Palestinian Art
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Palestinian Art

Gannit Ankori

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eBook - ePub

Palestinian Art

Gannit Ankori

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Turmoil and violence have defined the lives of Palestinian people over the last few decades, yet in the midst of the chaos artists live and thrive, creating little-seen work that is a powerful response to their situation. Gannit Ankori's Palestinian Art is the first in-depth English-language assessment of contemporary Palestinian art, and it offers an unprecedented and wholly original overview of this art in all its complexity.Ankori comprehensively traces the full history and development of Palestinian art, from its roots in folk art and traditional Christian and Islamic painting to the predominance of nationalistic themes and diverse media used today. Drawing on over a decade of extensive research, studio visits, and interviews, Ankori explores the vast oeuvre of prominent contemporary Palestinian artists, navigating between the personal and biographical dimensions of specific artworks and the symbolic meanings embedded within them. She provides detailed interpretations of many works and considers the complex historical, geographical, political, and cultural contexts in which the art was created. Questions of gender, exile, colonialism, postcolonialism, and hybridity are integral to Ankori's investigation as she probes the influence and thematic dominance of issues such as rootedness and displacement in Palestinian art. Palestinian Art is a fascinating introduction to a virtually unknown visual culture that has been subsumed under the torrent of current political turmoil. A groundbreaking and essential work of art scholarship, Palestinian Art illuminates new and unique facets of the Palestinian cultural identity.

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Introduction: Broken Narratives and ‘Dis-Orientalism’

There appears to have been some sort of agreement between art historians that fine arts were not developed in Palestine until 1948. Samia Taktak Zaru (1989)1
In my quest to contextualize the lives and work of the artists who are the focal point of this book, and to uncover the cultural foundations upon which their creative output is based, I found numerous gaps and lacunae. Palestinian art is a virtually non-existent category in the historiography of art. Although during the last decade there has been increasing awareness of non-Western cultures, and a growing interest in art originating from so-called peripheral sites,2 Palestinian art remains either totally overlooked or relegated to the margins of the art globe.3 One reason for this consistent neglect may be the fact that Palestinians are often conceived in the West in stereotypical terms that are shaded by homogenizing political biases. Thought of as either ‘victimized peasants’ or as ‘evil terrorists’, they are categorized in two polarized roles; ironically, both ‘good’ and ‘evil’ roles imply their exclusion from the realm of culture.4
Furthermore, in Palestinian society of the post-Nakba period, mere survival has been the major concern. The Nakba (literally, catastrophe) is the Palestinian term used to denote the events before, during and after the war of 1948, events that culminated with the foundation of the State of Israel but at the same time with the destruction of more than 400 Palestinian villages and numerous urban neighbourhoods, the dispersal and exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, many of whom became refugees, and the virtual disintegration of traditional Palestinian society and its material infrastructure. Given the scope of this tragedy, it becomes understandable why, even among Palestinians, attempts to narrate the story of Palestinian art have been few and far between, gaining momentum only during the last decade.5
In 1986, when I began to conduct my own research on Palestinian art,6 the few existent texts devoted to the subject had been written by the artists themselves. Although many of these artists bemoaned their limited qualifications to engage in scholarly pursuits, and articulated their clear preference to have someone else write about their work, it is the virtual lack of outside interest in the field, coupled with their belief in the vital importance and urgency of their message, that compelled them to undertake the role of writers.


The first English-language text devoted to Palestinian art was published in 1970 by the artist and writer Kamal Boullata.7 Born in Jerusalem in 1942, Boullata was stranded in Beirut when the war of 1967 broke out. He has lived in exile – in the usa, Morocco and France – ever since.8 His article of 1970, ‘Towards a Revolutionary Arab Art’, begins with the author’s critical assessment of his difficult task:
It is almost impossible for a painter to evaluate his paintings or those of his colleagues . . . For these reasons, as a painter, I realize I would be treading on thin ice were I to discuss contemporary schools of painting in the Middle East. However, as a Palestinian who has chosen the hard way to respond to the call of history, I shall – within the limits of my vocabulary – attempt the difficult task of stating what I see, not as a witness to history should, but as a committed Palestinian must.9
Although most of the artworks that are the focal point of this book had not even been created when Boullata wrote his essay more than three decades ago, his early pioneering text is of great significance for various reasons. Boullata places Palestinian art within two important contexts. First and foremost, he views it as part of contemporary Arab culture, emphasizing its verbal orientation and literary sources. Second, he places Palestinian artists within a Third World context, by basing himself on Frantz Fanon’s theoretical construction of the three stages that characterize emerging national cultures in colonized territories.10 Well aware of the political implications suggested by his adaptation of Fanon’s model, Boullata categorizes Palestinian artists in accordance with Fanon’s tripartite construct: artists who imitate Western culture; artists who use the language of Western art but insert ‘native’ or national subject matter into their derivative work; and artists who approach the third Fanonian stage and lead the people to revolution. Boullata’s historical reconstruction of Palestinian art acknowledges the existence of folklore and Christian icon paintings before 1948, but suggests that ‘It was only after 1948 that Palestinian studio art emerged in a scattered effort among amateurs who were unable to convey their feelings through words.’ Boullata proceeds to supply a psycho-political explanation for post-1948 art: ‘Words alone could not convey the magnitude of the tragedy. The young talented Palestinian was overwhelmed by the destitution of his own people. The necessity of self-expression not the impulse for aesthetic creation encouraged his art.’11 The emphasis on 1948 as the date marking the beginning of the Palestinian art movement has dominated most subsequent narratives of Palestinian art, including recent PhD dissertations, catalogue essays and websites.
In 1977 Boullata devoted an article to modern Arab art, which included a brief reference to Palestinian art.12 In this text Boullata reiterated his observation that traditional Arab culture is based on the word as an oral/aural and visual/semantic entity; and once again he applied the Fanonian model to contemporary Arab art. However, to my mind, the major contribution of this article is embedded within its subtext: the article reveals Boullata’s preoccupation with the ongoing – conflicted yet enriching – contacts between Europe and the Arab world. Historically, he traces the European presence in the Arab world to the time of the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt and the influx of European Orientalist painters to the Middle East. He also notes the fact that, subsequently, leading Arab painters received their artistic training in Europe or under the tutelage of European artists.
Placing Arab artists at a crossroads between tradition and modernity – between their native Arab communities and the foreign European cultures that began to infiltrate their world – Boullata differentiates between two types of artists. On the one hand, he describes artists who do not comprehend the deep and inseparable link between content and form in art. These ‘assimilationists’, as he critically calls them, superficially ‘transliterate’ European styles of painting and apply them to Arab, national or local subject matter. On the other hand, Boullata exalts artists who return to native visual sources without imitating them, and are enriched by European culture, without copying it in a derivative and subservient manner. Boullata calls this mode of creativity, which, in fact, poignantly describes his own artistic praxis, a ‘vertical’ search. This quest for a new and authentic art form is exemplified in his text by abstract works that are inspired by modernism as well as by Arab calligraphy. In contrast to this promising artistic direction, Boullata openly criticizes art that subordinates visual and aesthetic considerations to political propaganda-based messages. It is in this context that he refers to Palestinian art.13 In conclusion, he advocates openness to modern art and its vitality but warns against the loss of the traditions and rich heritage offered by Arab culture. ‘A world without borrowing is a world of barbarism or one of decay’, Boullata states, placing himself in opposition to certain nationalist factions, whose anti-colonialist and anti-Western political stance was translated into parochial and isolationist cultural ideologies and practices. Boullata’s allusions to the complex and problematic nature of the Arab-European cultural relationship – an issue that has persistently preoccupied Arab intellectual circles as well as other non-European cultures – are central to the concerns of this book, as will be seen below.14 More recently, and particularly since 1997, Boullata has published several valuable essays and an illustrated book in Arabic that offer a broader view of Palestinian art.15 Although he continues to assert that ‘Palestinians . . . did not develop a visual art tradition before the second half of the twentieth century’, he does reconstruct what he calls an early phase of ‘picture making’ based on Christian icon painting, which he writes ‘was aborted’ in 1948. He divides the history of Palestinian art into three phases:
In the first phase (1885–1955), icon painting was developed as one of the country’s earliest traditions of picture making. The possibility of an indigenous art was aborted as a result of the uprootedness of Palestinian society, leading to the second phase (1955–65), in which pioneers, mainly raised among the refugee population, forged a new Palestinian art. The third phase (1965–1995) includes art created both in exile and on native soil.16
Boullata’s discussion of the icon tradition of Jerusalem and its impact on Palestinian artists of the twentieth century (including the artist himself) is, to my mind, his unique and most significant recent contribution, as will be noted throughout the book.
Boullata also writes that ‘the uniqueness and diversity of Palestinian creativity have been expressed by the studio arts’; hence, he confines ‘the term Palestinian art . . . to the studio arts of drawing, painting, and printmaking’. He also argues that there is a correlation between artistic style and ‘proximity to the land’, suggesting that artists who remain in Palestine tend to espouse figurative art, while those who live in exile adopted the language of abstraction. He concludes that ‘memory of place’ and ‘a communal culture’ are factors that unite Palestinian artists of the post-Nabka period, despite their dispersal.17 My views on some of these issues diverge from Boullata’s, as will be evident in the following chapter.18
In the mid-1980s the Haifa-born artist Abed Abdi wrote several texts in Arabic, some unpublished, about Palestinian art. Abdi was born in 1942 in Wadi Salib, an Arab neighbourhood in Haifa.19 In 1948, when he was six years old, most of his family fled to Lebanon and Syria. Because his father remained in the city, the Abdi family was permitted to return to Haifa in 1951, as part of a humanitarian programme for the reunification of families. Living in the newly established State of Israel, in 1962 Abdi was the first Arab to join the Israeli Artists’ Association. A member of the Communist Party since his youth, he was also the first Arab Israeli painter to study art in communist Eastern Europe, thus paving the way for others who followed suit. In 1964 he received a scholarship from the Israel Communist Party, which enabled him to travel to East Germany, where he studied, lived and worked for eight years.20 Abdi’s texts offer invaluable documentation about the Palestinian artists who have lived and worked within the ‘green line’, that is the 1949 borders of the State of Israel. His personal acquaintance with many of these artists, his activities as a teacher and curator in Haifa, and his conscientious documentation of this information, make him an important source for the study of Palestinian art.
In 1984 an illustrated volume by Isam Bader and Nabil Anani, titled Palestinian Art under Occupation, was published in Arabic in Ramallah.21 Nabil Anani was born in Emmwas in 1943 to a family from Halhoul.22 He studied art and photography at the College of Fine Arts in Alexandria, graduating in 1969. Isam Bader was born in Hebron in 1948. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad in 1973. Both artists returned to the West Bank after they completed their studies. In October 1973, together with fellow artists Rahab Nammari and Ibrahim Saba, they applied to the Israeli military authorities to register their group legally as the West Bank and Gaza branch of the ‘League of Palestinian Artists’.23 Although they received official permission to do so only recently (2002), the League began to operate and organize exhibitions and cultural activities from 1975.24 Bader’s and Anani’s book includes eyewitness accounts of the events that the authors and their colleagues organized. Thus, for example, the first three exhibitions set up by the League (in 1975, 1977 and 1978) and three consequent thematic group shows – devoted to ‘The Palestinian Child’ (1979), ‘Prisoner’s Day’ (1980) and ‘The Palestinian Village’ (1981) – are noted. The publication also includes a compilation of newspaper clippings on various topics, among them the closing of Gallery 79 in Ramallah by the Israeli military authorities (1979) and the first joint Israeli-Palestinian exhibition organized in 1982 as a protest against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967. The final section of the book is devoted to biographical notes and colour reproductions of works by a dozen Palestinian artists. Unlike Boullata’s writings mentioned above, which attempt to provide a broad theoretical basis and an overview of the major trends that dominate Arab art (and, within this context, the Palestinian art movement), Bader and Anani place the local art scene of the West Bank and Gaza and primary sources that relate to its history at centre stage.25
Ismail Shammout’s Art in Palestine of 1989, published in Arabic in Kuwait, is the first book-length study of Palestinian art.26 Although it is not a scholarly text, it includes important information, illustrations and an appendix that lists some 400 Palestinians who work in the field of the visual arts. Since Shammout played a central role as one of the founders of the post-1949 National art movement, the accounts of his own experiences that are included in the book are of immense value and interest. He writes:
The disastrous events of 1948 had a jolting effec...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Front Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright
  5. Contents
  6. Preface
  11. Postscript
  12. References
  13. Bibliography
  14. Acknowledgements
  15. Photo & Copyright Acknowledgements
  16. Index
Stili delle citazioni per Palestinian Art

APA 6 Citation

Ankori, G. (2013). Palestinian Art ([edition unavailable]). Reaktion Books. Retrieved from (Original work published 2013)

Chicago Citation

Ankori, Gannit. (2013) 2013. Palestinian Art. [Edition unavailable]. Reaktion Books.

Harvard Citation

Ankori, G. (2013) Palestinian Art. [edition unavailable]. Reaktion Books. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Ankori, Gannit. Palestinian Art. [edition unavailable]. Reaktion Books, 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.