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182, June 2013 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Khalil Raad, The Peep Show (Sandouq al ’Ajab) ca. 1933, Institute for Palestine Studies Photo Archive.

Not Just Memory: Khalil Raad (1854–1957)
By Vera Tamari, Exhibition Curator
Not Just Memory exhibits the work of Khalil Raad, Palestine’s first Arab photographer. Organised by the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS), the exhibition coincides with the 50th anniversary of the institute’s establishment. Thus, not only does it celebrate the work of a pioneering artist - whose visual legacy stands as irrefutable testimony to a homeland and a people - it also distinguishes IPS’s outstanding role in research on Palestinian history and culture. The choice to honour Raad is fitting because IPS holds one of the most complete collections of his photography.

The collection comprises approximately 3,000 distinct photos and includes over 1,000 glass negatives and almost 2,000 gelatine film negatives. There is a large number of stereoscopic (three-dimensional) images and others that depict sweeping landscapes, religious and political events, and people in their daily activities. The photographs portray aspects of Palestinian life from late-Ottoman through Mandate times. They are a unique manifestation of the socio-political, religious, and economic environments that Raad encountered during the course of his fifty-year career as a pioneer photographer in Palestine (1890s-1948).

In Raad’s work, Palestine appears as a rich landscape, varied in its culture and tradition, and vibrant in its people. Palestine is also a land at a crossroads, squeezed between a waning Ottoman Empire and vigorous Western power. Visible in Raad’s images is the Mandate rule of Great Britain, which fostered the Zionist colonisation that, in turn, irrevocably changed the face of the country. Perhaps, as is the case today, Palestine appears as the focus of numerous existential, political, and ideological conflicts, whose bitter legacy remains.

Through a selection of representative photographs, the exhibition questions Raad’s conception of Palestine and the extent of his assimilation of or dissociation from the prevailing intellectual and cultural environment. Colonialist ideological, religious, and political hegemony, imported fashion, technical advancement in photography, and market demand are all elements that influence his work. His milieu is deeply imbued with the idealised stereotypical Western representations of the “Land of the Bible.” At times, Raad would place a lone “oriental-looking” horseman or shepherd in the foreground of the vast emptiness of a “biblical” landscape to convey a sense of timelessness. In other instances, he would create an entire scene, arranging his models to suggest stories from the New Testament - the nativity, the flight into Egypt, the arrival of the wise men, and so on. The exhibition includes a representative selection of studio photographs, which were scattered between collectors. The curator was able to compile them from Palestinian families in Amman, Ramallah, Bethlehem, the United States, and Beirut.

Raad’s other photography, by contrast, consists of telling images of people and places. These bring to life a very different Palestine, depicting an entire cross-section of the real, everyday lives of Palestinians in both rural and urban settings. Villagers, townspeople, artisans, and shopkeepers are captured in their ordinary environments - whether in field, marketplace, or city street - as they engage in seasonal activities such as harvesting, fishing, or practicing religious rituals.

This exhibition seeks to present Raad’s photography not merely from a technical, descriptive, or aesthetic point of view, but rather as a visual record of pivotal times in the history of Palestine. His iconic images have appeared in numerous works either about early photography in general, or about Palestine in particular. These last include most notably Walid Khalidi’s Before the Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians (1988) and Elias Sanbar’s Les Palestiniens: La Photographie d’une Terre et de Son Peuple de 1839 à Nos Jours (2004). In his Laqtat Mughayira al-Taswir al-Mahalli al-Mubbakir fi Falastin, 1850-1948 (2005), Issam Nassar devotes several pages to him.

A number of prominent visual artists and writers have been invited to interact with some of Raad’s iconic images. The resulting works will be displayed in the exhibition space alongside Raad’s photographs. This interactive approach aims to transport the original images from a still form to one with new significance and new energy, even while remaining firmly situated within the current debate on issues of cultural hegemony, identity, and memory.

The exhibition opened in Ramallah on May 19, 2013, at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre. It forms the second leg of a tour that was officially launched in Beirut on March 13, 2013, as the first of numerous events to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Institute for Palestine Studies.

Vera Tamari, visual artist and curator, is founder and former director of the Birzeit University Museum.

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