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The Arab World on Display: The 1930s Arab Exhibitions in Jerusalem and Beyond

Panel XI-15, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
In 1933, the First Arab Exhibition was held in Jerusalem, then under British colonial rule, displaying arts, crafts, and industries from all over the Arab region. The exhibition was the first pan-Arab exhibition of its kind, organized in direct response to British and French colonial attempts at dividing the region in the aftermath of World War I. Taking the Arab Exhibition in Jerusalem as its starting point, this panel invites scholars to reflect on the different dimensions of hosting, attending, and participating in Arab-led exhibitions of this sort in the 1930s Arab world. It particularly questions how, and why, could the exhibition perform as a crucial 'contact zone' for inter-Arab regional exchange in this critical moment of transition from colonial to 'post'-colonial rule. Panelists are invited to approach this idea of the exhibition as a 'contact zone' from different disciplinary backgrounds and areas of focus. This could include the exhibition as a site of architectural, commercial, artistic, or intellectual exchange. Panelists are also especially encouraged to focus on how different social groups interacted with exhibitions of this sort, including journalists, merchants, traders, art collectors. Women participation—both in contributions and attendance—is also a key theme for this panel. The idea, overall, is to view exhibitions not only as sites of display, but also as spaces of possibility. In the 1930s Arab region, as with many parts of the colonized world, a self-led vision was being crafted for an alternative future that transcends the colonial moment. This panel asks: what role did the Arab Exhibitions play in translating this vision into tangible form? What were the challenges that such an endeavor would face? What kinds of possibilities and futurities did these exhibitions offer at the time? How is the history of their trajectories still relevant today?
Architecture & Urban Planning
Art/Art History
  • This paper investigates the history of the two Arab Exhibitions held in Jerusalem in 1933 and 1934, when Palestine was under British colonial rule. The exhibitions came as a direct response to Palestine’s representation in colonial exhibitions both locally and internationally. But more than merely responding to these representations, as this paper shows, these exhibitions also carried a vision of their own: affirming Palestine’s position in the project of an Arab economic and cultural nahda (‘renaissance’) in the interwar years. The paper is based on five years of archival research into their forgotten history in archives and private collections around the world. This paper is organized into three main thematic sections. The first section tackles the history of the exhibition site, the Palace Hotel built in the 1920s in Jerusalem. Tracing the building’s conception and realization offers a lens unto the transnational networks at the heart of Palestinian national projects before the pan-Arab Exhibitions were hosted in the 1930s. The second section moves on to discuss the Arab exhibitions’ relationship to the Zionist exhibitions in Palestine and abroad. The third section takes a further step in its analysis of the pan-Arab exhibitions. It pays a closer attention to the exhibitions’ spirit and ethos beyond their relationship to the colonial exhibitions. Instead, it analyzes the pan-Arab exhibitions in their own right, highlighting their role in forging an imagination for the future of the Arab nation. Together, these three sections offer an understanding of how transnational contact surrounding the Arab exhibitions in Palestine offered new possibilities confronting but also transcending the confines of colonial rule in the first half of the twentieth century.
  • This paper takes up the turbulent transitional period ending Mandate tutorial control of Palestinians and Lebanese (1933-1943) from the angle of “art exhibitions.” The years preceding the Great Revolt (1936) of Palestinians against British occupiers and Zionist clientele followed a reprisal of “Arab Exhibitions” (a phenomenon dating to at least 1907), in the already-contested city of Jerusalem. How did such massive, coordinated, and galvanizing events morph into “Modern Art in Lebanon” in Jerusalem, at Bezlalel/The Palestinian Museum and a (planned) “Palestinian” equivalent in Lebanon (featuring Zionist artists), a mere decade later? While the Mandate-organized Beirut Industrial Fair in 1921 only tangentially exhibited fine art (primarily paintings and sculptures), in line with Jerusalem's successive "Arab Exhibitions," the later exhibitions showed solely paintings. What conceptual differences did colonizers introduce in the name of the "national art exhibition"? For example, how are we to understand the Mandate authorities' fear of displaying "second-order arts," especially in light of new research on overlaps between iconography, photography, and ceramics, for example? And exactly how and why did these displays of late-colonial majesty fail miserably? Finally, might these transformations illuminate today’s artistic activism, on the one hand, and polarization between audiences for MENA art and politics on the other? Research for this paper takes its grounding in British Imperial and French Overseas archives of administrative correspondence, artists’ papers, exhibition guestbook entries, and specific artworks exchanged. The paper aims to understand politics as a part of artistic endeavor and art as a part of the production of political formations that still cannot stand on their own two feet.
  • The Yousef Zoughbi photographic catalogue showcases his carved mother of pearl items produced in Bethlehem in the first half of the twentieth century. The contents of the catalogue can be categorised within three broad – though sometimes overlapping – categories: models of religious sites and Biblical scenes that are finely render, though typical of the genre; ‘Oriental’ furniture with inlays, particularly games tables; and a series of commissioned works that focus utilise Bethlehemite aesthetics for diplomatic purposes. This paper will focus on three examples of the latter examining the ways in which aesthetics of classicism, Orientalism and Neo-Byzantinism are interwoven and fused within the vocabulary of Bethlehem mother of pearl carving. In doings so it will consider the ways in which Palestinian artisanship was mobilised as a mode cultural diplomacy and nationalist legitimation through transnational rubrics of Christianity. It will focus on three case studies of commissions, a work for King Faroukh in Egypt, another for Mussolini in Italy and third for the US government, now held in Washington DC. It will address each of these through the complex stylistic encoding of different aesthetics, considering the complexities of various visualities employed and their associations with different modes of nation-building. As a marketing strategy, the objects depicted in the album rely on the sanctity of production in the ‘Holy Land’ as a selling point. This paper questions the motivation for such commissions and how their production mobilised nationalist legitimation in the production of these objects.
  • The sensational portraits of pan-Arab luminaries exhibited by Zulfa al-Saʿdī at the 1933 First National Arab Fair—lauded as “an example of the Arab awakening (nahḍa) of the future”—stood apart from the other artistic and artisanal wares on display. Beyond their innovative use of the qudsi (Jerusalemite) icon format to portray a pantheon of historical and contemporary proponents of pan-Arabism, al-Saʿdī’s portraits stood out at the commercial trade fair for another, radical reason: the paintings were not for sale. Fiscal success was essential to the Arab Fair’s founding by Palestine’s self-proclaimed “men of capital,” who understood economics as being at the core of politics and, correspondingly, financial prosperity as the bedrock for national triumph. Artistic products at the fair, from traditional handicrafts to modern paintings, joined the predominantly agricultural products for sale to convey the idea that not only in industry but also in culture, in the bottling of olive oil as in the making of oil paintings, the commodification of Palestine’s industrial and artistic products was considered instrumental in the fight for political autonomy during the British Mandate. This essay examines the curious case of al-Saʿdī’s unpriced paintings at the Arab Fair, and the immense acclaim they received, to argue that their decommodification played a major role in their assumed political value and cemented their status as de facto “patron saints” of the fair. I also contend that their non-commercial status indicated a separation between art and craft in the field of Palestinian cultural production for the first time. Remaining together as an unsold set, even as the nakba forced al-Saʿdī and her artworks into exile, their initial decommodification has thus allowed them to play a foundational role in the narration of Palestine’s modern art history.
  • A densely ornamented corner of the Palace Hotel pictures displays of furniture, jewellery, cosmetics, and objects, resplendent with patterned carpets, woodwork, metalwork, and Ancient Egyptian wall paintings. What was previously the only known photograph of the interior of the National Arab Exhibitions at the Palace Hotel in Mandate Jerusalem (1933-34) depicts the Egyptian wing at the first exhibition, which can perhaps be considered a measure of its importance. The early 1930s marked increasing participations in international fairs, including Marseilles, Chicago, Le Havre, Milan, and Paris led by a dedicated ministerial department that sought to promote Egypt’s products, foreign trade, and tourism across international markets. Following a controversial participation in the Zionist Levant Fair of 1932, Egypt participated in both iterations of the Arab Exhibitions in Jerusalem, presenting a decidedly different offering, organised within a pan-Arab framework, and thus arguably geared towards an Arab audience. Participation in both exhibitions takes place in conjunction with the formation of a trade agreement between Egypt and Palestine, which proposed free trade in local products between both parties and stipulated specific favourable imports and exports. This essay examines Egypt’s participation in the Arab exhibitions, which showcased the fruits of burgeoning industries and crafts. I argue that pictorial evidence as well as that of named craftsmen within the exhibitions’ catalogues points to a shift from established hierarchies of arts and crafts in the modern Egyptian context. Seen within the wider framework of participations in international fairs, exploring Egypt’s contributions to these exhibitions elucidates the artistic, social, political, and economic dynamics at stake amongst Arab nations.