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The Political Powers of the Arts

By Manal Deeb

I believe that all art forms are types of emotional force and powerful tools for communication. In a Washington, DC, interview, I once said, “My art is a peaceful weapon.”My art journey began on November 27, 2012, when 30 of my original artworks were exhibited at the visitors center of the United Nations headquarters in New York, and I gave a speech to introduce them. The event celebrated worldwide solidarity with the Palestinian people and the positive vote that admitted Palestine to the United Nations as a non-member observer state. It was attended by dignitaries from all over the world and visitors from the general public. My 30 art pieces were exhibited for 3 consecutive months, the longest ever for a Palestinian artist at the UN.While most viewers were touched positively by my artworks and connected with Palestine, to my shocking surprise, other viewers read my artwork negatively. Articles published in New York alleged that it carried hidden logos as messages that contradicted the UN’s position on the Palestinian political cause. Such a translation of my art and its analysis of expressing a political stand revealed the power of art to communicate agendas that would be uncovered based on the viewer’s psychological and emotional state.If my artwork has created anxiety and questioning in some and happiness and comfort in others, then it has been successful in serving as an ambassador. Since beginning this journey, I have considered myself “a hybrid,” a Palestinian soul in an international art body.Of course, the UN event was just the start of a path of pride in Palestine that has taken my art into political, social, cultural, art, religious, and institutional forums across the world. Yes, my art has tackled other international issues such as women’s rights, poverty, peace, the bridging between religions, and others. Nevertheless, it has always been recognized under the umbrella of Palestine. That umbrella, covered in journals, magazines, and radio and TV shows across the United States, Latin America, Europe, and the Far and Middle East, has provided my art with unparalleled representation and continuing energy.

Geneva-UN Palestine Mission with Dr. Khreisheh – Solo Exhibition.

I believe in the political powers of the arts!

United Nations exhibition speech at Visitor Center.

One of my proudest events happened a couple of years ago when I received an invitation to show my art alongside the powerful play titled She the People at the Woolly Mammoth Theater, a nationally recognized theater in North America. Allowing me to declare myself as a Palestinian at the showing of a politically driven play that highlighted the Trump era, this invitation revealed how my art has reached beyond the boundaries of simply being “art.” It carries related messages from a Palestinian heart into other hearts!This wide range of recognition has opened the eyes of some Palestinian ambassadors in other countries as they recognized the power of the arts in supporting their missions. I recently had the honor of showing my artworks at prominent venues in Serbia and Geneva. Through these events, viewers experienced how art can communicate nonverbally with their subconscious regarding the fairness of the Palestinian cause. I have observed international art viewers and noticed how they spend long periods standing in front of my art pieces, trying to read – or should I say feel – what the artwork is communicating. This viewer-art communication is a winning situation for us Palestinians because it subliminally forces viewers to dig into their feelings in order to connect with the cause.Art is magical!Surprisingly, in my one and only – so far – art show in East Jerusalem a few years back, a visitor who had attended the entire opening period of my solo exhibition introduced himself to me toward the end of the event. “I am a Jewish Canadian attorney,” he said, “and I live in Hawaii. I am visiting Jerusalem and saw your exhibition announcement. Your art touched my heart.” I was speechless! What had happened here? My art crossed reference, flew above boundaries, and surrendered humanity to its roots!

Golden Painting Exhibition in London.

I could go on and on, telling stories of how art provided a base for diplomacy with cross-cultural, political, and religious missions. “A forward art program without a plan” could be the title of my art journey: a program with the objective of achieving recognition of my Palestinian origin as an inspiration and source of my art.

H.E. Mr. Nabhan addressing the Belgrade solo exhibition.

In addition, there is the obvious fact that the yearning of the Palestinian artist is not essentially material, nor, perhaps, primarily political. It is, above all, a deep spiritual aspiration that breathes in the soul of every Palestinian who lives in exile, whether in a refugee tent or in a more comfortable situation. Artists act as channels that voice the grievances and hopes of the masses of refugees. An adult refugee of the older generation may be inarticulate, but he cherishes the hope of return all the same in the few words he musters to describe the injustice of the past and the aspiration of the future. A young refugee is, on the whole, well-informed, vocal, bitter, and more determined to return to his native land. The feelings, dreams, emotions, and aspirations are thus communal, shared by old and young alike, and translated by artists.

Belgrade Exhibition openning event crowd.

At the conclusion of this art journey so far, earlier this year, 2023, while celebrating the Arab-American month in the United States, I was nominated as one of the “Must Know” Arab American artists and am proud to be the only artist of Palestinian origin. This recognition is a ribbon of “Art as an Ambassador of Palestinian Identity”!

  • Manal Deeb is a well-known international Palestinian-American visual artist. She studied studio arts at the University of Chicago and then received her bachelor’s degree in psychology of art from George Mason University. Manal’s art fuses beauty with longing to explicate Palestinians’ lifelong yearning. Her multimedia work is based on the principle “First you must look before you can see.” Her artwork has been exhibited around the world in major art-hub cities, featured in a tremendous number of publications, and used as study material at various US and international universities. Manal’s website can be found at www.ygalleri.com. 

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