deeply deluded them.

Begun as an art project and a pedagogical experiment, the Art Academy has developed over the years into a fully fledged institution — in fact, the only institution of higher art education in Palestine — soon to be merged as its own faculty with Birzeit University. If the story of the Art Academy tells of the ongoing tensions between criticality and creative experimentation, and institutionalization, as with the Palestinian Museum, the Picasso in Palestine project stands as a symbol and telling tale of the intertwined though distinct, at times clashing, at times competing, at times colluding processes of institutionalization and disaggregated state making in today’s Palestine, one by the PA and one by a transnational, deeply globalized, Palestinian “civil society.” And yet, as a friend and informant once asked me rhetorically: “Did we [NGOs] catch them [PA]? Or did they catch us?”