Jack Persekian (b. 1962 in Jerusalem) is an artist and a builder of art institutions. A self-taught photographer and artist, he was a visiting professor at London’s Royal College of Art from 2011 to 2015. His definition of art differs completely from the classical idea of a solitary artist working in isolation to create something magnificent; in his view, artistic production in the 21st century is more about being part of a community and engaging with an audience. That conception led to the establishment of Qalandiya International, an extended program of art events by several organizations with events throughout the occupied Palestinian territories. Already wearing many hats, Persekian recently added the directorship of the Black Gold Museum, slated to open in Riyadh in spring 2024 in a building designed by the internationally renowned architect Zaha Hadid.1
Origins and Childhood Years
The Persekians, an Armenian family, came to Palestine in 1896 or so from a town called Marash in the Ottoman Empire. The reason for the move is not clear to their descendants; some believe that the elders might have seen the beginnings of a wave of anti-Armenian persecution and decided to leave when they could; but then again, they might have simply been looking for work. They settled first in Nablus and then, around 1918 or 1920, in Jerusalem.2
Jack Persekian, born in 1962 to Hanna and Nabiha Persekian and the youngest of their three sons, grew up in the Old City neighborhood of Qasr al-Jalut, Goliath’s Palace, near the New Gate into the Old City. He was educated at Collège des Frère La Salle New Gate, a French Catholic school.
In the 1970s, Jack’s family moved briefly to the United States with the intention of emigrating there. After a few years, however, they decided to return to Jerusalem; by then Jack had received US citizenship.
When Jack’s father, Hanna Persekian, was 5 years old, he lost a leg in an accident. The result of that accident narrowed his career options—only two professions were thought to be suitable for someone with his disability—even as it later opened up a whole new world for his son. Hanna Persekian became a bookbinder, and over time he developed a thriving business that employed 10 or 11 people, in a neighborhood filled with craftsmen—photographers, shoemakers, wood carvers, and so on. Years later, Jack told a writer about the profound effect of being exposed to the art magazines that his father was hired to bind for the Israel Museum:
“These magazines they needed binding. It was nothing anybody had ever seen, not me, not my friends at school. You never got to see magazines of photography and art. We had stacks of these magazines in the shop, and I’d go through them for the pictures. I remember when I saw Man Ray’s photographs for the first time, I just . . .”
And even now he gasps, at the memory.3
An Art Gallery Is Born
In the mid- to late 1980s and early 1990s, Jack Persekian worked in a variety of positions. For a while he promoted the music band Sabreen, but he also worked as a photography developer. His work in photography would be a prominent component of his later body of artistic output.
In 1992, he and his brother-in-law decided to open an art gallery. The pair thought that peace was on the horizon (a sentiment nurtured by the end of the First Intifada and the Madrid Peace Conference) and that with it would come Palestinians from abroad seeking to settle in Palestine. They reasoned that the returnees would undoubtedly want artwork in their homes. Palestinian artist and art historian Kamal Boullata describes the mood that gave rise to such optimism:
The 1990s ushered in a new era in the visual arts. With peace talks that seemed to hold out new promise for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, the cultural scene was infused with a new energy. For the first time since 1967, new institutions devoted to the promotion of the visual arts provided proper exhibition space.4
Gallery Anadiel opened in 1992 on Salah al-Din Street. The project was a success in every sense but financial. The owners had to find paid employment because the gallery was not a money-maker. But it filled a gap: It provided a space in East Jerusalem for people to learn about Palestinian art and for local Palestinian artists to gain exposure and to interact with Palestinian artists living abroad, some of whom had never been to Palestine before.5
Taking Art to the Old City
On the heels of the Madrid Conference came the Oslo Accords. International money poured in, including for cultural projects, but the center of gravity shifted to Ramallah; in fact, the terms of the Oslo Accords wholly excluded Jerusalem within its Israeli-defined boundaries from Palestinian Authority jurisdiction. International institutions started to move to Ramallah, and Israel made Jerusalem increasingly inaccessible to Palestinians. As Persekian recalls, “Jerusalem started being emptied out.”6
Persekian chose to remain in Jerusalem, moving Gallery Anadiel to the Old City when he lost his lease on the Salah al-Din Street venue in 1995. Choosing this location for the new venue was just as contrarian as the original decision to open an art gallery in the first place; the alleys of the Old City are not easily traversed, unlike the previous location on a major Jerusalem thoroughfare. But again, the decision proved to be a sound one.
Persekian’s first show in the new location featured the work of the well-known Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, who lived in London. Years later, he would describe the show as a personal game-changer:
Working with Mona and learning from her completely transformed my way of thinking about what running a gallery means, what it’s for. Before that, what was not so encouraging was this location. Salah ad-Din Street is accessible, it’s a commercial place, you can park in front of the shop, a bus will drop you there. . . . But gradually I began to see this location, and the context of Jerusalem at large, as the most interesting thing about the gallery.
The artists I’ve worked with are responding to the overwhelming history in the city that is experienced through being here. . . . Their capability in finding and investigating hidden issues, discovering new angles, elaborating on them, articulating them—doing that here, inside the city, was much more meaningful to them and the outcome of their work, as against being in Salah ad-Din Street or somewhere else.7
Six years after opening Gallery Anadiel, Persekian established Al-Ma‘mal Foundation in order to expand the international scope introduced by the gallery, apply for funding, and promote experimentation in art. The foundation offers an artist’s residency program and hosts exhibitions of local and international artists. It operated in a temporary space until renovations could be completed on what had previously been a floor tile production factory. In 2014, the foundation opened its doors in the same neighborhood as Gallery Anadiel, close to the New Gate.
Old City biographer Matthew Teller describes its significance:
The space is cool, literally and figuratively: it’s unexpectedly roomy, and contemporary art in the context of the Old City provokes thought. Al-Ma‘mal is another beautiful, community-driven transformation of a Jerusalem building that was effectively in ruins. With its ongoing presentation of art, music, workshops and debates, this non-profit organization single-handedly ups the ante as the only such arts space within the walls, and one of the very few in Palestinian Jerusalem.8
The two facilities serve different purposes. Persekian describes Gallery Anadiel as a way for Palestinians to breach the siege that the Israeli occupation had imposed on Palestinian artists and also to break through restrictions that Palestinian artists had placed on themselves. Anadiel exhibited the work of artists from abroad, the first for a Palestinian art space, according to Persekian. In so doing, it provided a conduit for Palestinian artists to a diverse art world that would broaden their vision. And by offering Palestinian artists an independent exhibition space, it freed them to produce work that was a personal expression of their views, rather than confine themselves to producing art that was “shackled by PLO messaging” and served propaganda purposes. At Anadiel, artists did not have to justify their art; it was a product of political realities, but it reflected those realities on the artists’ terms. Al-Ma‘mal emerged from a need that Gallery Anadiel brought into focus: It created a structure making Palestinian artwork sustainable, taking it beyond one-project-at-a-time planning. Al-Ma‘mal was created as a nonprofit organization that runs residency programs, hosts exhibitions, and offers workshops.9
Persekian sees his role as creating infrastructure for art in the region. In both Jerusalem and in Sharjah, his goal was to catalyze the resources that were available to create sustainable structures for art: programs that would live beyond single events. In his own art, he notes that, since 2007 or so, his focus has been on taking clear positions that put him in the battlefront, so to speak.10
More recently, Persekian expressed the significance of making art in Jerusalem, a city that he observes is in danger of becoming little more than a religious symbol, especially for those Palestinians—at least a generation now—that has no actual experience of Jerusalem and has not been allowed to step foot in it.
Building Art Institutions
During the period between 2000 and 2020, Persekian was at the forefront of cultural conversations and activities primarily in Palestine but also regionally and internationally. His lengthy list of personal and curated exhibitions extends beyond Palestine to Jordan, Abu Dhabi, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, the United States, Brazil, and Australia.11 Due to space considerations, only a handful of events initiated by Persekian are described here.
From 2004 to 2011, Persekian served as artistic director and head curator of the Sharjah Biennial, the international exhibition of contemporary art launched in 1993 as a biennial and named for the city in the United Arab Emirates. (He also served as the founding director of the Sharjah Art Foundation, a contemporary art and cultural foundation, from 2009 to 2011.) After years of acclaim for his leadership, Persekian was fired after the 2011 show opened because one work featured in the exhibition was considered offensive by the Sharjah authorities.12
In a rather unexpected way, Sharjah Biennial led to Qalandiya International. Working on a biennial helped Persekian understand the nuts and bolts of putting together a large production and the ways in which big events could be held even without massive funding. Palestinian art and culture organizations had been holding their own separate events, but they weren’t reaching large audiences. Persekian thought they would all be better off by combining their productions into a defined time period, with a single channel of communication to the public.
In 2012, he cofounded Qalandiya International, a joint production by seven Palestinian art and cultural organizations designed to overcome what has become a fragmented geography. Reflecting on the initiative 10 years later, he said it made sense to him to work collectively with organizations, each of which had been working individually on its own exhibits, to produce something greater than what any single organization could produce on its own—the total being greater than the sum of its parts.13
For those familiar with the territory, the word “Qalandiya” immediately conjures up images of the major northern checkpoint that controls access for Palestinians from the West Bank into Jerusalem—a terrain scarred by chaotic shanties, congested roads, circuitous routes, and bottlenecks, with malevolent uniformed Israeli soldiers standing guard. But it wasn’t always like that. Qalandiya is also the name of a town and a refugee camp, and old-timers can remember when it referred to a small, fully functioning international airport. Qalandiya International intends to revolt against the imposition of the monstrous Israeli checkpoint and reverts its reality into a celebration of Palestinian cultural output and the absence of boundaries. The cultural extravaganza, typically held over a two- or three-week period, includes a range of activities—art exhibits, book launches, films, performances, workshops, and lectures—held in various Palestinian cities and villages.
In 2012, Persekian was hired as director and chief curator of the Palestinian Museum, a national museum established in Birzeit, north of Ramallah. Three years later, he parted ways with the museum over what was officially described as “differences over planning and management issues”; Persekian describes the rift as a pretty significant disagreement on the conceptual positioning of the museum.14 The parties clashed over the interpretation of the launching event theme, “Never Part.” Persekian and his team intended for the launch to show an empty building, the point being that much of Palestine’s cultural heritage had been confiscated. The museum managers did not find that appropriate for a launch event. (The launch event took place, without an exhibit, but with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cutting the ribbon on rooms that still held construction equipment.)15
Persekian is also the founder and artistic director of the Jerusalem Show, an annual showcase launched in 2007 of the artistic production of artists working in a variety of media on a specific theme.
Persekian’s 2019 exhibit “Past Tense” demonstrates an expansion of what can be conveyed through single images. The exhibit is a set of two dozen photographs of Jerusalem scenes taken in the early 20th century by American Colony photographers (now stored in the Library of Congress) on which Persekian superimposed photographs he took of the same scenes and from the same angle several decades later.
The result is a haunting statement about the changes brought about by time. Persekian describes his project as showing “the importance of monitoring, comprehending, and communicating the changes that have occurred over time, and are still ongoing, in order to deepen people’s understanding of their history and future.”16 The project, which is ongoing, has been challenging: From a set of 200 photographs from the Library of Congress collection, only 40 could be reproduced. Many of the old settings can no longer be detected; buildings have been torn down and rebuilt, and structures have been erected on once vacant land.
Nevertheless, the transformation documented by the paired photographs is stunning. As described by Palestinian artist Suleiman Mansour, “Residents do not notice this change, but it becomes evident when compared to pictures taken a hundred years ago. This is why the exhibition is an important documentation attempt to monitor changes in Jerusalem over the years.”17
Role of Art
“Desymbolizing Jerusalem comes through education. That’s what art is trying to do, to make people think outside these prescribed narratives, look at things from different ways, express ideas and thoughts and feelings. It’s about liberating yourself. Once more individuals are liberated from within, you can eventually start to evolve a society that is on its way to freedom.
. . .
“We’ve managed to keep a voice coming out from Jerusalem in art, in all the circles that art revolves in, locally and internationally. The voice insists that Jerusalem, with all its historical, religious baggage, has a contemporary art identity, and is engaging multiple issues through the lens of art and the work of artists. It’s saying that Jerusalem is worthy of attention.”18
Persekian married Palestinian Jerusalemite Hania Kassissieh. They went on to have three sons.
Honors and Awards
In 2016, Persekian was awarded the Palestine Order of Merit for Culture, Sciences and Arts by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“The Love of My Life”
Persekian describes Jerusalem as “the love of my life,” but he is quick to add that like every love story, it is a problematic relationship, full of contradictions.
In Persekian’s view, Jerusalem’s holiness is suffocating it. Religion by its nature is intolerant; it is the antithesis of the artistic impulse, which is open and tolerant.
Although he has had high-profile roles in other countries (Sharjah, as director of the biennale, and currently in Saudi Arabia, as director of Riyadh’s Black Gold Museum, set to open in 2024), he is careful not to be out of the country for very long, so as not to give Israel an excuse to revoke his residency rights in the city of his birth (see Precarious Status).
Birzeit University. “‘Past Tense’ Exhibition Combines Old and New Photos of Jerusalem.” October 31, 2019.
Boullata, Kamal. Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present. London: Saqi, 2009.
Hanley, William. “Exhibition Review: The 11th Sharjah Biennial.” Architectural Record, April 9, 2013.
Independent Curators International and the New Museum. “The Curator’s Perspective: Jack Persekian” (video). New Museum, New York, October 9, 2011.
“Jack Persekian, Director of Palestinian Museum, Resigns.” Art & Education, December 15, 2015.
Melhem, Ahmad. “Jerusalem Artist Explores City’s Evolution by Combining Archival, New Photos.” Al-Monitor, October 10, 2018.
Persekian, Jack. Interview with Jerusalem Story Team. September 3, 2022.
Persekian, Jack. “Past Tense.” July 28–September 28, 2021. Zawyeh Gallery.
Teller, Matthew. Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City. London: Profile Books, 2022.
Toukan, Hanan. “The Palestinian Museum.” Radical Philosophy 2, no. 3 (2018): 10–22.
Wikipedia. s.v. “Jack Persekian.” Last modified August 8, 2022, 21:09.
[Profile photo: Issa Freij]
Jack Persekian, interview with the Jerusalem Story Team, September 3, 2022.
Much of the family history is taken from an interview with Jack Persekian, September 3, 2022, and from Matthew Teller, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem: A New Biography of the Old City (London: Profile Books, 2022), chapter 18.
Teller, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, 313.
Kamal Boullata, Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present (London: Saqi, 2009), 292.
Boullata, Palestinian Art, 292.
Teller, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, 315.
Teller, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, 316.
Teller, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, 317.
Independent Curators International and the New Museum, “The Curator’s Perspective.”
“Jack Persekian, Director of Palestinian Museum, Resigns,” Art & Education, December 15, 2015; Persekian, interview. Toukan elaborates on the different visions; see Hanan Toukan, “The Palestinian Museum,” Radical Philosophy 2, no. 3 (2018): 10–22.
Toukan, “The Palestinian Museum,” 11. Toukan’s claim that he was hired in 2008, not 2012, is incorrect.
Birzeit University, “‘Past Tense’ Exhibition Combines Old and New Photos of Jerusalem,” October 31, 2019. The images can be seen in this booklet: Jack Persekian, “Past Tense,” July 28–September 28, 2021, Zawyeh Gallery.
Ahmad Melhem, “Jerusalem Artist Explores City’s Evolution by Combining Archival, New Photos,” Al-Monitor, October 10, 2018.
Teller, Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, 319.