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The International Academy of Art Palestine (IAAP) –
Possible Worlds: The Story of an Art Academy

Text by Tina Sherwell

The notion of ‚Possible Worlds‘ is fitting for considering the ‚International Academy of Art Palestine‘ project in Ramallah. The story of the project began with the establishment of the ‚Palestinian Association of Contemporary of Art, (PACA)‘ in the Second Intifada, (2000). The group of artists and those concerned with forging the way for the future of the arts established the organization in Ramallah. One of its aims was the establishment of an art academy, as at that point, there was no such institution dedicated exclusively to the study of visual art in Palestine. This vision of an art academy inspired a delegation visiting from Norway, who began to lobby their Ministry of Foreign Affairs to support of this initiative, the most instrumental being Henrik Placht, who after several years of lobbying finally achieved the goal, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported the establishment of the academy. In 2006 the academy project opened, taking its first intake of students in 2007.

‚The International Academy of Art Palestine (IAAP)‘, is housed in the Aref al-Aref Building in Ramallah. This historic building was home to the famous historian Aref al-Aref who wrote of the Palestinian Nakba of 1948. It later was home to the first gallery in the West Bank, Gallery 79, which was established by Issam Bader. Though quickly closed down by the Israeli occupation forces, it remained a gathering place for artists in which many discussions and meetings took place during the years of occupation. After the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority it housed the visual arts department of the Ministry of Culture before becoming the premises of ‚the International Academy of Art Palestine‘. Significant renovation work was undertaken on the building, transforming the attic space and basement into studios, and turning the main hall into a white cube space that is now a multi purpose area used for workshops, lectures, screenings and exhibitions.

‚The International Academy of Art Palestine‘ is a new institution in Palestine, which opened its doors to its first students in 2007. The academy specializes in education in the Fine Arts, providing a four-year BA program in Contemporary Visual Art. Our students are drawn from the towns and villages of the West Bank and Jerusalem and from a wide range of backgrounds. They study on scholarships for four years.

“Our vision at the academy is to develop individual creativity, and the artistic practices of our students in a learning environment in which individual teaching is a guiding principle. Our aim is for them to contribute in the future to the development of the creative industries in Palestine and its cultural arena. One of central aims of the academy is having a combination of local and international students and lecturers in which there is strong diversity of experience and knowledge. At the academy we are also working as a creative hub and resource for local and international artists, curators and researchers for the development of the visual arts in Palestine.” ‚The International Academy of Art‘ has taken as its starting point the aim of instituting a contemporary education program and activities informed by the modern context of art practice and art education—in order that its students will be prepared for engaging with the future development of visual culture in their own culture and on the world platform. We have successfully been able to do this through the development of our curriculum and with specialist advice from our partner institution KHiO.

Contemporary art is an important field of creativity that contributes to local society and a global culture in which it is essential for Palestinians to represent themselves individually—outside the dominant political and media discourses. Art is an important vehicle of expression where individuals critically engage with a wide range of issues in many different forms. At ‚IAAP‘ our aim is to provide our students with the opportunity to gain a solid foundation in the mediums and methods of working in the visual arts through our curriculum. At the academy you can find local and international artists and intellectuals engaging our students with contemporary debates and diverse methods of artistic practice. Owing to the histories of occupation in Palestine, the visual arts have had a difficult path of development, particularly in the absence of art schools, academies and funding. Due to these factors there is general a lack of understanding of the important role that art can play in Palestinian society. We believe that art is a powerful intervention tool that raises awareness and develops new knowledge on social and cultural issues. It creates an arena for thought via the visualization of ideas. Cultural expression is an important tool in articulating identities and the academy aims to mobilize this potential in the direction of creative and social development.

‚IAAP’’s work centers upon providing a specialized education in contemporary visual art at BA level that encompasses a broad range of subjects within the field, (from painting to performance), that is underpinned by an understanding of art theory and the important relation between theory and practice. The academy is privileged and distinguished by the fact that local and international artists teach on its program, providing diversity and vitality to the institution and the local creative community. The primary focus of the curriculum is the development of a professional art practice through a multidisciplinary approach. Students study painting, drawing, photography, installation, printmaking, sculpture, video, film, sound and new media; all are part of the four-year program. The most important aspect of the curriculum is the student-centered focus, with teaching methods that include individual and group tutorials, workshops and seminars.

As a cultural space the academy plays an active role in the contemporary culture of Palestine by providing educational art activities such as workshops, seminars, art exhibitions and public lectures that are open to all the community. In addition, it also works on stimulating new art initiatives among the creative community in Palestine through a variety of collaborative projects with regional and international institutions and individuals.

The academy, as is highlighted in its name, intends to be an international institution in more ways than one. It intends for its students to be able to be conversant with international issues in the fields of the arts. It intends to have staff of an international calibre and ‚from‘ the international community teaching at its institution. It also intends to attract students from the region and internationally to study at the academy. Many of these aims are already well underway. The profile of its visiting artists is extensive, representing a broad range of expertise. Visitors who have taught at the academy over the last years include Filipa César, Susanne Bosch, Mona Hatoum, Emily Jacir, Oraib Toukan, Tirdad Zolghadr, Adrienne Goehler, Gertrud Sandquist, Judy Price, Jumana Aboud, Henrik Placht, Radea Sadeeh, Sarah Beddington, Adel Abidin, Michael Rakowitz, Milica Tomic, Vlatka Horvat, Raouf Haj Yahya, Köken Ergun, Sami Zubi, NaoKo TakaHashi, Paul Noble, Solmaz Shahbazi, Coco Fusco, Yazid Anani, Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti.

The academy has also initiated exchange initiatives with different academies across Europe, enabling students to study overseas and also to visit and study in Palestine. Having students from the regional and international community contributes to the diversity of the teaching environment at the academy, and has successfully fostered dialogues between young generations of different cultures and communities.

The video-works on show by the students—in which they contribute to the question of “possible worlds”—shows the rich diversity of practices by the academy’s students, who explore issues related to their context and reality—often taking as their starting point their personal experiences and the wider questions affecting their society and their relationship to the global community. Living in such a politically charged location inevitably reflects on one’s existence and often in one’s work. While our students experience severe restrictions on movement to travel to both near and far locations—needing a permit or visa to go just about anywhere—we aim to bring the world of contemporary practice to them via our visiting artists and curators, and through the diverse program of study at the academy.