The Palestinian Museum has stood empty for over a year, but is now tackling a touchy topic in its first art and history exhibition: Jerusalem, where many Palestinians are not allowed to go.
"The opening of the first exhibition is a reason to celebrate," says Reem Fadda, smiling as she looks at an expansive installation that spans the stretch of the light-flooded window.
The Palestinian curator has put on the exhibition "Jerusalem Lives," which brings together international and Palestinian artists for the first time in the new Palestinian Museum. Its impressive modern building, which cost nearly $30 million, is located on a hill next to Birzeit University near Ramallah.
Although the Palestinian Museum officially opened in May 2016, it drew criticism by standing empty until now.
"Building a museum is a long-term project," said Fadda, who previously worked as a curator at the Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi. "It's a success in itself to construct this architecturally beautiful building according to the global standards for museums."
A new place for art and history
With "Jerusalem Lives," which opened Sunday and runs through December 15, the museum is finally coming to life itself. The show incorporates some 50 objects, installations and sculptures both indoors and in its garden.
The show focuses on the city many Palestinians long to visit, but are prohibited from traveling to without a special permit.
"The fact that people here can't go to Jerusalem, even though they live right next to it on the West Bank, was decisive. We want to bring Jerusalem to the people and celebrate the life in this very diverse city, which is being suffocated by occupation," says Reem Fadda.
In 1967, Israel conquered Arab-majority East Jerusalem, declaring the city its "indivisible capital." Today, more than 300,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem - which they see as the future capital of what they hope will become their independent state.
Inspiration and longing in Jerusalem
The artists represented in the exhibition have taken a wide variety of perspectives on Jerusalem, focusing on everything from everyday life and its history to Israeli occupation and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Sculptor Athar Jaber, for example, was inspired by Jerusalem's history. "I've visited Jerusalem and seen how the people there treat the old stones - how they touch them and treasure them."
Those "old stones" include historical sites like the Stone of Anointing at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is said to contain the sites where Jesus Christ was crucified and buried.
Every day, hundreds of pilgrims visit the Stone of Anointing, where Joseph of Arimathea is thought to have prepared Jesus' body for burial, kiss it and put their foreheads on it. This practice inspired Jaber, a 35-year-old artist with Iraqi roots who grew up in Florence and now lives in Belgium, to create a work of art that is meant to bring people of various backgrounds together.
His nearly two-meter-tall block of locally found stone is full of indentations, which invite visitors to touch it and lean on it. Even graffiti is allowed on his rock - reflecting how people treat Jerusalem's old stones and facades today.
"Artworks aren't usually supposed to be touched, because they are considered holy in a way," says Jaber. "But in Jerusalem, holy sites are touched because of their holiness. I wanted to play with this idea. My artwork may and should be touched."
Artist duo Rain Wu and Eric Chen from Taiwan were also inspired by their surroundings. In the museum's garden, in between the fig and olive trees, visitors will find a kind of scaffolding made of many thin strips of metal.
"We designed this piece especially for the Palestinian Museum," says Rain Wu. "It looks at the ambivalent situation of borders and boundaries. When people walk through here, they experience an oscillating, wobbly environment."
Installation artist Rain Wu is enthusiastic about the new museum space. "There is an extraordinary amount of space here and we love to work in new places and respond to them with our art."
Plans for the future
Now that the first exhibition has been opened, organizers are curious to see how many visitors will come. There is certainly interest at the Birzeit University next door, even though not everyone knows yet what awaits them in the museum.
"I imagine that it's about our history. I haven't been there, but I'd like to take a look," says Rasha Kanaan, who is studying media studies. Fellow student Mohammed Aidieh is also interested. "It's good to have a symbolic place that preserves our culture and history. It shows that we're here and that we exist."
Even empty, the Palestinian Museum has already been making a statement for the past year with its conspicuous zigzag design, developed by Irish architecture firm Heneghan Peng. It's the largest museum for art and history in the Palestinian territories and is mainly funded by the Taawon Foundation, which calls itself Palestine's largest non-profit organization.
"The Palestinian Museum can be a pioneer by focusing more on people and less on objects," says curator Reem Fadda. "And that's what we want to show with this first exhibition."