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Developing urban artist-run residencies (UARRs) in East Jerusalem: a political anthropological perspective

Written by Dr. Zoe Bray

Literature abounds on the benefits of bringing art to areas affected by violence, discrimination and intolerance, for its alleged potential to “assuage the suffering” of people, “facilitate conflict resolution” and “play a role in reconciliation and post-conflict society re-building” (Ramsbotham 2011, Royal College of Art 2014, Seidl-Fox 2014, Gorecki 2016). Art is celebrated here as a form of resistance to oppression, a voice for the voiceless, a way of bringing people from different belief systems together, creating trust, encouraging empathy, raising awareness and tolerance of difference, as well as serving as a stimulant for positive debates and new reflections. Seen thus as an liberating and empowering means of human expression, art is used, amongst others, by NGOs and international organizations in their humanitarian efforts. Art is promoted in this context usually as short-term workshops, most often in schools or community centers, or as residencies for artists, where artists are expected to work in direct connection and exchange with their social surroundings. Residencies here are generally presented as hosting platforms for guest artists or curators to explore their practice within a local community on the ground. All the while acknowledging that art can be used as a political weapon, art, here, is lauded as a universal language that crosses divisions and boundaries of language, religion, culture and politics, and encourages self-empowerment.

Anthropology, as the study of “what makes us human”[1], can offer a perspective on art that goes beyond normative views, to bring attention to how art actually works in social and cultural human interaction. An anthropological approach to looking at art reminds us that art is both a product of and an agent in human dynamics. An anthropological perspective reminds us of the necessity to keep in mind who is behind the production of an artwork and what are its intentions and unintended consequences as it makes contact with a public. Far from being produced in a void, art emerges thanks to a complex set of conditions and possibilities (Becker 1982; Foster 1995; Gell 1998; Van Laar and Diepeveen; Bray 2015). Artists create on the basis of personal experience and thanks to a social and political context of support infrastructure. Their motivations vary, and they may have a specific audience in mind (Bray 2014).

An artwork is then produced and gains meaning through the experiences of the different people who come into contact with it in specific contexts. Anthropologists studying art and artists in conflict areas have shown how artworks may be used and manipulated for specific political purposes such as propaganda, to speak to and mobilize a section of society, present a certain vision or truth, or privilege a specific narrative to the detriment of others (Bray 2014). Art, artists and their supporters have their own individual as well as collective agencies and, as such, have potentially beneficial as well as nefarious effects on their social surroundings.

In any consideration of developing UARRs in East Jerusalem, a contested area, divided and conservative and therefore where violent conflict can easily flare up, further thorough and critical understanding of its social fabric is necessary. In order to avoid potential clashes, any promotion of UARRs is advised to work on a prior frank self-reflection of its objectives, what they would involve, by whom and for whom. The desire and willingness to bring art and creativity and, through it, grassroots exchange, communication and collaboration in East Jerusalem is to be strongly congratulated and celebrated. The concepts of stewardship and autonomous action are central to the social and community-based artistic processes integral to UARRs. All the same, for UARRs to stand chances of success in areas of conflict, they need to be thought through all the way with self-critical reflexivity and empathy to the complex and often extremely difficult history of the place and the lives of its population.

Background to the UARR project in East Jerusalem, and UARR founder Anat Litwin

In 2006, Israeli-American independent artist and curator Anat Litwin[2] developed the idea of Urban Artist-Run-Residencies (UARRs). She highlighted how this particular kind of residency is special for actually being driven by artists who consider “the act of hosting as an extension of their artistic vision and practice, linking art and everyday urban living and characterized as a grassroots, community-based artistic platform, which engages a participatory approach and questions existing social and urban paradigms”.[3] Litwin notes that, in the context of the growing field of art residencies worldwide, experimentation with urban commons, and the flourishing social and urban art scene, UARRs “stand out as vital urban pivots of creativity” (ibid). They are “set out of the main-stream commercial art market and usually embedded within changing urban areas” (ibid). Litwin explains that, “due to the fact that they tend to be small scale, independent, non-for-profit, communal initiatives led by artists, which often take place in empty urban spaces, or in the domestic settings of the artist's’ home, they enjoy flexibility, freedom and constant friction with everyday urban life. UARR platforms are usually driven by the quest to challenge the role of the artist in setting new social and cultural paradigms while artistically demonstrating participatory practices such as the ‘right to the city’, a demand for a transformed and renewed access to urban life on behalf of the local resident” (ibid). UARRs usually lead  “different artistic and urban participatory practices (_) such as ‘pop-up urbanism’, ‘re-appropriation’, ‘urban interventions’, ‘DIY’, (and) ‘communal gatherings” (ibid). Thus Litwin wishes to explore how UARRs may be both “an independent artistic genre of it’s own merit” and “a catalyst for social and urban change” (ibid).

Litwin launched her own UARR, entitled ‘The HomeBase Project’ (HB; to focus specifically on the concept of ‘home’ and artistic hosting in an age of globalism and urban change. HB toured several cities (New York in 2006-2009, Berlin in 2010-2013, Jerusalem in 2014-2015 and Saitama, Japan, in 2015-2016). In each city, Litwin found an empty building where she invited selected artists to live and produce a new work in situ as part of a three week residency program. The HB residency model includes a cultural program related to the exploration of ‘home’, with lectures, dinners, meetings with neighbors and workshops helping to connect the artist with the local community. In each HB project, local actors, neighbors and experts are invited to discuss pressing issues related to local urban and social change, consider the potentials and benefits of UARRs, and reflect on future models.[4]

In 2013, Litwin won a fellowship from the Andy Warhol Foundation to pursue her curatorial research project, entitled “Roundtable Residency Research” (RRR). RRR focuses on the growing field of urban art residency models gathering people from different fields of knowledge to address together local social, cultural and urban needs. For this, Litwin benefitted from partnerships with organizations such as Artis, Youkobo Art Space, Lunart Fund and the Willy Brandt Center. Litwin’s goal is to contextualize UARRs and “offer tools to assist embedding models of artistic hosting in the cities of tomorrow”.[5] After hosting a roundtable in West Jerusalem in 2015, it seemed imperative to then focus on East Jerusalem. RRR East Jerusalem was then initiated in partnership with the Lunart fund, a private non-profit family fund aiming “to increase the number of Israeli-Arab art and design professionals in the general population, foster supportive networks for the Israeli-Arab art community, and generate opportunities for cross-cultural discourse through joint Jewish-Arab art projects, within Israel and abroad”.[6] Aware of East Jerusalem as a sensitive case, Litwin sought a neutral partner with whom to collaborate locally, and connected with the Willy Brandt Center (WBC), a German non-governmental organization committed to dialogue and peace-building, whose headquarters are located on the Green Line in Jerusalem’s neighborhood of Abu Tor.[7] The WBC’s “social art” project coordinator Juliane Druckler assisted Anat Litwin in co-producing and funding the roundtable on UARRs in East Jerusalem and finding potential participants.

Litwin organized a series of individual meetings with some key actors in the world of art in East Jerusalem in order to discover and better grasp the situation in this part of the city.[8] One of these individuals was Riman Barakat, an East Jerusalemite who runs her own tour company called ‘Experience Palestine’ and who had previously worked at the Jerusalem-based public policy think tank, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information. Barakat is currently working for the Season of Culture project supported by the Shusterman Foundation, as the coordinator of the department “creative class of East Jerusalem” Through the WBC’s funding, Barakat was commissioned to serve as the roundtable co-host and to organize a tour introducing East Jerusalem’s art scene. Also through the WBC, I was invited to be present at the initial discussions between Litwin and key local actors of East Jerusalem about the idea of potential UARRs in East Jerusalem and offer my insights as an anthropologist and artist with an outsider’s perspective. This article is an anthropological expansion of my observations.

The tour and roundtable organized by Litwin

The tour[9] made clear that East Jerusalem has a relatively established and dynamic art scene, all be it working on an ad hoc basis and very much dependent on foreign funding. We met with Aline Khoury representing Al Ma’Mal, a gallery for Palestinian contemporary art located in the Christian quarter of the Old City, and Khaled Khitab, the Director of Dar Al Tifel Palestinian Heritage Museum, located in the neighborhood of the American Colony, which also comprises a school and the cultural center Nashashibi, containing many ancient Palestinian and Arabic artefacts. Both places have hosted and improvise artist residencies, and expressed openness to new initiatives of this sort. Another window of Palestinian art in East Jerusalem is Al Hoash[10] and the Yabous cultural center[11], both in Azzahra street nearby. Al Ma’mal gallery, Yabous and Al Hoash joined forces recently as the Shafuq network to organize joint Palestinian and international art initiatives. One significant event is the Qalandiya Arts Festival,[12] which takes place every two years since 2012 in some major Palestinian hubs including East Jerusalem, with the participation of Al Ma’Mal and Al Hoash.

Two other “coordinators of larger cultural events in East Jerusalem”[13] are the Educational Bookshop and the Jerusalem Hotel, also close by. They were behind the launching of the first Nablus Road Open Days during June 2016, which gathered numerous grassroots Palestinian cultural associations in the streets on and adjacent to Nablus road.[14] The Educational Bookshop is a cultural reference in the area, including with the expat international and NGO communities based in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian Territories; the bookshop in Salah Adin street is neighbors with the French Cultural Institute, and showcases numerous books in English on Palestinian culture and history. Another major reference in the area, also close by in the neighborhood of American Colony is the Palestinian National Theatre El Hakawati, which serves as the venue for Palestinian drama workshops, theatre and other cultural events.

All these artistic centers are bound by the Palestinian boycott of Israeli institutions. Dar Al Tifel director Khitab explains to us that “otherwise it would be seen by the general Palestinian public as acknowledging and accepting Israeli occupation, and enabling its normalization.” This however does not prevent them from working with Israelis on an unofficial basis. Khitab continues: “If (joint activities are) presented as just people getting to know each other, and to promote understanding, then that works well. What is important too is that there is no media coverage, no officiality involved – officiality spoils everything”.

In 2009, Jerusalem was nominated by the Arab League as the Capital of Arab Culture for that year. According to Khitab, “it was not a success because of a total lack of preparation and misunderstandings of the political situation in East Jerusalem – the Palestinian National Authority cannot have any impact in East Jerusalem because it is controlled by Israel. For instance one activity was with a play organized by local children in the El Hakawati theatre; it got cancelled by the Israeli authorities because it had received funding from the PA.”[15]

East Jerusalem is furthermore the base for various foreign cultural centers, including the French Institute and the British Council, which are locally active with exhibitions, film festivals and other cultural encounters. Many international organizations and NGOs are also based in the area, which provide financial and infrastructural support to local Palestinian initiatives.

Despite the efforts of these various actors, East Jerusalem still suffers from limited artistic vibrancy. Local Palestinians we spoke to also pointed out there is a great need for more art practice in East Jerusalem schools. East Jerusalem has become more conservative over the years, and, according to Aline Khoury recently “suffered quite a brain drain”– many young local people have left in search of a better life. Local Palestinians we spoke to say they go to Ramallah for arts and culture, including for a more liberal atmosphere, and this city is much cheaper.

The roundtable[16] was made up of Riman Barakat, artist Nasrin Abu Baker, Diana Mardi, coordinator of the East Jerusalem department of Bimkom, the Israeli non-profit for strengthening democracy and human rights in the field of planning, art therapist Khitam Edelbi, and legal adviser Rasem Masalha. Edna Fast, founder of Lunart, WBC’s Juliane Druckler and myself were also present as listeners. Litwin laid out the key questions for discussion: what are the current pressing cultural issues in East Jerusalem? What is the role of the artist in society at large? What role can a UARR play in order for East Jerusalem to benefit the urban and human surrounding? What are the cultural, organizational and ethical aspects that should be considered with regards the possible development of a future UARR in East Jerusalem?

Roundtable participants emphasized the importance of working with already existing initiatives and centers. These however are clustered into the wealthiest and most central neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and roundtable participants stressed the importance of having UARRs reach out into the more isolated neighborhoods, particularly the poor and problematic ones like Isawiya, Silwan and Shuafat. Roundtable participants stressed that the number one challenge for East Jerusalemite Palestinians is Israeli occupation. East Jerusalemite Palestinians are affected by Israeli occupation in several ways: one is the wall constructed by the Israeli state separating parts of East Jerusalem. This separation affects not only the physical unity of East Jerusalem but most importantly that of its inhabitants, dividing the population and preventing social, economic – and cultural - fluidity. Going through the wall involves checkpoints, which are often cumbersome, slow and humiliating ordeals. Successfully getting through checkpoints depends on your legal identity, if you are a Palestinian whether you have the necessary permit, and if you are an East Jerusalem cardholder whether you have the sufficient up-to-date evidence that you really live in the city. Inhabitants are also regularly subjected to police and military checks. This constant legal insecurity takes its toll on its inhabitants together with the economic insecurity – numerous inhabitants are restricted because of the wall, checkpoints and regular roadblocks, and the institutional obstacles, including of the municipality. This has caused many people to leave East Jerusalem, go live abroad or in the West Bank.

The restriction on urban planning under the municipality to the disadvantage of Palestinians was also discussed. Mardi mentioned that as part of her research with Bimkom she had talked with the female Palestinian inhabitants who pointed out the lack of public facilities, including green spaces for the children and lavatories, things that the male inhabitants, who are the only ones consulted if at all, do not bring up. Two other ominous factors in the difficult life of East Jerusalem are the gentrification and rapid development of new Jewish settlements, while building permits for Palestinians are rarely issued.[17]

As a consequence of these divisions, participants stated, East Jerusalemite Palestinians have an unclear identity: with their East Jerusalemite ids, they are neither Israeli nor Palestinian. They identify with being Palestinian but live within an Israeli system, isolated, and disconnected from Palestine. While this gives cause to heaviness and darkness, Barakat insisted it can also be turned into something positive and advantageous. There is an urgent need to bring this out, and channel these mixed emotions into creativity. Hereby lies the potential with UARRs.

Participants reported on the thirst for art in East Jerusalem, how when an art course is offered to the community it is welcomed eagerly and participants ask for more. More art in East Jerusalem, say the participants, would help make life more bearable for many people, give them respite and a break from reality, provide therapy and enable them to see and think differently, as well as offer broader education and horizons for the children.

Participants expressed the wish for collaboration and openness. There is a need for a common language to communicate and overcome the barriers between people. Art could be this universal language. Participants pointed out the advantage of residencies for East Jerusalem as a way to bring artistic action, and breaths of creativity to the area. They would like to see the artists interact with locals and offer them new ways of seeing life. They also wished to see incoming artists learn from the locals, that they get involved in local life, that there is exchange and contamination on the part of the artist. And that the artist reports back to the wider global community, spread the word about what they have lived whilst in residence. They also suggested that Jewish and Israeli Jewish artists come and experience life here for themselves, and thus through their artistic activities, get to realize how things really are in East Jerusalem. At the same time, they acknowledged that this would be difficult to set up due to security risks.


The conclusions I drew from these discussions was that indeed UARRs in East Jerusalem could a help East Jerusalemite artists and their community to develop their creative potential in the area. I invited however caution and further reflection on what issues could be at stake in this particular context, regarding the complex relationship between art and politics in areas of conflict:

Developing a UARR in a conflictive urban context such as East Jerusalem is much more complicated than the kind of art initiatives promoted by international and humanitarian organizations also in this part of the city. UARRs are not meant to be political, unlike, for instance, the EU’s art initiatives.[18] And yet the language employed to describe what UARRs are will be interpreted so in East Jerusalem: “question(ing) existing social paradigms”, “demand(ing)” a ‘right to the city’, ( _ )for a transformed and renewed access to urban life on behalf of the local resident”, ”‘re-appropriation’” and “a catalyst for social and urban change” (Litwin ibid). In a place like East Jerusalem where different power structures and entities are clashing, it becomes crucial to reflect what is precisely understood by these intentions – challenge whose social paradigms? whose right to the city? what re-appropriation? Thus the premises and objectives of UARRs specific to East Jerusalem need to be thoroughly and self-critically thought-through.

Furthermore, while the strength of UARRs are that they are devoid of organizational frameworks, that is they are not invited, hosted or developed by any official entity, in areas of conflict, this can pose certain challenges; as a grassroots and independent initiative, a UARR in East Jerusalem can be vulnerable, whereby its intentions can be easily interpreted as potentially inflammatory to opposing sides. It could for instance unintentionally disturb, or be misunderstood.

Several questions, I offered, should be addressed in a first stage of development:

- What does a UARR want to do exactly in East Jerusalem? Who would be the actors involved: who would be the hosts of residencies? Who could be the targeted audience(s), and how? Who would be the artists? How to ensure their local integration? If Jewish Israelis, their safety would indeed need to be insured. What kind of art would be done and how would it relate to the local community? How to ensure that the foreign artists gain and develop a fully rounded and impartial picture of the conflict? Who exactly is considered to be ‘the local community’, given the existing diversity and divisiveness? How will the UARR work with existing art initiatives?

Zoe Bray is an artist and anthropologist of French and British citizenship. Her research focuses on art and politics. She came to Jerusalem in October 2014 with a visiting scholarship from the Hebrew University’s European Forum. Prior to this she was professor at the Center for Basque Studies of the University of Nevada Reno, USA. More info:


[2] Litwin completed an Undergraduate degree at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in 2001, and an MA at Hunter College, NYC, in 2005.

[3] Litwin, Anat (2017) “Research Proposal for Creative Cities Fellowship at Stanford University”, January 11 2017.

[4] Concrete results of the HB projects have already included multidisciplinary exhibitions of site-specific work, workshops, publications, and presentations by artists and local residents. Many of the artists went on to engage in new related hosting initiatives, which emphasize process over product and bring forward a creative social awareness.

[5] Quote from Anat Litwin. RRR will conclude in 2017 and be presented in 2018 as part of an interactive exhibition on the topic.



[8] Litwin carried out interviews with a handful of local leaders and art world personnel as part of her preparation phase of RRR EJ. One of her interviews was with Nasrin Abu Baker, a thirty something artist from a village close to Nazareth, but who has been living and working in Jerusalem for the past three and a half years. Abu Baker was introduced to Litwin by Edna Fast some years ago as a potential participant for HomeBase Jerusalem. Litwin interviewed Abu Baker standing on Mount Scopus with a backdrop view of Isawiya, the neighborhood where Abu Baker currently lives and which is one of the most poor and troubled wholly Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Salam Qasem filmed the interview. I have not had access to this video, nor obtained significant information of any of these discussions.

Thanks to Dor Guez, Artist and Head of the Photography Department at Bezalel Academy, Litwin met Qasem, an East Jerusalemite from the neighborhood of Ras el Amud and fresh graduate of Bezalel in Video Art, and commissioned her, thanks to the WBC funds, to document some of Litwin’s meetings and the planned roundtable.

[9] The tour took place on December 28 2016.



[12] See .

[13] Email from Riman Barakat, December 20 2016, addressed to me, Anat Litwin and Edna Fast. Subject: “Re: dec 28th tour art in east jerusalem”

[14] I attended the event over two days. Numerous Palestinian families were out, wandering the streets and the stalls in the various venues in a generally joyous atmosphere. The only seemingly non-Palestinians I saw during this time were foreigners – people I recognized from the expat international and ngo community, or residents of the various foreign institutions such as the Ecole Biblique and the Albright school which are located nearby in East Jerusalem’s Nablus Road and Sala Ahdin street. I did not notice any conspicuous-looking Israeli Jews.

[15] Basic research on the internet about the year Jerusalem was the capital of Arab culture reveals numerous incidents where the Israeli authorities prevented many of the artistic events from taking place under the pretext of security. Some then went “underground”. Eg: ; It seems that from this experience, there developed a new initiative called Al Quds (Jerusalem in Arabic) Underground, promoted by a Dutch artist. This initiative seems to have continued for three years, and then ceased. For long-term UARR planning in East Jerusalem, it would be worth investigating further what happened with this seemingly very interesting grassroots initiative.

[16] The roundtable took place on January 12 2017 at the WBC.

[17] For more see also reports by Ir Amim, Btselem.

[18] The European Union’s funding program for East Jerusalem, which consisted of 10,500,00 Euros for 2016 covers education, social inclusion, community empowerment and human rights, and has as its objective “to strengthen the resilience of Palestinian East Jerusalem residents and to preserve the Palestinian character of the city”, and “to support the development of a vibrant and diverse civil society in East Jerusalem” (;  European Union East Jerusalem Program June 2016). Such foreign support has a clear political premise, in line with international law: “to maintain the viability of the two-state solution with Jerusalem as the future capital of two states, based on the European Council Conclusions on the Middle East Peace Process” (ibid).


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