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Crossing Boundaries through Art

By Ghassan Bardawil

Palestinian art is characterized by traditional themes that include attachment to the land, agricultural produce and lifestyle, cultural and religious iconography, and historical narrative. At the same time, Palestinian artists typically employ expressionist and unconventional styles and methods. In many cases, the sharp contrast between historical and traditional aesthetic thematics and the avant-garde modernism of the delivery is striking.

This contrast emerges as an almost ubiquitous quality of Palestinian art and can be considered a defining feature. Laila Shawa, Sliman Mansour, Samia Halaby, Nabil Anani, and Rana Samara, some of the most prominent and celebrated Palestinian artists, are only a few of many to characteristically employ contemporary and modernist techniques in their depictions of traditional and historical subjects.

It is impossible to ignore the collective aesthetic tendency toward contemporary and postmodern expressionismi among Palestinian artists, who seamlessly interweave the impacts of the occupation with progressive and expressionist aesthetics. Countless contemporary impressions of traditional dress and agricultural produce present an ideal example of this contrast. Employing impressionist and cubist aesthetics, these depictions capture a sense of sanguine nostalgia and reject a hopeless longing for the past. At the same time, this style also portrays a rejection of abstract modernism, opting instead to focus on traditional subjects rather than to dissolve the subject altogether. Yazid Anani expressed this anomaly when discussing his role as a curator. He describes the position of Palestine as simultaneously colonial and post-colonial and suggests that the anxiety caused by this self-contradicting reality entrenches a cultural apprehension of the real and induces an artistic rejection of realism.ii

Is Love Really Stronger by Jordan Nassar, 2015.

The stylistic transition, which was particularly pronounced throughout the first Intifada, was empowering in many ways. “Our art became more expressive of ourselves and more abstract,” says Sliman Mansour, referring to the shift away from realist and classical art. Tayseer Barakat highlights the power to reach a wider and more engaged audience and explains, “We wanted to relay our message and the Palestinian story through modern and contemporary practice, a new language that communicates with the outside world, not only with the Palestinian public.iii

In this light, contemporary art emerges as a mechanism that strives to impose agency onto an apparently futile reality. Liberation and the rejection of oppression are at the core of Palestinian identity and conceptually central to Palestinian art. Much like any other form of resistance in Palestine, art heavily revolves around ideological themes of resilience and solidarity, and, by extent,  frequently manifests as a demand for collective action and a call for recognition.iv

The power of this imposed agency should not be understated. Palestinians are empowered through art with the capacity to actively curate their narrative and the visibility of their experiences.v The content and medium are the artistic choices of Palestinians in their artistic representation. This work thus presents a stark opposition to conventional media representation where the experiences of Palestinians tend to be reduced to a political or moral dilemma and curated by others on their behalf.

It is important to highlight the significance of cultural organization to Palestinian livelihood. Conveying a sense of national pride and community is necessary for retaining humanity in the face of a never-ending onslaught of objectifying newsreels and humanitarian pleas.vi Art thus effectively facilitates a systemic self-definition of Palestinian identity which otherwise is inaccessible due to political, economic, and practical limitations on self-actualization imposed by the occupation.

The occupation has targeted cultural expression brutally and continuously. Propagating the Zionist narrative relies heavily on the erasure of Palestinian history, but this is undermined by cultural expression that continuously asserts the Palestinian identity and narrative. Arrests and harassment of artists and seizures of paintings or supplies have always been a potent strategy. Mansour describes the art scene in the 1980s as “a kind of cultural ghetto, isolated from cultural developments. Movement was difficult. Many artists were banned from traveling. Artists were often arrested and their works confiscated. I, myself, was thrown in jail four or five times.vii

Memory of Places by Sliman Mansour, 2009.

This targeted abuse continues to be bold and aggressive, and in some ways has become more pronounced. Rania Elias, director of Yabous Cultural Center; Suhail Khoury, director of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music; and Daoud al-Ghoul, director of the Jerusalem Arts Network, were all abducted from their homes and places of work on July 22, 2020.viii Occupation forces had organized the arrests alongside attacks on the centers, causing significant property damage and seizing files and property from three of the most important cultural institutions in Palestine. These attacks are common, and carried out with impunity. Often, the cultural damage can be said to outweigh the physical damage by far.

Astoundingly, Palestinian artists seem to draw power from relentless aggression towards Palestinian art and culture. Tight controls on the market regularly impede artists, but difficulties acquiring art supplies and boycotts against Israeli products propelled Palestinian artists such as Nabil Anani to experiment with a variety of natural dyes made from earth, henna, tea, coffee, or herbs and spices.ix
Instead of merely being practical solutions, these techniques have become aesthetic styles which are emblematic of Palestinian perseverance.

Even confiscations became a tool for artists, an attestation to the impact of art as activism, as well as providing a mechanism to gauge which motifs are most threatening to the occupation. “I would watch what they would take, and it was silly things, like a peasant woman wearing nice embroidery and working in the field…Anything that made Israel angry later became a symbol,” Sliman Mansour said about the themes in his paintings.x

We Shall Return by Imad Abu Shtayyah, 2014.

In a 2020 interview with Lila Abu-Lughod, artist Rana Bishara expressed her sense of awe at art’s power to bypass censorship. Bishara describes how many of the themes and messages she explores through postmodern art are frequently overlooked or suppressed when expressed bluntly or explicitly.xi While Bishara is referring here to active censorship by media and governments, this applies just as much to the “censorship” of collective apathy. Umayyah Cable describes how discourse about Palestinian identity is facilitated by “dynamic spaces for research on social justice activism”xii provided by film festivals, asserting that people are less ready to engage with complex dynamic concepts in their everyday lives.

Palestinian identity is brimming with complicated concepts that are difficult to convey across cultural and linguistic barriers. Art appears to be the ideal emissary, particularly effective in undermining many of these barriers and delivering complex ideas that overcome such barriers. Altogether, the collectivization of aesthetic characteristics and artistic tendencies in Palestinian culture emerges as an active process inherent to Palestinian resistance. Art no longer appears to be a medium for expressing a static cultural identity; instead, it shows itself as an active process of identity-building and self-enfranchisement.

i Adila Laïdi, “Liberation Art of Palestine: Palestinian Painting and Sculpture in the Second Half of the 20th Century,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 34(4), 2005, available at https://doi.org/10.1525/jps.2005.34.4.110.

ii  Hanan Toukan, The Politics of Art: Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy in Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan, Stanford University Press, 2021.

iii Samar Kadi, “How Palestinian Art Evolved under Siege,” The Arab Weekly, 2019, https://thearabweekly.com/how-palestinian-art-evolved-under-siege.

iv Samia Halaby, Liberation Art of Palestine: Palestinian Painting and Sculpture in the Second Half of the 20th Century, South Africa: H.T.T.B. Publishers, 2001.

v Olga Gonzalez, “Culture and Politics in the Visual Arts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” Macalester International 23(1), 2009, available at http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/macintl/vol23/iss1/16.

vi Toukan, The Politics of Art.

vii Kadi, “How Palestinian Art Evolved Under Siege.”

viii Samidoun, https://samidoun.net/2020/07/leading-palestinian-cultural-figures-arrested-by-israeli-occupation-cultural-institutions-invaded/.

ix Kadi, “How Palestinian Art Evolved under Siege.”

x Nadda Osman, “The Symbol as Resistance: Sliman Mansour on Occupation and Palestinian Identity,” July 12, 2023, https://www.middleeasteye.net/discover/palestine-israel-artist-sliman-mansour-symbol-resistance-identity.

xi Lila Abu-Lughod, “Art, Activism, and the Presence of Memory in Palestine: Interview with Palestinian Artist Rana Bishara,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 41(1), 2021, available at https://doi.org/10.1215/1089201X-8916967.

xii Umayyah Cable, “Cinematic Activism: Grassroots Film Festivals and Social Movements in Pandemic Times,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 62(2), 2021, p. 289, available at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/839460.

  • Ghassan Bardawil is a musician and MSc student living in Brussels. A loud activist and dedicated artist, he is passionate about history and identity in relation to artistic expression.

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