The Palestine Museum of the CT will be presented at the Venice Biennale

When the international Venice Biennale, an international art exhibit in its 59th year, opens later this month, a relatively new Connecticut museum will be there too. His very presence is a statement.

It’s the Palestine Museum United States in Woodbridge, founded in 2018 by Faisal Saleh as the only museum in the Western Hemisphere dedicated to Palestinian art. For the Biennale, Saleh mounted an exhibition of 19 Palestinian artists from around the world. Many have work in his museum and many feel out of place, like Saleh himself.

He was born and raised in the West Bank after his family lost their ancestral home during the civil wars that followed the establishment of the State of Israel. He came to Connecticut as a teenager in 1969, joining a brother who lived in Branford, and he pursued his career in benefits, not art.


“I don’t want to get into politics,” Saleh said after a recent trip to Venice, “but suffice it to say that a lot of Palestinians live in exile. The mission of the museum is to preserve Palestinian culture and Palestinian history – to strengthen Palestinian identity – because there are many people who try to say that Palestine does not exist and that there is no there are no Palestinians. We all know that there are millions of Palestinians. They exist. They simply don’t have a state.

One of the 30 works in the exhibition at the Palestine Museum in Venice will be underfoot. It is an enlarged map of the historical borders of Palestine which overlaps with modern Israel.

“It might be a bit controversial,” Saleh said, acknowledging that “art and politics sometimes intersect.”

Another politically charged piece hangs from the ceiling. It is a keffiyeh cloth bag, the kind used in traditional Middle Eastern headscarves, filled with messages and letters from Palestinian refugees. It was created by Ibrahim Alazzawho teaches at Northeastern University and is one of the youngest artists in the exhibit.

The very status of the museum at the Biennale has a political connotation. It is one of the 31 non-profit institutions invited as a so-called collateral event. It cannot be called a national flag, Saleh said, because Italy, like most Western European countries and the United States, does not recognize Palestine as a state.

Most of the artworks in the exhibition are paintings and less overtly political. “Green Hills,” an idyllic orchard landscape over nine feet wide, is from the “In Pursuit of Utopia” series by Nabil Ananiconsidered a pioneer of contemporary Palestinian art.

Faisal Saleh is the founder and executive director of the Palestine Museum US in Woodbridge.

Courtesy of Faisal Saleh

An abstract painting of reds, purples and yellows that seem to flare upwards is from Samia Halaby, who was born in Jerusalem but later became the first full-time female associate professor at the Yale School of Art. Now in his eighties and living in Brooklyn, Halaby wrote in a catalog prepared for the exhibit that during his painting, “Venetian red,” can cause thoughts of red velvet or fire. His original intention was to capture the movement of waves, not just water. The waves, she wrote, can also be seen in a “herd of migrating animals or a school of fish, moving and forking, then joining the main group depending on the obstacles.”

To be chosen as a side event, an institution must submit an application with plans for a full exhibition. For this, Saleh had the help of art curator Nancy Nesvet. Nesvet, who is based in Wisconsin, happens to be Jewish, he said. They submitted their application in October and learned of their acceptance at the end of December. Fundraising was done to pay for exhibition fees.

The Venice Biennale, widely regarded as the world’s premier art fair, officially opens on April 23 and ends on November 27. Some 200 individual artists are included in the main pavilions. There are also 84 national pavilions. The American pavilion presents, for the first time, the work of a black woman: sculptor Simone Leigh.

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