Saturday, April 10, 2021

Summer School of Design in Palestine

By Patty Diphusa - August 27, 2019
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Features]
Tags: [artist] [culture]

For the past week, the Disarming Design Summer School began, organised by the Palestine-based collective 'Disarming Design from Palestine’, in collaboration with the Palestinian Musuem, bringing together 15 international and 15 Palestinian students.

The purpose of the project is to serve as a space for intercultural exchange through the development of joint design processes between the participants and the local community.

The students work together for two weeks in mixed groups made up from international and Palestinian participants, culminating in an exhibition at the Palestinian Museum. It is, in fact, the work of this institution one of the sources that inspired the organisation of this project.

The Summer School aims at enhancing better understanding of the political and human situation in Palestine through the perspective of crafts, design and art - with the students collaborating closely with artisans in the occupied West Bank for the production of their designs.

Palestine Monitor took part in a tour scheduled by the Summer School in which the group visited crafters and artisans from Birzeit and Ramallah to learn about local craftsmanship in the area. The richness of tradition and knowledge passed on through various generations was visible in every stop of the tour. 


Tailors specialised in garments for Dabke, carpenters who hand-carve wood into delicate pieces of furniture, and true artists who put together countless bids to create flawless embroideries stood out throughout the day.

In conversation with the organisers of the Summer School and directors of Disarming Design for Palestine, Belgian/Dutch designer Annelys de Vet and Palestinian designer Raed Hamouri explained how design and artisanship are great ways to address social issues. 

These are “tools for social transformation” explained de Vet, something that also motivates Hamouri as “design and artisanship are used to address reality”. 

Facing challenges, empowering local design


One of the main challenges surrounding local design and craftsmanship in Palestine surrounds import policies. As de Vet explained, the import of cheaper goods is detrimental to local production in Palestine, as the market becomes awash with products from countries like China and Turkey. This pressure is felt both in the designers and artisans that participate in the productive process. 


De Vet explained that because of this, designers and crafters feel pressure to go in a commercial direction, without necessarily contributing to social change or empowerment. 


Disarming Design for Palestine and its Summer School is committed to balancing this by “appreciating and providing a platform for a different kind of productive and creative process”.


An example of this is Palestinian carpenter, Suhail Sayej. Sayej runs a carpentry store in Birzeit, learning the trade from his father. He described how both the precarious Palestinian economy mixed with the current liberal policies regarding imports have hindered his business and are threatening the survival of ancient techniques. 



Sayej said they “used to work in hand-carving the design of furniture. But now people do not request these pieces, they simply can not afford the same products they could before”. And thus the art of traditional carpentry is increasingly being lost. 


The situation has become more complicated since the 1990s as cheap goods started flooding the Palestinian market. As Sayej asserted, “We just can not compete with them”. 


Although the import of cheaper products from abroad is a challenge to local design and craftsmanship, the lack of possibility to access certain foreign goods is also an issue. Palestinian designer Hamouri explained that the illegal Israeli occupation means that limitations are placed on the availability of heavy machinery, making local producers face added difficulties.


A clear example in this regard is that of Rumuz Advertising, a business based in Birzeit that caters across the West Bank with advertising products. Worker Muthanna Abdallah mentioned that their job is to a great extent limited by Israeli policies which restrict importing heavy machinery to treat materials such as metal, which is critical in his industry. Abdallah stated that the argument backing these policies is that “Israelis insist we will use these machines to make weapons”.


A space for intercultural exchange


The Summer School is not only of great value for its contribution to foster local design and production, but it also serves as a forum for exchange and collaboration between students, artisans and the community.


In conversation with Hamouri, one of the directors of Disarming Design for Palestine, he said that a priority is for international students to have as much contact with the local community as possible, visiting artisans, attending cultural events and venues and moving across the occupied West Bank. 



As the Summer School is only for two weeks, to efficiently approach the Palestinian reality, each year a different topic is chosen as a framework for the activities within the workshop. 


This year, the theme is 'Intimate Terrains’ which derives from an exhibition held in the Palestine Museum about the disappearing landscape. A hike in the Palestinian countryside was organised and through this, Hamouri explained that “international students can see how the illegal Israeli occupation affects life on the ground. They can see the different classified areas [A, B, C] and the eviction of Palestinian lands”.


However, Hamouri highlights that the Summer School is not only about showing the challenges Palestinians face, but also about appreciating “how creative people are in finding solutions to the different troubles they face”. De Vet supports this position by stating that “during the workshop, we talk a lot about beauty and quality, joy and humour, and thus our products reflect strength rather than Palestinians as victims”.


This narrative fits what Spanish-Moroccan participant Imane Benyecif asserted. She explained that “although I have always wanted to come to Palestine, I wanted to do so with a purpose”. Benyecif found the opportunity to do so through the Summer School and is developing her purpose of “understanding as much as possible about this colonial conflict through collaborating with Palestinian artisans and designers”. 



Palestinian students also benefit extensively through the exchange with the other participants. They get the opportunity to be exposed to different academic backgrounds and more importantly to “improve the way they tell stories about Palestine and to appreciate their own power and beauty” Hamouri described.


Talla Abdelhadi, one of the Palestinian participants, mentioned that she sees this Summer School as an opportunity to “develop practical skills and exchange ideas and experiences with international colleagues”.


Ayham Hassan, another of the local students partaking in this initiative, agreed and reflected on what this exchange entails. He explained that he was curious to learn about the perspectives of “people who do not live under occupation” and how all of the different experiences “can be expressed through design”. Hassan went on to say that even by “discussing Palestine with international students who do not necessarily know much about the situation, I am also reflecting on my own history”.


The Summer School of Design is yet another project which reminds us that Palestine is not a place exclusively filled with stories of violence and occupation. It has a vast tradition in craftsmanship that dates back before 1948 and a generation of young creators who are thriving to express their multifaceted reality through design. And as de Vet described, “design is indeed a tool for social transformation”.



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