The Facets of Palestinian Art

By Doris Bittar

Palestinian Art

By Gannit Ankori

Reaktion Books, 2006

“Palestinian Art” provides its readers a documentary-like and cinematic experience while teaching them about the history and culture of a troubled land. In this historical narrative, we follow the artists’ academic training, their first studios, and the towns and cities in which they worked and struggled. Gannit Ankori’s use of narrative makes it clear how history has deflected the Palestinians toward an unanticipated path.

 Woven into the Palestinian national narrative is the ever-present but oblivious Western art world, ignoring artists from the “East,” as usual. Because “Eastern” artists have some level of awareness of Western trends, whether the artists are in exile or remain in their ancestral towns, Eastern artists tend to be a hybrid of both cultures. Like many non-Western artists, the ability of Arab artists to see the world from multiple viewpoints is taken for granted. Ankori knows not to wear the cloak of the authoritative colonial scholar in this landscape. That alone is a refreshing change from the usual stance that Western critics and historians adapt.

“Palestinian Art” is an art book, but it is a history book as well.  Ankori does not soften the reality of Al Nakbah, the initial expulsion that rendered nearly a million Palestinians homeless, and other ceaseless traumas that have been etched into the Palestinian psyche. Al Nakbah is a marker that anchors our knowledge of Palestinian art the way World War II does for Western artists. By cataloguing Israel’s official listing of military booty of Palestinian art objects, Ankori makes Al Nakbah tangible as a searing act of Israeli theft of culture as well as land.

This book does not offer an exhaustive list of artists. Rather, Ankori carefully chose a limited number of artists to convey the various contextual and conceptual threads of influences, from the early part of the 20th century to the late 1990’s. Ankori implicitly positions herself with critics who deconstruct the “high” art/ “low” art debates. For example, she includes local religious crafts along with the traditional European-influenced art tied to the accolades of Modernism at mid-20th century. She also includes the newer artists, who are less interested in those debates. They are multidisciplinary artists venturing into performance and conceptual art by focusing on identity politics, immigration and exile. Each artist is represented chronologically through the era in which they worked and their local historical contexts. The artwork is saturated with gripping personal, social and political history. The influences of poets such as Mahmoud Darwish and Eastern music are essential to many of the artists. 

A litany of haunting works conveys restless alienation: welcome mats that do not welcome, prayer rugs you cannot kneel on, barren landscapes with barefoot children in rags, a surrealist rendition of an old man carrying the city of Jerusalem on his back, feet encased in cement that cannot leave their doorsteps, suitcases that cannot carry clothes, beds no one can sleep on, bandages that bind and do not heal, and more. These are the images that myriad Palestinian artists use to express the fact that they cannot find comfort in their dislodged and disenfranchised lives. 

The artwork includes: Ismail Shammout’s painted catastrophes, Sliman Mansour’s illustrations, Mona Hatoum’s starkly hostile furniture and objects, Khalil Rabah’s inchoate isolations, Raeda Saadeh’s restless theater and Jasser Abu-Rabia’s tribal earthworks. For the younger artists, the richness of the land, its bounty and the comforts of ancestral groves are ornamental remnants inherited from their parents and their grandparents. Their work is more about barren experiences choked by the religious and cultural privileges of others.

Early publicity for Gannit Ankori’s “Palestinian Art” makes distracting claims that it is the first comprehensive book on Palestinian art. This has aroused puzzlement and some suspicion among those in the Palestinian and Arab communities. Some have said that this claim is made only because Ankori is an Israeli, and Western culture tends to dismiss any work done by Palestinian scholars. Publicity notwithstanding, Ankori acknowledges several Palestinians who came before her and covered a broader group of artists and discussed contextual and theoretical issues, among them artist/curator Samia Halaby, curator/author Salwa Mikdadi and especially artist/writer Kamal Boullata, whose support she acknowledges in at least a dozen referenced scholarly papers, articles and catalogues. 

In fact, Ankori gives Boullata’s broad art career its own exhaustive chapter. He is credited with helping Ankori organize the various conceptual strands and layers of history that interweave with the discussion of trends and artists. Ankori parts company with Boullata on how they label and sort various arenas within the visual arts, such as abstract versus realist art and craft versus fine art. This difference may affect the conclusions they draw and how they interpret various art works. Clearly, postmodern voices such as Fanon, Derrida and Said influenced Ankori’s approach to art theory and the complexities of considering nationalism.

Pride in authorship cuts both ways. The first person to compile a comprehensive timeline for the Metropolitan Museum’s website on Middle Eastern art is Salwa Mikdadi, a Palestinian. Mikdadi was given the formidable task of gathering the images with explanatory texts for Arab countries and several non-Arab Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey. She found it painful to do Israel at first, as she looked at the works of Israeli sculptors and painters in the early 1950s, a time of great anguish and loss for her family. Mikdadi, nonetheless, was absorbed by the inner working of the artists, their influences and thought processes. Professionalism and a keen eye enabled her to compile a compelling section on Israel and the other Middle Eastern countries that fell outside of her familiar realm.

This is not the definitive book on Palestinian art that some have claimed. Salwa Mikdadi’s comments are wise: “It is still too soon to declare that there is a definitive study on Palestinian art, as it is still emerging.” Ankori’s vision suggests an inclusive method of looking at art. It is a blueprint for writers and readers to study on how writing the cultural history of a nation is possible.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, nos. 54/55 (Winter/Spring 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid

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