Palestinian Artists Capture Bethlehem’s Storied Past and Present in Striking New Campus Exhibit

Bethlehem Beyond the Wall, a multimedia exhibition, will be on view at the College from Monday, Feb. 19 to Tuesday, Feb. 27.

A little more than a year ago, Marisa Lerer, Ph.D., assistant professor of visual and performing arts, was part of a faculty cohort that visited Bethlehem, the city historic to our Catholic heritage as being the birthplace of Jesus. Each Manhattan College staffer who embarked on the trip did so with a different objective; hers was to engage with the visual arts in Palestine, and foster a relationship to the culture there between Bethlehem University and Manhattan College.

This month at the College, that mission is accomplished via a travelling exhibition of photographs – roughly 100, to be more precise – that collectively evoke the resilience, struggle, and survival of Palestinians from the late 1800s to present day. Together, those images, along with seven paintings, four video interviews, and series of maps, encompass Bethlehem Beyond the Wall, an artist showcase that will be on view from Monday, Feb. 19 to Tuesday, Feb. 27, from 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. in room 5A of the Kelly Commons. A full list of events that will be included during the one-week display can be found here

The Artwork

The materials that comprise Beyond the Wall are deeply personal, in that they tell the stories of people who have lived in Bethlehem throughout the past century, amid the tumultuous political situation in Palestine and Israel. According to Lerer, this helps viewers gain a deeper understanding of the Middle Eastern city. Student viewing image.

Bethlehem Beyond the Wall provides the Manhattan College campus and surrounding community the chance to see Bethlehem through the eyes of its artists,” Lerer said. “Along with photographs and paintings, the exhibition incorporates personal archival objects, maps, and images that help bring the history and contemporary story of Bethlehem to life.”

This diverse showcase of materials was compiled by the Museum of the Palestinian People, an organization that celebrates the culture of the West Bank. Based in Washington, D.C., the museum’s vision is to help diverse American audiences experience the history and spirit of an area that today includes more than 100,000 people in Bethlehem and its surrounding villages, plus four generations of refugees, and three refugee camps.

The Emotion

Standing in front of The Exile, a powerful acrylic painting from artist Mohammad Ma’ali in 2012, communication major Alexa Schmidt ‘18 points out that many of us have a limited knowledge of war-torn areas of the Middle East. In this way, Bethlehem Beyond the Wall helps bring different emotions to the surface.

“The paintings and photography are striking, and I think will certainly impact the people here,” she said. “They're pieces that will hopefully make others realize how different the world really is, and that we must do our part in spreading awareness.”

For Bshara Nassar, a Bethlehem University alumnus who serves as executive director of the Museum of the Palestinian People, the contents of Beyond the Wall are deeply personal. Having grown up there, the emotions that resonate through the artwork are his own.

“Bethlehem has been a special place through history, and it’s a place that is significant to many Americans. Many might think of the place as a myth, or may not even know that it still exists, or has real people who have lived there for generations. The exhibition is placing Bethlehem on the map as a real place with real people, past and present,” he said.

On Feb. 19, Nassar celebrated the Manhattan College launch of Beyond the Wall at an opening reception held from 5:30-7 p.m., in the exhibition space.  

The Lasallian Connection

According to Brother Jack Curran, FSC, Ph.D., who serves as vice president for mission, the exhibit’s residence on campus is significant to a partnership between the College and Bethlehem University that has spanned four generations.  

“Each and every day in and out of the classroom, by virtue of our core identity as a Lasallian Catholic college, we have opportunities to explore the intersection of theological principles of faith with philosophical principles of reason.

“Bethlehem Beyond the Wall is one of those unique opportunities for us at the College to engage with the history and culture of our sisters and brothers who live there, and thus, deepen our understandings,” said Br. Jack Curran, who served as the vice president for development at Bethlehem University for a 10-year period ending in 2013.

Bethlehem Beyond the Wall’s current residence on campus is the most recent collaboration between the West Bank and Manhattan College. Following the faculty trip to Bethlehem University, Palestine in January 2017, five students from the university spent the summer in New York City, where they collaborated on research projects with faculty of the College. This spring, a group of faculty and students from Riverdale will embark on a L.O.V.E. service-immersion trip to Palestine.

By Christine Loughran