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2014
custodia.org

A new generation of mosaicists in the Holy Land

“Memory is like a mosaic, made of tiles,” wrote contemporary Spanish author Jose Carlos Llop. This quotation alone can sum up the itinerary of six young Palestinians who for the last two years have been training in the mosaic arts thanks to the NGO of the Custody of the Holy Land: ATS Pro Terra Sancta.

Carla Benelli, art historian and coordinator of ATS Pro Terra Sancta recounts that it all began with the project of restoring the mosaics in the Basilica of Gethsemane. “Charged with finding funds for the project, we quickly seized the unbelievable opportunity offered by this work,” she explains. While the Custody had called on the Jericho Mosaicists Center, founded by Fra Piccirillo OFM, which has since become an independent Palestinian NGO, it was decided to open the vocational field to other Palestinians, residents of Jerusalem. “The young people of the Mosaic Center are mostly from Transjordan, where they have acquired renown and legitimacy. Their group is well structured and represents about a dozen mosaicists, but it necessary to continue to involve the younger generation,” continues the art historian with conviction in her voice. The idea and desire are shared by Osama Hamdan, a Palestinian architect and director of the Jericho center: “There is no training center or university in Palestine that offers a specialization in restoration of the patrimony. It is up to us to provide an impetus for this dynamic.”

It was no simple task. They had to find and “bet on” six Jerusalemites who would be willing to undertake a two-year obligation to an enormous project involving over 10 million mosaic tiles! The project was entrusted to three young men and three young women, both Muslims and Christians, under the supervision of Raed Khalil and Rasmi Al-Shaer, experts from the Mosaic Center. Osama Hamdan stresses that “the idea was not just to teach these young people the techniques or to give them work, but to sensitize them to the beauty of their history, which does not consist only of confrontation. In Jericho, for example, Muslims, Christians and Jews used mosaic arts; this means that they shared and cohabited. The future is not built only with money, but also with reflection. My wish is that they will become aware that they are not laborers, but guardians of their identity.”

Rediscovering the Roman, Byzantine or Mamluk periods, the training of a mosaicists questions the expression of the past and the work of memorializing the present. Osama is proud to see these young Palestinians taking their heritage in hand and renewing it. Accompanied by good communications, the Gethsemane project has interested both Christian and Muslim Palestinian schools. “They came to meet us in a truly educational process, seeing and listening to young, invested professional Palestinians.” In fact, an exposition of the work will soon be opened and presented in various Palestinian cities, Osama Hamdan announced.

A sense of color, mobility, the ability to work at heights or outdoors—so many skills had to be developed. As Salam, one of the young women, shares, “It takes a lot of patience and being relaxed. I have always loved art, but I never could have imagined becoming a mosaicists. It is even more surprising to see a young woman handling the hammer!” These young professionals are now working with a local contract on other projects in the Holy Land: a British military cemetery in Jerusalem and Franciscan mosaics at Capernaum. They will begin renovation of the mosaics at Dominus Flevit in September. In another opening opportunity, the mosaicists and their teachers spent ten days in Italy last May, and for many of them it was an unforgettable experience. The program included Venice and its islands, Spilimbergo, Ravenna, Nazzano, and of course Rome. They participated in the fifth international Pictor Imaginarius competition. Palestine represented in an international competition – a huge step forward that saw the “emerging artist” prize awarded to our young mosaicists. With meetings, visits to art centers and the discovery of the rich Italian patrimony, “we hoped to spur their curiosity and artistic inspiration. They need it to increase their depth and creativity,” adds Carla Benelli. It is “a true marketplace of restoration, but also of the mosaic arts that are now being developed,” concludes Osama Hamdan. “The Custody of the Holy Land nourishes a philosophy of linking the conservation of cultural goods to the local population. In partnership with the Mosaic Center, it has provided the means of more serenely envisaging the future of a handful of young people, and it is already a great success.”

To discover the Jericho Mosaic Center or for guided visits to the most beautiful mosaics in the Holy Land, write to mosaiccentre@yahoo.com or visitproject@proterrasancta.org.

E.R.

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