The Early Experiments
Prior to 1948, Palestine witnessed little activity in the field of arts. What few attempts or experiments in drawing or painting that materialized at the time were amateurish in nature and had not developed into the professional or full-time involvement which characterized artists in other Arab countries. This was due to the turbulent and unstable conditions which beset the Palestinian scene throughout the first half of the century. Yet in spite of such extremely unfavorable circumstances, many Palestinian “artists” managed to demonstrate their inborn talents.
Among those was Jamal Badran. Born in Haifa, Palestine, in 1905, he studied Ornamental Art and Arabic Calligraphy in Cairo in 1927 and later went to London to study Applied Arts. He worked as an art and handicraft instructor and assistant inspector in Palestinian schools and was credited with the discovery of numerous fledgling talents whom he patronized and who, with encouragement on his part, preceded to study arts in Cairo in the mid-thirties.
Jamal Badran was extremely fond of Arab Islamic arts and calligraphy as well as traditional artistic handicraft. He devoted his work almost exclusively to this field and his influence was clearly evident in the works of his students.
Two other artists, Hanna Mismar and Faddoul Odeh from Nazareth studied art in the twenties. The first studied ceramics in Germany, while the other took up drawing and painting in Italy. Their work however, was very limited.
Very few artists could draw oil paintings in the “Western” sense. Art exhibitions, in their present day form, where a single artist or group of artists displays paintings in a public hall for public viewing or sale, were virtually non-existent in Palestine prior to 1948.
Art and handicraft instructors and other so-called amateur artists produced paintings dating back to that period. These works were either kept in storage or posted in homes, schools or social clubs. They bore no relation whatsoever to the Palestinian theme. They were confined to portraits, landscapes, religious icons, and historical figures. They also contained ancient Arab episodes, which were mainly copied from well-known works.
The Pioneers of Palestinian Contemporary Art
The disastrous events of 1948 had a jolting effect on Palestinian talents. Rather than succumb to a life of destitution in refugee camps, they would find their way into art academies and institutes.
One of those was Ismail Shammout. In 1948, this young man of 18 years joined his Lydda Townfolk in their infamous march to exile. After two years of life in a Gaza refugee camp, he managed to go to Cairo, where he was enrolled in the College of Fine Arts. However, he would soon discover that he was only physically removed from the refugee camp and that the “Palestinian” in him prevailed. His work in the College would be influenced by images of human suffering, which were captured by his artist’s eye during his people’s exodus and later during their life of misery and despair in the refugee camps. The Egyptian models, which he drew or painted during study, with their distinctive Egyptian features and dresses, would automatically be converted into Palestinian “themes” or “Palestinian looks”.
In 1953, Shammout carried a large collection of paintings and drawings, which he produced in Cairo and proceeded to Gaza to hold his first exhibition there. The exhibition, which was opened on July 29, 1953, was the first exhibition ever to be held by a Palestinian artist on Palestinian land. Over 60 works (oil, water color and drawings) were put on display, including his now famous “Whereto”.
The exhibition was not only successful but had become a Palestinian “event”. People of all walks of life rushed to visit. To the promising young talents, the exhibition constituted a source of inspiration and motivation to go out and develop their skills. To the public, it was a moment of intense emotional feelings coupled with pride, as they saw one of their kin graduating to the ranks of established and recognized artists. To Shammout, it was a great boost to his self-confidence as well as to his belief in art, its inspirational capabilities and its value as an instrument of national struggle.
In 1953, another Palestinian artist arrived in Cairo. Tamam Al-Akhal, born in Jaffa in 1935, had taken refuge in Lebanon, and was eventually sent by her parents to study art in Cairo. There she met Shammout and participated, along with a third Palestinian artist, Nihad Sibasi, in Shammout’s second exhibition, which was held in Cairo in 1954. This exhibition, the first Palestinian joint exhibition to be held outside Palestine, was inaugurated by President Jamal Abdel Nasser on July 24,1954. The exhibition drew the attention of both Palestinian and Arab art circles, and was given sizeable coverage in Cairo papers and magazines, which had the widest pan-Arab circulation at the time. The Palestinian painting had celebrated its Arab debut.
In the mid fifties, and in the footsteps of Shammout and Akhal, numerous Palestinian talents proceeded to study arts in whatever academies and institutes of fine arts that could be made available to them. By the early sixties, there were scores of arts graduates who became quite active in the Palestinian congregation centers in both the West Bank and Gaza strip as well as in other Arab countries.
Palestinian Artists Under Israeli Rule
Following the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by Israel, a number of resident Palestinian artists became active. Their initial activities, production of artwork, holding of exhibitions, etc. – were neither easy nor safe. The path was strewn with numerous hindrances and risks ranging from closure of exhibition halls and confiscation of paintings to outright detention and/or imprisonment of artists.
Kamal Mughanni, a graduate of Alexandria Arts College and an art teacher at Al-Najah College in Nablus in the West Bank, was imprisoned for two years and his house was dynamited on trumped-up charges of affiliation with the Palestinian resistance movement. Sulaiman Mansour (a graduate of “Bezalel” arts Institute in Jerusalem) was summoned for questioning by Israeli military occupation authorities, put under house arrest and had some paintings confiscated. Fathi Al-Ghabin, a self-taught artist from Gaza, was imprisoned for seven months for his systematic use of the four colors of the Palestinian flag, his exhibition was closed and some of his works were confiscated. “Gallery 79”, at Ramallah, the only specialized exhibition hall in the West Bank was also closed for display of “instigatory” works of art.
Palestinian artists who remained in Israel in 1948 fared little better. Some talents were able to reassert themselves and make their presence felt. Prominent among them were Abed Abidi and Dhahir Zaidani who studied art in the German Democratic Republic, as well as Marwan Abu Al-Haija, Hanna Mismar, Abdullah Al-Karaa, Khalil Rayyan and Ibrahim Hijazi, who, along with other artist colleagues were quite active in their locales, mainly in cities and towns of the Galilee in northern Palestine.
After l967 and the opening of the borders between occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian artists in both areas were finally able to communicate with each other. Joint exhibitions and seminars were held all over Palestine. There were even some exhibitions and other functions such as seminars, lectures and demonstrations, which were co-organized and joined by Arab and Israeli artists and intellectuals, in total disregard – and defiance – of any curtailing measures that the Israeli authorities might impose.
Works of artists in the occupied territories are distinguished by their symbolism and surrealism. This is only natural for those living under occupation. They cannot express their patriotic feelings through the bold use of` the realistic or expressionist realistic style. Symbolism and surrealism, as indirect means of expression, offer a handy substitute. The popular uprising, “Intifada”, in the occupied territories created additional hardships for artists. Many of them reverted to the use of natural local materials such as sand, clay, local dyes, leather, wood, brass and straw, etc. One reason was the artists’ determination to boycott Israeli manufactured or supplied materials. Another reason lay in the artists’ quest for “originality”.
All Palestinian artists, whether living in Israel, residing in the occupied territories, or taking refuge in Arab and foreign countries, have one common denominator – sentiment and goal. Most paintings belonging to Palestinian artists demonstrate a Palestinian “content ” from one angle or another. The style in one-way or another – is figurative. Nevertheless, there remains some Palestinian artists who chose to explore matters pertaining to form and experiment with colorific and abstract styles.
The use by Palestinian artists of “Western” styles, such as realism, expressionism, surrealism, or even abstractionism, cannot be viewed as literal or blind imitation. On the contrary, their application of these styles was effected in a special manner such as to render them almost “Palestinianized.”
Roots and Heritage
One should not overlook the fact that the Palestinian artist has, in the preceding two decades, become aware of his rich arts heritage dating back to the days of the “Canaanites”, the first inhabitants of Palestine. This heritage also has roots in Byzantine arts, as well as in Arab Islamic arts and Palestinian folk art. It is true that he has been distanced from his heritage, but he is striving to bridge the gap; to interlink with his heritage or with part of it. This new concern is in fact an Arab concern. Further, it is the concern of all developing countries. It can be achieved but not without difficulty, given the encroachment of modern communications on the “privacy” of local cultures and the overpowering impact of the “Western” culture, universally – and efficiently – propagated by such means of communication.
The Palestinian artist’s affinity with his folk art will always endure. Palestinian embroidery, which adorned the Palestinian women’s dress over the ages, has great artistic value. Its exquisitely rich colors and captivating designs have caught the eye of many a Palestinian artist, and must have been embedded in his memory, to be later retrieved and reflected in his works.
Finally, notwithstanding the delayed emergence of the contemporary Palestinian art movement as compared with its Arab sister movements, Palestinian art, barely forty years old, has achieved considerable status and presence. It stands on an equal footing with primary Arab and non-Arab arts movements. Nevertheless, it has a long way to go, for creativeness and excellence are limitless.
By: Ismail Shammout
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