Choosing creativity over confrontation
In a wide-ranging interview, the entrepreneur Faisal Saleh, Chairman of the Board and Executive Director of the Palestine Museum US, explains why the arts are his preferred way of telling the Palestinian story
What were you hoping to achieve by setting up the Palestine Museum US?
I’d long been aware that Palestinian art and culture had almost non-existent visibility in the Western world and wanted to do something to fill this vacuum, but was only able to think how to do so once I stepped back from my businesses and had more free time to think and act. Palestine is at serious risk of losing its cultural heritage and national identity – the assault has, in fact, been under way for decades. I felt that a museum could provide an effective but positive way of counteracting the winds of propaganda that we face, while helping to tell the Palestine story through the arts and culture, and championing the achievements of its people.
Why do you think it took until 2018 for a museum showcasing Palestinian art and culture to open in the West?
Museums make for expensive projects, with the physical space the costliest part, so resources are undoubtedly a key factor. That said, there are also sensitivity issues relating to the idea, which I think has unfortunately deterred some of the wealthy diaspora from taking on such a project or contributing to one. We as a family were fortunate enough to already own a modern, spacious building that we could use. Having 8000 square feet of space means we can accommodate good-size audiences for live performances and screenings. Equally importantly, because we own the building, we can make decisions about which events we want to hold without concerns about external pressures. The exhibition of drawings by traumatised children from Gaza, created in a therapy programme set up in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead (2008/9), is one example. We decided to show them, even though other organisations shied away from doing so, and some now feature in our permanent exhibition.
What has been the reaction of visitors and audiences?
Our audiences tend to fall into two groups: half have Palestinian roots or are from Arab-friendly countries, while the others are mostly Americans, including a significant portion of Jewish visitors, from the north-east of the US. Interestingly, when visitors from a local Jewish temple were asked by their group leader at the end of the tour whether there was anything in the museum that made them feel uncomfortable, they mentioned the Gaza children’s drawings. We know they have a very powerful impact, I think in part because they’re very graphic. People come in and immediately think no child should ever have had to witness those scenes and parents also think of their own children – it’s impossible not to. But I wouldn’t go as far as to describe these as negative reactions; if anything, they reaffirm my belief that art is the best way to convey ideas to people peacefully and without confrontation.
Has it been difficult to adhere to a non-religious and non-political posture, which was a key component of the launch plan?
We don’t want religion to be an issue in our exhibitions so while a church might feature in a work, it will be presented from a historical or national perspective, for example, rather than a religious one. Admittedly, the political side is more complicated, since artists understandably want freedom to convey their ideas in their work and we’re very aware that art can’t live in a vacuum. We always return to our original aim when making decisions, which is to tell the Palestine story and raise awareness about its identity with a wider audience. There are no slogans or Palestinian flags in the museum, since we feel they could be a distraction, but you’ll see the colours in our logo and in work shown, such as the portraits by the Luxembourg-based Palestinian artist Jacqueline Bejjani. We don’t shy away from addressing the huge challenges Palestinians face either – the speakers we host as part of our programmes are very vocal on topical and sensitive issues - we just prefer for them to be raised through art and culture.
The museum’s output has been rich in diversity. What has been the highlight to date for you personally?
There have been several glorious events, one of which was undoubtedly hosting the soprano Mariam Tamari and pianist Fadi Deeb for three, inter-city sell-out concerts. Just before lockdown, on March 8, 2020, we also marked National Women’s Day with a powerful and thought-provoking exhibition of 200 works by 50 Palestinian women artists. Our Zoom interview with the New York-based abstract artist Samia Halaby and book launch with Sami Tamimi, a leading Palestinian chef living in London, were also fantastic since they enabled us to reach huge audiences in over 30 countries.
Covid-19 arrived not long after you opened. How did you adapt to the challenges that the pandemic brought with it?
We quickly decided to approach the pandemic as an opportunity rather than a challenge. It was already evident pre-Covid that online communication was reaching new heights and we felt we could extend our reach globally by taking advantage of that. Doing so has been a tremendous realisation and even though we’ve quickly reorientated to continue showcasing art physically, there’s no doubt that the online elements are here to stay.
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
We’re busy preparing our annual Palestine Art Week which will start this year on May 15, after Ramadan, with a special Nakba day. We plan to hold between 30 and 40 events and activities over seven days and across our seven pillars, which are: visual arts; textiles and embroidery; music; film; theatre; literature; and cooking. Everything will be online, enabling us to reach a truly global audience. In some ways, this current approach dovetails well with our story and accurately reflects the situation in Palestine, since it is, after all, a virtual country, but one with physical land and an ability to rise above the challenges it faces to exist on the world stage in a virtual space.