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The Palestinian canvas

An idealistic lawyer hopes an art museum can help forge a new identity for his people, to show the humanity overshadowed by terrorism.

July 01, 2007|Michael Z. Wise | Special to The Times

Jerusalem — A muezzin calls to prayer from a nearby mosque as Mazen Qupty fills goblets with Israeli Cabernet Sauvignon, pops a disc of oud music into the stereo and starts to lay out his plan for the brilliantly colored paintings that fill his East Jerusalem home.

Creating a national art museum for an as-yet-nonexistent country is an ambitious if not quixotic goal. But that's what Qupty hopes to do with his growing trove of Palestinian paintings -- the largest collection of its kind. The prosperous, silver-haired lawyer is also intent on emphasizing secular values at a time when the radical Islamist Hamas has gained the loyalty of many Palestinians.

"We want to show visitors and the media all over the world that we have a long heritage that goes back at least 100 years," he explains between bites of hors d'oeuvres served by his wife, Yvette, stylishly dressed in capri pants and high-heeled mules. The couple own 170 Palestinian artworks by some 50 artists from the 1920s through the present. Already Qupty has founded a nonprofit gallery with temporary exhibits and workshops in East Jerusalem and has helped create a Palestinian art academy in the West Bank city of Ramallah with European government backing.

Although Qupty and his wife have a keen aesthetic sense -- they favor a diverse range of canvases created by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, within the current boundaries of Israel and in exile around the world -- he also has a clear political agenda. Qupty aims to use art to help forge a new identity for a people he fears are primarily regarded as terrorists. "In the last few years, Palestinians have been shown in the media as suicide bombers. We want to show the Palestinians have a human face through art."

Talk of creating a national art museum might sound beside the point in view of the recent open warfare between Hamas and its rival faction Fatah. Official Palestinian support for cultural initiatives fell into a deep freeze following the international embargo on aid to the transitional Palestinian Authority in response to Hamas' 2006 electoral triumph and its avowed threats to destroy Israel.

Yet operating privately, Qupty has signed a letter of intent with the National Museum of Norway to provide curatorial and other technical assistance for setting up a full-fledged museum. The British Council, the governments of Spain and France, and the U.N. Development Program are also providing support for his 2-year-old gallery, which is intended as a forerunner to the museum and counts among its trustees the esteemed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and the billionaire businessman Munib al-Masri.

"Mazen and Yvette Qupty are making a major contribution to the dissemination of Palestinian art," says Hebrew University art historian Gannit Ankori, whose book on Palestinian art was published last year. In her view, their collection is particularly noteworthy since it includes works created before Israeli independence in 1948, giving evidence that a Palestinian art scene flourished before that year, a date Palestinians call the Nakba, or "catastrophe," referring to their dispersion and exile.

Other liberal Israelis also have welcomed Qupty's plans for a museum. "This will give the Palestinians a sense of pride," says Dov Alfon, director of the Israeli publishing house Kinneret Zmora Dvir, who hosts a popular TV program on cultural affairs. "Entire families would visit a Palestinian museum. It is a huge step for the Palestinians to think about art outside of their religious dogma."

'The beauty, the humanity'

FEW of Qupty's works themselves are overtly political, he notes, getting up from a rose velvet-covered chair to approach one that is -- a wall hanging crafted by Nabil Anani in 1995 after the first intifada uprising against Israeli rule. Joining in a Palestinian boycott of Israeli products, the artist forswore his customary Israeli-made oil paints to make a mixed-media work of wood, leather and henna depicting a woman who carries on her head a bowl topped by the Arabic word for Palestine. The letters were cut out of the lower part of her body -- as if torn from her heart.

The less hard-hitting works in the collection are of higher caliber, such as a geometric abstraction by Ibrahim Nubani, an Israeli Arab accorded a retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 2004. Others contain nostalgically rendered olive fields, orange groves and traditional garb. "These are the orange fields that we lost in Jaffa," Qupty says of a large canvas by Sliman Mansour. Sensuality trumps politics altogether in a nearby phantasmagoric painting by Hani Zurob, a rare contemporary Palestinian nude.

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