Palestinian art: A means to assert national identity

Friday 15/05/2015
Mother from Gaza by Mohammad Hawajri

Beirut - Palestinian art is differ­ent from any other art because the Palestinian people have had a differ­ent experience than most other people in the world. The loss of land, occupation and displace­ment has always affected the work of Palestinian artists, be they refu­gees living in camps in the diaspo­ra or in the Israeli-occupied territo­ries, citizens of Israel or migrants interacting with different cultures around the world.

Although their techniques and presentations differed over the years, influenced by the environ­ment in which they lived, the sub­ject of their paintings remained closely linked to their cause and the need to assert their national identity.

In Gaza, artists are facing the daily challenge of living and work­ing under siege. “Cultural life is besieged like Gaza. Artists are lim­ited in their movement, denied exposure to the outside world, and interaction with international art,” Gaza-based-artist Mohammad Hawajri told The Arab Weekly in a Skype interview.

But this made them more crea­tive and determined to improve their skills. “They managed to transcribe this difficult situation and relay it to the outside through their art, each in his own way, to show that there is more about Gaza than war and death … that there is culture as well,” Hawajri added.

More than six years of siege and Israeli restrictions have made it al­most impossible for many artists to display their work abroad. Hawajri has been trying in vain for the past two months to post a roll of four paintings to clients in Gulf Arab countries.

“Insurance companies have re­peatedly refused to insure my work because they could not guarantee that it would not be destroyed or confiscated by the Israelis. They said if it is valuable they prefer not to take responsibility for it,” Hawa­jri said.

Confinement, violence and harsh living conditions bear down on the people, among them art­ists, who are restricted in their space and deprived of exposure to contemporary art movements that help them progress and improve their technique. The lack of art in­stitutions to promote Palestinian art and to give artists additional knowledge or connect them to the world is yet another disadvantage.

But against all odds, local artists got together and set up two cul­tural centres with the mission to promote art through workshops, lectures and exhibitions, Hawajri said.

“Gaza artists have great creativ­ity but don’t have the facilities or the means to progress and to ex­pose their art abroad and this is a big injustice,” he said, accusing the Israeli authorities of intentionally clamping down on Palestinian art and suppressing culture, to brand Gaza as only a “death place”.

Underlining the importance of foreign exposure, after hav­ing spent seven months in an art school in Paris, Hawajri said, “When you get the chance to see what’s out there in the galleries and museums and interact with in­ternational artists, you inevitably gain experience and improve your art, a chance that artists in Gaza are denied.”

For Ramallah-based Tayseer Barakat, the dispersion of the Pal­estinian people is a double-edged sword. “We lived tragedies and sufferings but at the same time we learned the art of survival… Thus, Palestinians were forced to be creative in many fields, be it in business or fine arts,” he said in an online interview with The Arab Weekly.

Describing the difficulties of working under “crazy conditions” in Ramallah, where artists were previously banned from using the white, black, green and red colours of the Palestinian flag, Barakat said: “I had to exercise yoga in order to overcome difficult situations. Artists are sometimes obliged to isolate their souls from the bleakness surrounding them in order to clear their minds and be able to sit in front of their canvas again.”

Asad Azi, an Arab-Israeli painter, says his work is aimed at challeng­ing Israeli attempts to “stereo­type” and “label” Palestinian art as one depicting death and calamity.

“It was a challenge to defy the mindset that Palestinian artists lacked creativity,” he said in an online interview with The Arab Weekly.

“I have always been in contact with Western art, be it in England, Italy or the US, and this helped me develop my talent and relay the Palestinian cause and culture to the outside world,” he said.

Drawing comparisons with counterparts in Gaza and the West Bank, Azi, a professor who teaches art at a Hebrew university in Tel Aviv, bemoaned the difficulties under which the latter are reeling. “They are literally under intellec­tual and cultural siege which in­evitably checked the progress of their art by limiting the scope of their subjects and standard of ar­tistic expression,” Azi said. The ad­vantages that artists living outside the “ghetto” in Gaza and the West Bank have were pinpointed by art consultant Rula Alami in Beirut.

“Those residing abroad try to capture the Palestinian cause in a much more modern and progres­sive way than the ones who are inside,” Alami said. “You also have the artists in the 1948 territory (Is­rael), who have interacted with the Israeli society and as a result have diversified their subjects though the Palestinian theme is still pre­sent in many of their works,” she told The Arab Weekly.

Palestinian artists are increas­ingly concerned about showing good art while the aim of their paintings remains to reaffirm their national identity and convey it to global audience, she noted.