Washington - Forbidden Colors, on view at the Gallery Al-Quds in Washington, is a free-for-all in the best of ways. Through 49 works in all media, 30 artists address artistic suppression, particularly the former Israeli ban on the use of red, green, black and white — the pan-Arab colours of the Palestinian flag.
Every hue, topic and technique; every symbol, from poppies to keys, finds a place in the show. “I forbid you nothing,” Dagmar Painter, curator of the gallery, told artists in her invitation.
She was referring to the 1967 Israel Defence Forces Order No. 101 Regarding Prohibition of Incitement and Hostile Propaganda Actions, which forbade Palestinians to use the word “Palestine”, depict or raise their flag and make art that combined red, green, black and white.
A Palestinian might have painted green lettuce and black olives in a red bowl, only to wind up in prison and heavily fined. Often, artists deliberately subverted the law to express their displeasure with the restrictions and occupation. The order was rescinded in 1993 with the Oslo accords.
Some artists in the show are too young to remember the peace negotiations, let alone the ban. Others are in their 80s. An equal number of men and women answered Painter’s call. She asked artists from elsewhere in the region and the West, among them Christians, Jews and Muslims, to address censorship and artistic freedom worldwide, not just in the Palestinian territories.
Egyptians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians — some born in the United States — and several non-Arabs sent paintings and small sculptures. Painter contributed a 90-second video of red and white rose petals falling on green leaves set on a black cloth. Nearly all of the pieces were created for the exhibition.
Painter said the idea for the programme came from conversations two years ago with Rajie Cook, a Palestinian-American graphic designer, photographer and artist who was born in New Jersey. Winner of the Presidential Award for Design Excellence in 1984, Cook has never forgotten his heritage or the effect the law had on artists he knew. His piece, Four Bidden Colors — squares of cat-food cans painted red, green, black and white — sums up the show.
“My vision as an artist during the past two decades has been driven by my Palestinian roots, and I strive to present new ideas for understanding any peace process in the Middle East through that,” Cook said. “I believe that exhibits like this one allow for the understanding and compassion for peace to grow.”.
At the entrance of the gallery, visitors are greeted by Untitled, an abstract painting by Shaun Rabah, a self-taught Palestinian-American artist. Part of a kufiyah emerges from the canvas.
“I don’t paint to express a message usually but, in this case, it would be that suppression and fear are a contagious disease and not unique to the Palestinian cause or identity,” Rabah said. “On some levels, the style of Untitled is a tribute to one of my favourite German painters, Gerhard Richter, and a reminder of the horrific events that unfolded there in the past and how they tie into the current state of affairs.”
Najat el-Khairy has a less abstract, more folk-art style than Cook and Rabah. She combines porcelain art with embroidery traditions of her native Palestinian territories. Wielding pens and tiny brushes, she paints on off-white tile to immortalise village scenes of faceless Palestinian women in red-black embroidered dresses surrounded by green olive trees. Every stitch of every pattern is perfect in its enamel detail. Every tree reveals the shape of Palestine in its leaves.
“The purpose of my participation as a Palestinian artist was to highlight the aggression and oppression imposed on the Palestinian artists when the use of the four colours of their flag was forbidden,” Khairy said.
Reflecting the dislocation and resilience of refugees is The Journey of Death by Lukman Ahmad, a Syrian-Kurdish artist. Iraqi artist Qais al-Sindy’s The Old Sailor evokes a similar mood.
One of the most appealing pieces in the show is by Annemarie Feld, a Swiss-American. She constructed a small box emblazoned with Arabic letters. On the outside it reads “forbidden;” on the inside, “prison.” Every colour imaginable is locked within.
“Colours are important for the pride of any region and people. You cannot ban colours. They are a necessary part of our lives and will always reappear, even through bars,” Feld said.
Painter said: “You cannot silence thought, artistic freedom, art, what artists want to say. No matter how draconian the law or repression, artists will find a way. They hold power. The whole concept of art is the concept of freedom and the ability to express yourself. The whole show is an homage to that idea.”
The exhibit runs through August 12th.