For Palestinians art and art education is a matter of cultural preservation and survival. The Virtual Art Gallery at Birzeit University forms a case in point.
Meeting with Vera Tamari is in and by itself an inspiration. Apart from being a defining figure of the post-nakba (1948) generation of Palestinian artists, which also include prominent artists such as Sleiman Mansour, Tayseer Barakat, Ismail Shammout and Kamal Boullata, she is - and has been - a catalyst in and vocal supporter of the Palestinian art scene. Dealing with inadequate infrastructures, the hardships of the occupation, and contained mobility, Tamari, who also lectures in Islamic art and architecture at Birzeit University, has worked tirelessly to put and keep art from Palestine on the artistic map.
Two important projects Tamari helped co-found in 2005, are the Virtual Gallery and the Ethnographic and Art Museum, both hosted at Birzeit University. The idea for the former came in reaction to lengthily imposed closures and heavy restrictions on travel imposed on the Palestinian population. This has resulted in artists and audiences alike having little exposure to artistic work being produced and exhibited outside of their respective towns and villages, let alone internationally. The Virtual Gallery offers a gateway to work of Palestinian artists in the West-Bank, Gaza, within Israel and the rest of the world.
In addition to featuring a comprehensive database of Palestinian artworks, which includes biographical information, documentation, articles, photos and video excerpts, the Virtual Gallery profiles monthly a contemporary Palestinian artist in its 'artist of the month' section. It is refreshing to see this virtual exhibition announced as an art event proper, in various local newspapers and cultural publications, such as This Week in Palestine.
The Virtual Gallery offers a credited online course on Palestinian art history (from the 1920s till now) for Birzeit students. Its aim is to make this course in the near future internationally available and credited. Most recently the Gallery completed a pilot project called 'Art for Schools', where 12 to 14 year-olds in local schools get introduced to art. Local teachers receive online training how to run the programs.
It is Tamari's wish that the Virtual Gallery develops into an augmented virtual architecture, with a 3-D space wherein curators and artists can collaborate professionally on local, regional and international levels, and hold virtual exhibitions, virtually open to all, in defiance of the curbed access and freedoms of reality.
Nat Muller is an independent curator and critic. She works in Europe and the Middle East.