An artistic 'road map' to progress
In a Palestinian art show in Houston, some see a promise beyond pictures
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Getting the art - and artists - out of the region and to the museum, The Station, was no small task. Two museum staff members were detained trying to enter the occupied territories - and explanations of who they were and what they were after weren't convincing. "You should have seen us trying to introduce ourselves to the artists," says James Harithas, former director of Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum and now the Station's director. " 'Hi. We're from Houston, Texas, and we want to put on a big show.' We had to really make our case."Skip to next paragraph
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Back in the US, there was one roadblock after another, from transportation of the art to obtaining travel visas for the artists. In the end, only 10 artists received visas and made it to the opening - an event with its own suspense.
"We didn't have the faintest idea if anybody would show up," says Mr. Harithas, who often raises eyebrows around town for his avant-garde, even shocking shows. One exhibit, "Secret Wars," explored artistic dissent to covert operations and government secrets a week after 9/11. That prompted an FBI visit for perceived "un-American activity."
Though he's no stranger to controversy, there's been surprisingly little reaction to - or, indeed, awareness of - the Palestinian show. "It's not been a hotbed of conversation within the Jewish community here," says Barbara Raynor, with the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston. "In fact, no one really knows about it."
It has, however, garnered attention from the Arab-American community. On opening night, the museum was packed a half hour before the doors were set to open. Arab-Americans, many of whom had never set foot in a museum, arrived two hours early with their kids in tow.
Houston is not such an unlikely place for the first Palestinian art exhibit in the US, though locals may not know it. The city has both a world-renowned art scene and a large, professional Arab-American community - about 65,000 strong. And while not the Arab mecca away from home that Detroit is, Houston is quietly emerging as a center of Arab understanding in America.
"It's very important to let the message out that Palestinians ... have a message to deliver about feelings, about love, about tension, about distress, and about the yearning for liberty," says George Zaiback, president of the American Federation of Ramallah, Palestine, and a Houston optometrist.
Since the exhibit's opening, Arab-American groups from around the country, including those in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, have asked about bringing the exhibit to their city.
Artist Tyseer Barakat says he's delighted, and a little surprised. As he talks, he stands next to his 1997 work entitled, "Father," a massive wooden filing cabinet that used to belong to the Israeli military. On the bottom of each drawer, he has burned the tale of his father's sad journey. Visitors may open each drawer to find a different scene, including his stay at a refugee camp and his toil in the fields. Mr. Barakat says he hopes the exhibit will add to visitors' understanding.
"One thing I appreciate very much about the American people," he says, "is that if they know, they act."