What Does Contemporary Palestinian Art Look Like ?

June 9, 2016

What is Palestinian art and what does contemporary Palestinian art actually look like? Does it even exist? What do Palestinian artists depict, carve, photograph, or sculpt? These questions and much more have been troubling the people around the world interested in the mysterious creations of the region of Palestine. What magical and fascinating works of art originate from this area and where can we see them?

To answer these questions, we must first look back on the region of Palestine. It is a geographical area in Western Asia, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This particular chunk of the map of the world was the cradle of Christianity and Judaism, which is probably one of the reasons of its tumultuous history. The crossroads of cultures, religions, politics, and commerce has seen some dark days, it was controlled by a number of peoples, the Ancient Egyptians, Israelites, Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans, the British, and modern Israelis. It has been chopped and shared between the nations, leading to the unique mixture of cultures and traditions bound by one place. Nowadays, the region includes the State of Israel and the Palestinian territories, where the State of Palestine was declared not so long ago.

It is no wonder that Palestinian art is often considered quite elusive in the mainstream art world, but, since art is supposed to raise difficult questions and convey serious messages from time to time, contemporary Palestinian art is on the rise.

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Samia Halaby - Palestine, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, 2003

Contemporary Palestinian Art

Contemporary Palestinian art is rooted in folk art and traditional art of Islamic and Christian painting. After the Nakba Day in 1948, which is a Palestinian commemoration day of the exodus that followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence, the nationalistic themes have become dominant, since Palestinian artists needed a way of expressing and exploring their connections to their identity and to their homeland. However, even though the struggle of the Palestinian people does serve as a source of inspiration for a great number of artists, the Palestinian art is not solely defined by the political turmoil of the region. The modern art offers a unique and insightful glimpse into the heritage and the culture of the area, redefining and reshaping the traditional view of Palestinian art.

The very conflict between the Palestine and Israel gives a unique character to the art of Palestine. It often tackles two main themes, one being the potential of contemporary art to influence the way people understand the cultural, social, and political notions of the Palestinian narrative, and the other one, the contribution art can make to the art history of the region. The political turmoil and the message it carries led to the creation of the so-called “liberation art of Palestine”, where the artists utilize their works to communicate their stories beyond the constraints of media that represent Palestine in a pretty unfair manner. In this type of art, we can see a clear connection to the physical makeup of the historical land of Palestine.

During the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the artists suffered from Israeli oppression in the form of confiscation of their works, refusal to issue the licenses to the artists’ organizations, arson of exhibition spaces, constant surveillance, and unjust arrests. However, it is important to mention that Palestinian art does not only criticize the Israeli occupation, but it also tackles the issue of neglect of Arab states and the world in general.

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Tarek Al-Ghoussein - Untitled 9, Self Portrait Series (2002-03)

Palestinian Artists You Should Know

Tarek Al-Ghoussein is a photographer and a photojournalist whose works are inspired by the prejudice and restrictions Palestinians face every day. His Self-Portrait Series (2002-2003) places lone individuals in a Keffiyeh in front of ships or airplanes, tricking the viewer into thinking that the situation they are in is dangerous and malevolent, but upon closer inspection realizing that the images are, in fact, innocuous, making the viewers come face to face with their naturally conditioned suspicion of Keffiyeh-clad Middle Eastern people. The very scarf that is the recurring subject of his works is charged with negative presumptions and stereotypes, and the artist himself stated that it has become the symbol of terrorism, even in the Middle East.

Khalil Rabah is a Palestinian conceptual artist who operates in a vast variety of media. His works are a form of artistic science that raises the questions of identity, memory, and history. He is the co-founder of the Art School Palestine in London and the Director of the Riwaq Biennal, Palestine. He embraces the imaginary as passionately and as originally as the artist of his caliber would and creates witty and intelligently provocative works.

Khaled Jarrar presents Palestine through photography, video, and performance art, that contrasts the playful with the serious, such as in his football shoes made from concrete taken from Israel’s separation barrier. His works are political and autobiographical, and always utterly brave and thought-provoking. The perfect example would be his ongoing Live and Work in Palestine series in which he stamps the passports of tourists with apparently official State of Palestine stamps. He has also produced State of Palestine stamps that can be used to mail letters.

Laila Shawa was born in the tumultuous Gaza. Her works can fall under several categories, such as photography, sculpture, painting, and lithography. She often tackles the issues surrounding her homeland, shedding light on the injustice and the strife of the people of Palestine. She has created a series entitled Disposable Bodies as a response to the reports that the Palestinian female suicide bombers were only doing that to make themselves martyrs in order to reclaim the honor of their families. In these works, she investigates the motivations behind the shahida (Arabic term for female suicide bomber). She criticizes the eroticization and weaponization of the shahida and seeks to give identity to these women from Gaza.

Samia Halaby is one of the foremost Arab contemporary artists whose works have been exhibited worldwide, in Europe, the U.S., Asia, and Latin America. She has been an advocate for Palestinian rights for a long time, and has curated a number of exhibitions on Palestine, and wrote Liberation Art of Palestine: Palestinian Painting and Sculpture in the Second Half of the 20th Century (2001). She is primarily and abstract painter, but does not shy away from a documentary-style of figurative drawing in her more politically charged artworks.

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Left: Laila Shawa - Disposable 1 / Right: Laila Shawa - Disposable 4

Palestinian Art in the Years to Come

As always, we ask, what does the future hold? What direction will the Palestinian artists take in the future? Will we get the chance to know (and own) the pieces created by these artists or will the politics dictate the presence of Palestinian art in the contemporary art market? How will the Palestinian issue be resolved is still a mystery, with all the wars and detrimental factors at play, it is hard to say what the future will bring. However, we are blessed to be able to see and witness the art of the Palestine we have, and can only hope that the years of trouble and strife will finally come to an end so the world can become richer for a greater number of emerging talents that come from this troublesome part of the world. As with all Middle Eastern art, Palestinian art is fascinating and exciting, carrying that dose of rebellious spirit and will for survival we recognize and admire. The culture and tradition of the Palestinian region are interesting, to say the least, as it represents the remarkable blend of religions and cultures, and the fact that so many peoples have reigned over the region makes its heritage even more fascinating, to say the least. What we can hope for is the peace, the ultimate goal of the sane part of the society, where there would be no bloodshed or destruction and where Life can really imitate Art as Oscar Wilde said, and where beauty and love will rule the world and not be mere slaves to the death and despair that has conquered it.

All images are for illustrative purposes only.
Featured image: Samia Halaby - Essence of Arab, 2007
Images in the slider: Tarek Al-Ghoussein - Untitled, 2009 | Laila Shawa - Where Souls Dwell V, 2013 | Khalil Rabah - untitled- 50,320 thousand names, 2011, from the series The Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind | Khaled Jarrar - Ping Pong Racket & Ball (2013), Concrete from separation barrier | Khaled Jarrar - Football Shoes, 2013