Art in Palestine 
By: Ismail Shammout 1989

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 art-work, 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.

Artists so harassed included Kamel Mughanni, a graduate of Alexandria Arts College and an art teacher at Al-Najah College in Nablus - West Bank. He 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 colours of the Palestinian flag, his exhibition closed and some works of his 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 of 1948 fared little better. Some talents were able to reassert themselves and make their presence felt. Prominent among those was Abed Abidi and Dhahir Zaidani who studied art in the German Democratic Republic, Marwan Abu Al-Haija, Hanna Mismar, Abdulla 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 has 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 is the artists determination to boycott Israeli manufactured or supplied materials. Another reason lies in the artists' quest for "originality".

All Palestinian artists, whether living in Israel, or 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 remain some Palestinian artists who chose to explore matters pertaining to form and experiment with colourific and abstract styles.

The use by Palestinian artists of "Western" styles, such as realism, expressionism, surrealism, dadaism 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 colours and captivating design 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 equal footing with primary Arab and non-Arab arts movements. Nevertheless, it has a long way to go, for creativeness and excellence are limitless.