Renegade Education: A Conversation with Khaled Hourani

Author ········· Danah Abdulla
Published ······ Online, Apr 2014

Section ·······  Art & Design

On a brief visit from Glasgow (where a retrospective of his work is on until 18 May 2014 at the Centre for Contemporary Arts) to speak about his work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Khaled Hourani was swarmed with questions about none other than his Picasso in Palestine (2011) project. The Picasso project, like much of Hourani’s other works, highlights - through humour - the absurdities of living in Palestine. Fortunately for Khaled, my interest was all about the International Academy of Art in Palestine (IAAP), an academy which he co-founded. IAAP began as an art project by independent artists - a tour around different Palestinian cities with one laptop and official stationery before becoming a physical space. I sat down with the Ramallah-based artist to discuss IAAP and design education (or the absence of).

DA | I’m particularly interested in finding out more about IAAP, the importance of such an initiative, what people’s reactions have been, what the impact has been, and what the foreseeable impact is going to be. I also noticed that IAAP does not have any design courses, and I was wondering if that’s something you’re looking into?

KH | I will start with the design issue, recently there was an art project by IAAP called Disarming Design from Palestine. The project [began] about two years ago where we had a lot of workshops [that brought] artists, designers, and handcrafts together for 10 days. We tried to find a bridge between materials, design, and marketing. The idea was to revisit design in a conflict zone, we’re not China you know! You know the whole story behind the handicrafts in Hebron, Nablus…we try to bring them together - art students, designers and such. It was a joint project with the Sandberg Instituut in the Netherlands - a university for design and architecture in Amsterdam. We once did a project with them called Subjective Atlas of Palestine.

Currently we only have Contemporary Visual Art as a BA programme at IAAP. We were thinking of introducing design and filmmaking to the curriculum, inviting designers like you for example, to build up a curriculum, strategy, the plans and such. It isn’t necessary for there to be a common link between visual art, contemporary art, [and] the same [goes] with filmmaking, we were thinking of expanding this in the curriculum - to give students the platform to start their own film school, to become filmmakers, directors, etc. It was part of a strategy of [creating] a lobby for artists and art academies. If more than one faculty needs space or funds, we can all provide and support the other faculties. This was the intended vision of IAAP. There’s a lot of publications about Disarming Design and exhibitions that you can find online. However, it’s not quite clear where the project will go, [since] the last workshop was three months ago. I think design as a speciality is desperately needed because it is a very artistic practice. If we consider the conflict zone as a space where we can create, it will surpass all the technical stuff, and focus more on the concepts, more about the needs and use of design in general.

DA | What have the reactions been so far, how necessary is an institution like this in Palestine?

KH | The institution itself it started as voluntary initiative by independent artists and not by any governmental body. As artists we still believe in the necessity of having such an institution: to convince the authorities to follow the strategy, to provide funding to culture, arts…something we still don’t have in Palestine.  In any case, IAAP has no issues in terms of enrollment. There are always students at the Academy, and I think the need [for such a school] is clear. In fact, it’s more of a research issue at IAAP - we constantly research the wants and needs of our students. We conducted some research in terms of design for example. The students are most interested in design above all. We were thinking of adding aspects of design to the visual art and contemporary art courses. The design workshops are the most attended, and students think of design as more of a practical discipline. They can study design and be a designer, and be an artist through being a designer. We [also] did some production through Disarming Design - keffiyeh’s and other products in an alternative way.

DA | What struck me as very interesting is that your practice is not only very grounded in the local elements but also in the social elements. And now that design is moving into that space where, because we’re always seen as people who do things for commercial purposes because essentially it’s what pays the bills, etc. More people are interested in different topics that relate to social issues within design and I think in particular in the Arab region, design education and art education is unfortunately structured in a way that it admits the students who didn’t get the grades to get into other programmes during the matriculation exams. Universities don’t look at how design can sort of influence other ideas, it’s just very commercial - advertising and such, but I think that would be very interesting within a place like IAAP because it’s an independent institution. What is your procedure for accepting students?

KH | Every year we announce the programme and its deadlines in newspapers, on TV, and online. We then have an application process for students. The IAAP committee meets and shortlists 24 students, [who are invited] to attend a workshop for about a week. We hold interviews with the students and then choose 10. It’s important to note that the students choose us too, it works both ways. The workshop is an important event in the procedure because we get to know each other and understand each other’s dynamics, styles and potentials.

DA | Tell me more about Disarming Design.

KH | I actually saw something at an exhibition in Belgium just before coming here [which] was showing some products from the [Disarming Design] workshops. There was a particular one that struck me made by a woman who crafted these long scarves with pictures of Bethlehem, Tulkarem, and other towns. She had printed these landscapes, houses, and natural motifs and the effect is quite nice. The things we came up with were very simple. The workshops are both for students and local artists. We also have a lot of students  from the Sandberg Instituut who work together with the students back in Ramallah, and they produce collaboratively – coins, scarves, clothes. We [even] made a giraffe! We were inspired by a story that a German artist actually told us. It’s about a giraffe in the Qalqilya zoo. Have you heard about it?

DA | No.

KH | It was about a male giraffe that died from being exposed to tear gas during the imposed curfew. The female giraffe died soon after from depression. The giraffes were the star attraction at the zoo. The zoo decided not to bury [the giraffe], [but] instead they stuffed it and left it out for show so that people could still come and technically see the giraffe. So the German artist found out about it, and I was helping out on his project at the time so we took the story from him and created dolls of the zoo animals using Olive tree bark! Other items we made through Disarming Design include jackets, blouses, trousers, keffiyehs, and from the keffiyeh [students] made shirts. But these are all prototypes [and] not meant for mass production.

DA | What other materials have been used?

KH | We made stuff from olive tree leaves, and stone [from the Wall]. These are all 100 per cent locally crafted, and that was the main idea behind it anyways. With the shoes, we worked with local shoe designers in Ramallah and the students sat with the workers so that they could learn the logistics behind their creations. This other student made a design on the eye covers, you know the ones you use on airplanes. [Another student] made a shower curtain that looks like the Wall. I also made one  – an ashtray designed after the surveillance towers on the Wall. Do you know about these towers?

DA | Yes.

KH | It’s quite metaphorical, you put out your cigarettes on this archaic structure. We made car chairs, cups, and lots of other things. We also made designs of a lighter nature – like honey, a stamp in the shape of a falafel, beads.

DA | Can you tell me about this hour glass object?

KH | The sand was taken from the Wall, ground and measured and converted to be eight minutes and put in an hour glass. It’s almost as if you bought eight minutes from the life of the Wall. If you bought a 1,000, it would be like taking 80,000 minutes from the Wall. If we get a big order we’ll just have to tear the Wall down!  

DA | Very local indeed!

KH | Yes, so many local elements are present throughout our works. The stories behind the products are truly important because it really gives coverage on what we do and more specifically why we do them.

DA | Have the students from IAAP found success with their work?

KH | Yes, at least five of Palestine’s biggest young artists are from IAAP. It’s such a success. Every exhibition in Ramallah has at least one of our students. You’ll find them in every art space in the city. As the saying goes: Fi kul 3urs ilhoum qurs (Their presence is felt in each occasion, even if they are not physically there). They’re very successful because they are very talented. This generation of artists have really gone far with their talents. For instance [a lot of the most successful works] by these artists started in the workshops at the academy but we’re not quite sure what direction the art works will take.

DA | You have people visiting from other places. What kind of artists did you have come and teach at the academy?

KH | Some of the best Arab and Palestinian artists in the contemporary art scene come teach at IAAP like Emily Jacir, Yazid Anani, Paul Noble from England…many others.

DA | And the people coming from abroad, the visa is obviously very difficult to obtain. What are their experiences like at IAAP?

KH | Everyone who comes has a lot of fun. It’s a great experience for teachers especially. Particularly because we expand our spaces from the campus to the city. After classes and lectures, the teachers and students meet up outside IAAP so that the teachers get to know the city. Big names have taught at IAAP - it is the most important address in Palestine!

DA | How long do they spend there?

KH | The teachers we bring come for a month. Unfortunately, that’s what we can manage for now due to expenses. But it is intensive. I’ve been going on about the academy even though I left it!

DA | You’re not with them anymore? You were saying that you will go back to teaching.

KH | Yes I was the director of IAAP, and now I plan on going back to just teach. Things have slightly changed [since I am no longer director]. For example projects like Disarming Design – I’m not sure if they are going to be working on those kinds of projects anymore. These things were part of my work as director. I was a part of these projects, as well as managing IAAP I had the task of distributing projects across the curriculum. With some of the projects we had absolutely everyone involved within IAAP - travelling to workshops in Austria, visiting exhibitions in the Hague, etc. Projects really reach their potential when my students work alongside other students. I don’t know, but this was my part of my plan – to close IAAP [for a week or more] and travel all together. I know it sounds crazy, but everyone is invited, even the tea boy! It’s one of the many special things about IAAP. Unlike other institutions we don’t have much of a history or grounded traditions, so we are more flexible with our approach and curriculum. The students really responded well to the projects and they are what make IAAP so special. We had students of all types – masters students even. If a particular student was clever, we didn’t mind if they took part in various other projects within the Academy as the Dean of IAAP used to allow this. So because of the interest we really started to think about developing a design programme.

DA | So it’s good you found that support.

KH | If there are good ideas, it’s easy to find support. With Disarming Design we bought an institute from [the Netherlands], and afterwards people started contacting us. We made Subjective Atlas of Palestine in English then we [were] asked to [translate it] to Arabic. The world is not closed off completely – there’s always hope. This idea of good art that can be either made with a non existent budget or quarter of a million is a good example. You cannot always produce something that has to be supported by money.

DA | Yes, exactly.

KH | You need to make something that will succeed even if you don’t have the funds to support it. The programme needed a change so that we can provide a practical solution so students can produce things to be sold [with design]. The student thus becomes a producer. In their second year they [could] work as graphic designers, in an office, in media, in magazines, etc. There are many practical reasons why they would go towards this direction.

Disarming Design | International Art Academy of Palestine | Khaled Hourani Retrospective | Institute of Contemporary Art

Danah Abdulla  is a designer, writer, researcher, and editor. Currently, she is an MPhil/PhD candidate in the Design department at Goldsmiths, University of London, and she is also the Founder, Creative Director and Editor of Kalimat Magazine. She obtained an MA in Social Design from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Maryland, and a BA (Honours) in Communications from the University of Ottawa, in Ottawa, Ontario.