Bashir Makhoul
Palestinian Art on Three Fronts
Bashir Makhoul and David Sweet 1995 A new study of Contemporary Palestinian Fine Art reveals a wide and complex field of activity where the aspirations of national self-determination and international cultural sophistication interact in a sometimes volatile ebb and flow of struggle, dispersal and resistance. Its important to remember that "Fine Art" in the European sense, has been established as a cultural option in the region only a relatively short time, and access to the sort of institutions needed to support and reinforce it for practitioners remains very limited. Despite this difference in infrastructure its interesting to note that many of the issues which Palestinians face are oddly familiar. Concerns, such as identity, ethnicity, socio-political relevance, and above all the interpenetration of cultures, are similar to those which engage many other artists, operating in a variety of contexts.

The full scope of Palestinian practitioners can be usefully divided into three major groupings. These tend to reflect the influential episodes in the troubled and turbulent history those in the region have lived through, which have included the long period of Ottoman rule, the British mandate, the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 (which resulted in more than a million Palestinian refugees), and the occupation of the west Bank and Gaza by Israel in 1967. The first group are those who continue to work in the geographical Palestinian homeland, (now known as Israel). The second are those displaced into camps in the Occupied Territories -West Bank and Gaza- ruled, with some recent exceptions, by the Israeli military authorities. The third, and largest group are the exiles , most of whom are refugees.

There are obvious geographical differences between the sub-groups but these are outweighed by the social and political factors shaping the three very distinct sets of circumstances which they separately face. What makes the matter even more complicated is that even the right to be seen as Palestinian has a different force, depending on where the claimants may reside, while assumptions about the status of fine artists, are also conditioned by the context in which individual people work.

A major topic they have in common, though it manifests itself in diverse ways visually, is that their core identity itself is a central issue. This is hardly surprising given the history of their existence as a people who have often been easier to overlook than accommodate when decisions about boundaries and nationhood are made by more powerful forces. In a region of relatively cohesive groups the Palestinians are ethnically complex and racially mixed, with religious allegiances which include several Islamic sects as well as Christianity. They are also in an unfortunate ideological position between the two great power blocks of Occident and Orient, who have acted as co-sponsors of the many invasions and colonisation that Palestine has seen over the centuries. Because of this, and despite the relative smallness of the population, they have striven to state and defend their own unique identity. Moved by this concern many Palestinian artists, as one may expect, favour those forms, images, iconography, even physical materials, which consciously stress their links to the artefacts made by their predecessors which bear a defined Palestinian stamp, while in their themes and subject-matter they tend to emphasise those experiences, current and past, which they have in common collectively, as a people.

One might predict that the centre of Palestinian art would be in Palestine itself, but those who regard themselves as Palestinian, and live in the geographical homeland (ie Israel), are seen by others as having the most compromised national identity of the three groups. This is because, through no fault of their own, they are now exist as a minority within their own country, having suffered a demographic reversal as intense as the native peoples of North America, or the Australian Aborigines. Consequently they are faced with art institutions, such as art schools and galleries, controlled by majority Israeli interests, and even when they are able to take advantage of limited opportunities they tend to be offered only the options of either being ignored or assimilated into the Israeli art community. The advantages of assimilation can seem highly desirable, and a number of Palestinians have built successful careers in this context, including Ibrahim Nobani and Assad Azi, who ironically represented Israel at the Venice bienale. But the price demanded is artistically burdensome, in that it involves compromise or at least a deintensifying of rights to a separate cultural agenda, and audience.

Because of its militaristic tendency many of the advantages of Israeli society are obtained through completion of army service, which is not a realistic option for Palestinians. Consequently, restrictions, many of a petty and small-minded sort affect their daily lives, and the artists from the minority group find that even a painless integration into Israeli society puts them in an uncomfortable position, especially if they wish to make art out of personal experience, or reference to any of their own specific traditions in their work. Certainly if they show any radicalism in their politics, even if they do not make it a particular issue in their work, they find themselves marginalised. Some, like Abed Abdi for example, have tried to solve this problem by dealing with universal themes, such as a sense of loss, or a wish for justice, which, provided the imagery is reasonably generalised, may be accepted. It may also be possible to allude to the characteristic forms of Arabesques, or use elements which echo the traditional crafts of the region. This will add a limited leavening of approved ethnicity to their art production, and appeal to the desire for the exotic in their Israeli public, without necessarily raising the spectre of outright insurgency.

It would be inaccurate to see the Palestinians inside Israel as entirely submissive, despite being heavily outnumbered. They play cat and mouse over content, managing to invest some of their images with meanings which elude the grasp of the authorities. Assem Abu Shakra’s favourite subject was the cactus, for instance, which, though painted freely, in an acceptably expressive manner, held a deeper, and potentially more subversive significance as an unofficial emblem of his people.

The Palestinians who reside in the West Bank and Gaza face an entirely different problem, entailing greater danger, and starker and simpler choices. There is no alternative artistic agenda, nor is there a public with complex needs. Everything is about the dream of liberation and the reality of occupation, which has been in force since 1967. However here the practitioners are part of the majority, and they are effectively organised into the Palestinian Artists League.

For this group the need to respond to the circumstances of military rule has been so pressing that other considerations have been set aside. This has not been too difficult as most of the artists are self-taught within the context of conflict, so have never had the opportunity to study practice as a leisurely, expressive pursuit. The stress has not been conveyed as personal, but as collective, with almost nothing counting as a barrier separating those who make the paintings, for they are painting mostly, from the public which they address. They eschew any notion of individual gratification as inappropriate, concentrating on subjects which focus and visually define a concept of Palestinian national and cultural identity, or simply record the conditions in the camps.

There are some artists who have had an art school training, such as Kamal Al Moghani, who was educated in Egypt. Most of the artists in the group seem to favour a rough and ready figuration, generally of a naive kind, but which contains stylisation’s based on expressionistic distortions. Since the Intifada they seem to have moved from more passive imagery, depicting suffering and privation, to more aggressive representations of defiance. There have also been more subtle shifts in artistic development, in the wake of the uprising, though these have tended to have been overshadowed by the great and intoxicating theme of rebellion.

These latter changes can be seen as reflecting the theme of civil disobedience which accompanied the more active expressions of stone-throwing and confrontation which were widely reported in international media at the height of the Intifada. This policy has stressed an economic resistance, resulting in the boycott of Israeli goods in favour of home produced alternatives. This has led to quieter victories. Consumption of the most popular brand of Israeli cigarettes, for example, reduced by 80% in the first eight months of 1988. This phenomena gave artists, anxious to play their part in events, an opportunity to contribute something other than directly illustrating the conflict. They began to examine their materials and methods, and many changed during this period from using the standard means of oil or acrylic on canvas, with all the implications they have for supporting the Western tradition, to locally produced fabrics, or pigments made from locally growing plants.

This policy of improvising materials seems to have led back towards the older village craft traditions of Palestinians, and has had the added benefit of reviving, in a slightly different form, the characteristic folk art heritage of the region.

The dominant theme of resistance remains the clear and unencumbered message of the art of the Occupied Territories, stripped of any sub-text or complication as part of the artist's duty to the popular and inescapable demands of liberation. It resembles propaganda, because it is so ideologically overt, and so dedicated to its political function. It is, in Western terms, crude, almost tabloid in its unambigutiy, especially when perceived by a critical and informed audience who, even if they might argue that all art is essentially ideological, like to find its political allegiances more subtly conveyed. One could hardly accuse painters like Fathi Ghaben or Awad Abu Armani of sending coded messages about their socio-political complexion.

Yet, paradoxically, the Intifada seems also to have posed a ’career’ dilemma as many artists have reached a stage in their personal artistic development where they are faced with a choice between following purely self-indulgent aspirations, or selfless representing a community whose ideals are expressed through the pursuance of cultural identity and nationhood.

The structure of art made by those Palestinians who, out of choice or necessity, work within the institutional framework of Europe or America, is not so skewed by the liberationist agenda, yet the notion of identity still preoccupies them. The fate of the exile imbues it with an added poignancy, but also the filters of memory and distance screen out the immediacy and directness that seizes the art of the Occupied Territories. Their education in Western based conventions of art making also lends their work a sophistication, which though adopted, even appropriated, allows it to fit easily into the curatorial patterns of their host society.

It is important to keep in mind however that in international terms at the moment, "Fine Art" is not so much being redefined as undefined. Boundaries between what is and what is not art are become so blurred as to become barely discernible . A greatly significant contribution to this process is being made by artists whose cultures and histories come from outside the Western tradition. Up until now, these "other" traditions, and the people who represent them, have been excluded from the story of Western Art.

Yet such practitioners can be accommodated within this narative. Their "otherness" for example is not too far away from the idea of the "outsider", and like misfit or revolutionary has become an almost flattering suobriquet for the practitioner who likes to feel pleasantly at odds with the rest of society. However painful the actual experiences of exile are, they can confer or raise an artist's credibility and standing, especially in contexts where residual guilt may be found. Certainly all of the artists in the exile group make reference to the complex psychology of their position as an exile, a state significantly different from that of the emigre. Chamber's defines the exile as someone who has an enforced or regretted absence from their country or home. This clearly applies in the Palestinians case, whether they are first or second generation refugees. The hope and expectation of returning to the homeland is vital in differentiating these artists, and relating them with those others just described who are still able to reside within Israel or the Occupied Territories.

This consciousness of exile is an aspect of their work which does much to frame its critical reception in the West.

The effects differ depending on when and where the exile occurred. Palestinians who relocate to places in the Arab world are clearly less directly influenced by the West, though its interesting to note that some, like Ismail Shammout, have picked up academic European influences in the course of their education. Born in 1930 he became a refugee in 1948, making his way eventually to Egypt where he studied art at Cairo Art School. His instructors were themselves trained in Europe, and practised a sort of socialist realist attitude to figuration, reminiscent of officially approved Soviet art. This accessible style was designed as a vehicle which could dramatically convey any messages which the state apparatus wished, and it continued to function in this mode when attached to the causes of Arab nationalism.

This attachment appears in his work because of his sense of loss, fragmentation and nomadic existence. Constantly on the move from one home to another in different countries, mainly in the Arab world, he still felt himself to be an unwanted alien, always remined of his different culture and identity . Whilst accepted by Arab countries as conforming in terms of generalised nationalism, when cultural specifics were on the artistic agenda, Shammout, as a Palestinian, became a ’stranger within’.

Younger Palestinians in this exile group, whose experience in the West has been more marked, differ from Shammout in what they have learned. On a certain level they are able to sustain the stylistic consistency within the Western environment, while they seek to engage, not the popular, ideologically univocal public targeted by the other exiles in the Arab world , or the painters in the West Bank and Gaza camps, but the narrower audience of the secular and urbane city dwellers.

Artists such as Kamal Boullata, Mona Hatoum and Bashir Makhoul seem to have shown awareness of the institutions to which this Western audience attaches itself, yet they are free to solve the problem of subject matter with a good deal less compromise, and self-deception. Inevitably the exiles turn to a remembered Palestine, converting it to an issue or idea which ends their search for some specific content.

In different ways these artists enjoy the benefit of comparatively liberal social and artistic circumstances within their host societies, giving them confidence, in contrast to what they may face in Israel or in the Occupied Territories. The painters know that their use of the colours of the national flag for example will not be interpreted as inciting political unrest, nor result in arrest and punishment. Yet they run other risks. The politically significant choice of the red, white, black and green may be seen as wholly aesthetic by Western (politically unaware) viewers, and many of the emotionally charged symbols may mean little to their new audience.

Apart from knowledge of western art , the exiled artists have in addition more culturally Arab specific resources to utilise thus enriching their contribution. The exiles often choose styles which have element in common with their traditions. Hard-edge abstraction for example, can accommodate references to Arabesque, and both Kamal Boullata and Bashir Makhoul have exploited the similarities between the language of sixties American art and the structures of Islamic calligraphy.

Boullata introduces his content via the cognitive possibilities of Arabic words, stylised into semi-decorative configurations, yet retaining meaning. The meanings often have strong associations with the Arabic language. His recent work is reminiscent of the parts of Jerusalem he knew as a boy and revisits. Further references in the work to geometry, also seem true to the adopted abstract style, but again they do not require a compromise with cultural identity. Instead they tend to reinforce it, by reminding the viewer of the long history of Arabic mathematical expertise.

Bashir Makhoul deploys similar devices in some of his paintings, however his work contrast Boullata’s in its approach. He has no desire to investigate Islamic Art in the sense of determining its origin and developments over time. Nor he is trying to blend two cultures in to harmony, but to set them off against each other. This methodology itself is not dissimilar to the experience of exile.

Makhoul has clearly absorbed something of the Modernist notion of picture making but is not converted to it. He can move out of it, as in more recent work focusing on patterns, and pass freely between computer generated imagery, installation and sculpture.

In the same way Mona Hatoum can adopt a neutral attitude to the actual forms of expression she uses partly because they are secondary to the stronger commitment to content, but also because her ownership of them perhaps is less felt. What clearly matters most is her status as an exile in her adopted community, and her emotional attachment to her family history. Though born in Lebanon her parents were Palestinian refugees, and she clearly feels that this is a vital part of her identity. Yet she also manifests what might be called the paradox of the successful exile, who seems to thrive in an adopted situation rather than be oppressed by it. It is also a source of self-identification, especially at the feminist influenced individual level, where Hatoum operates in a fully Westernised mode.

In discussing Hatoum one has moved it would seem to the very edge of an authentic Palestinian identity to another figure, that of the international artist, operating on a world stage, and universalising cultural experiences into metaphors of distance, displacement, or fragmentation. As the obvious political message fades the considerations of fine art, and access to institutions that tend to see themselves as politically disinterested, increases. The pole of this attitude can be found in the Occupied Territories, where metaphors would be useless amongst a people who have little choice but to fight , and whose institutions are virtually non-existent.

In this context there seems to be a trade off between the notions of national identity and the considerations of fine art rather than an area of obvious common interest. This raises interesting questions about the future at a time when peace processes, though tenuous, seem to be leading towards some kind of practical solution to the problems of the region. There are still many artistic dilemmas to be solved. At the moment those on the forefront of authenticity lag behind in terms of artistic achievement, but this may be an Eurocentric view, because there is no reason why a culture should want Fine Art for itself, in preference to popular or applied art. Exiled Palestinians may still find that the structure of Palestinian society, being traditionally rural and village based , might not generate the audiences of the kind they have addressed in the West. They may stay with what seems like a valid alternative of a new internationalism where the artist is on the margins, constantly trying to penetrate the multi-centered network, exhibiting globally, but cut adrift from their home culture, which they re-imagine and re-invent from a poetic distance.

The current situation is dynamic and a study of practice carried out in ten years time might bring very different conclusions. Yet, in the wider scheme of things, the fate of Palestinian art, and Palestinian identity, may depend less on the resolution of local Arab\Israeli issues and more on the future relationship between Christendom and the countries of Islam.

Bashir W Makhoul, Contemporary Palestinian Art An Analysis of cultural and political influences, Ph.D. thesis Manchester Metropolitan University, 1995.

What makes this reversal even more intense is their witnessing of cultural and traditional belonging, switches hands, like the villages, land language and artefacts and traditional food like the Falafel sandwich which the Palestinians enjoyed making and eating for centuries, now is the Israeli national snack.

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