I’ve founded and run several tech enterprises in the US and the Arab region. I came back to the Arab world from the US in 1999, to develop Internet infrastructure in Egypt. My company NOOR, built one of the most advanced data and internet networks anywhere on the planet in Egypt and then began using that as a
hub to extend our reach to every part of the world. Today, NOOR is diversified into advanced managed data services, including data center services, app development and advanced R&D in the field of data communications.
I’ve always been a geek with a passion for good design and art. This unique combination has shaped my interests as an adult.
My dear friend Rima Nasser (the publisher of this magazine) recently asked me to take on this “curated by” section of the magazine, focusing on Palestinian Art. This of course begs the question, what exactly is Palestinian Art? I was born and raised in the US, I was educated in Europe and the US and the only home I’ve known in the Arab world, as a child and now, is Lebanon (well I can’t deny my beloved Egypt, in which I’ve been working for the past twenty years, I also consider home in this part of the world). While we have been Lebanese citizens for three generations, our origin is definitely Palestinian. This assignment got me to thinking not only about the question of Palestinian art, but also (and just for a moment) about my own identity. The reason I mention this is because identity, to a large degree, seems to be what defines Palestinian Art today, but before I get back to this, I’m going to attempt to give you a quick primer on how Palestinian art has evolved.
“What exactly is Palestinian Art?”
Art in the historical, biblical lands, known as Palestine, has been around for centuries, contrary to what some Israeli scholars would have you believe. Art in the modern sense began in Palestine’s Christian and Moslem communities through iconography and calligraphy. Many of these iconographers and calligraphers moved from their traditional religious art, painting icons, and ornamental art, to more secular art, painting portraits and landscapes during the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Now let’s fast forward to 1948, with the establishment of the state of Israel, or the ‘Nakba’ (disaster), during which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced from their lands and homes, and dispersed throughout the Arab world and beyond. During this time, and for quite some time to come, Palestinians who remained in their lands (assuming they weren’t confiscated) were busy dealing with a brutal Zionist occupation force, or with their settlement in the countries to which they fled. Art at that time was not on their mind, but it soon began to be harnessed as a weapon of resistance and memory. I have always considered artists as archivists of history and truth.
“I have always considered artists as archivists of history and truth”
On this subject, and in a paper submitted by my dear late friend Kamal Boullata (a prominent Palestinian art historian and artist), he wrote the following: “Edward Said (a preeminent Palestinian scholar) has written, on more than one occasion, on the difficulties of formulating a Palestinian narrative in a linear sense in any field of creative endeavor, such as painting. The multiple reasons he has cited include the people’s dispersal, the recurring discontinuities and displacements in their lives, and the lack of a geographic and cultural center over a period of some fifty years. Said has also noted how, due to these factors, alternative means of expression were bound to be invented out of the kind of chaos set in motion by the experience of uprootedness and fragmentation, as no linear narrative entailing classical rules of form or structure can be true to that experience.”
Unlike many of the countries in the region, which had budding art movements at the time, Palestinian art, kind of took on a life of it’s own, using a variety of mediums and techniques, but the subjects they tackled almost always tied back to the memory of their Palestinian homeland, no matter where or in what countries these artists resided in. Like I mentioned earlier, Palestinian art during the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and beyond was mobilized as a weapon of resistance, to keep the memory of the rich Palestinian culture alive.
“Palestinian art, kind of took on a life of it’s own, using a variety of mediums and techniques, but the subjects they tackled almost always tied back to the memory of their Palestinian homeland”
One of the other challenges in defining Palestinian art is the fact that Palestinians are everywhere. There are the Palestinian artist who are Arab Israelis, there are those living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, there are Palestinian artists living in refugee camps in various Arab countries and there are those living in the greater diaspora all over the world. This all comes back to that question of identity. In all cases there are extraneous factors and forces affecting what comes form Palestinian artists and in what form. Of course, there are those who struggle with their identity, but in my experience they ultimately resolve this struggle by going back to their memory, or the memory their families impart on them of what Palestine was.
I relied on several sources to research this piece, including my own intimate knowledge of the subject, and my close friendship with several of the artists I will feature in this section. My two most notable and contrasting sources were the late Palestinian art historian Kamal Boulata’s book, ‘Palestinian Art, From 1859 to the Present’ and prominent Israeli art historian Gannit Ankori’s book, ‘Palestinian Art’. I must admit though the Journal of Palestinian Studies, an independent publication, has also been an invaluable resource of information.
My own challenge was to boil this whole complex subject down to this piece and then to choose 18 artists out of hundreds of great and worthy Palestinian artist for the print version of this article, but if you’re reading this online, I’ll include quite a few more, so be sure and visit selectionsarts.com
In my selection, I will try and keep things chronological to the extent that I can, but I’ll make sure to explain why I made the choices I have. I hope you enjoy it!
In the interest of getting this piece out in a timely manner, I’ve pulled the mini bios on these artists from the digital archives of the foundation I founded and run for Arab art, named for my parents, The Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation, which not only houses and researches one of the largest collection of Arab art, but more specifically one of the largest collections of Palestinian art as well. While I make it a point to edit everything the foundation publishes, the credit for the bios goes to the foundation’s small army of dedicated researchers, and my humble editing skills. More in depth bios and information on these artists can be found at dafbeirut.org
The first group of artists I’ve chosen is that of those who were born and worked in Palestine during the Ottoman mandate. These are the pioneering artists who made the jump from religious art to secular art. They include KHALIL HALABY(1889-1964), TOUFIC JOHARIYA(1891-1944), and JAMAL BADRAN(1909-1999).
Khalil Halaby (1889-1964)
Born in 1889 in Jerusalem, Palestine, Khalil Halaby was a pioneer painter who played a significant role in the inception of modern Palestinian art. He began his career as an iconographer and later shifted from religious to secular painting. Icon painting was the dominant form of applied art at the time. Derived from the Byzantine tradition, it was practiced in Palestine as early as the eighteenth century. As an iconographer, Halaby was associated with the Jerusalem school and was trained by members of the Orthodox Church who were long trained by Greek monks. The works of Russian iconographers who settled in the country nurtured these iconographers style.
Halaby and his contemporaries strayed away from the traditional Byzantine traditions and adopted a naturalized style that is relevant to the area. For instance, they replaced western features portrayed in saints by Middle Eastern ones. Upon the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the steady influx of western artists, Europeans introduced easel painting to Palestine. Soon Halaby adopted the new means of representation and transformed as he explored new materials and techniques. He added a new secular genre, painting mainly landscapes of his hometown.
Toufic Johariya 1891-1944)
Born in Jerusalem in 1891, son of Geryes Johariya, a prominent iconographer. The young Toufic was the disciple of Nicolas Saig, a professional iconographer and painter in Jerusalem. Toufic Johariya was taught art through copying from photography: he drew a grid on the photographs, and then reproduced every detail on a gridded paper using charcoal. As a final step, he transposed his image onto the canvas with oil or watercolors.
Jamal Badran (1909-1999)
Born in Haifa in 1909. Badran’s inclination towards drawing and the applied arts was apparent from a very young age, and he showed a particular passion for Islamic arts. The artist cited the Mahmal as his first source of inspiration and awaited the arrival of this ceremonial palanquin every year as a child. Carried by pilgrims on an annual journey from Damascus to Mecca, the Mahmal held the Kiswah for the Ka’ba from 1266 until 1952, and during Badran’s youth, its procession stopped in Haifa. The brocade palanquin, embroidered with gold, silver, and silk, captivated Badran and this fascination sparked a lifelong interest in Islamic traditions of ornamentation.
The second group of artists I’ve chosen include those born in Palestine and forced to flee either by foot, the backs of trucks, much like my father’s family had to, or by other means. These artists include ISMAIL SHAMMOUT(1930-2006), MUSTAFA EL HALLAJ(1938-2002), IBRAHIM GHANNAM(1930-1984), JUMANA EL HUSSEINI(1932-2018), JULIANA SERAPHIM(1934-2005), PAUL GUIRAGOSSIAN(1926-1993), MALIHEH AFNAN(1935-2016), VLADIMIR TAMARI(1942-2017), and KAMAL BOULLATA(1942-2019).
Ismail Shammout (1930-2006)
Born in 1930 in Lydda, the second of eight children in a working-class family. During his school days in Lydda, the renowned Jerusalem painter Daoud Zalatimo mentored him. Shammout attended the University of Fine Arts in Cairo from 1950 to 1954 and pursued further education at the Academia Di Belle Arti in Rome from 1954 to 1956. Shammout headed the Department of Arts and National Culture of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from its inception in 1965, and in the late 1960s, he co-founded the Union of Palestinian Artists. He was elected as this union’s Secretary-General in 1969, the same year he established the Dar al-Karama Gallery in Beirut. He became the General Advisor of the Union of Arab Artists in 1971.
Shammout drew inspiration for his nationalistic work from his firsthand experience of the Nakba. In July 1948, Shammout’s hometown of Lydda fell under the Zionist attack, suffering aerial bombardment before becoming the site of one of the Nakba’s deadliest massacres of Palestinian civilians. Zionist troops forced Lydda’s inhabitants to evacuate their homes, and eighteen-year-old Shammout became one of the hundreds coerced into walking what is now known as the “Lydda Death March.”
Mostafa El Hllaj (1938-2002)
Mustafa El Hallaj was born in the village of Salama, near Jaffa, Palestine, in 1938. He came from a humble background; his father was a migrant farmworker, and some of his earliest memories were of traveling with him from orchard to orchard throughout the fertile agricultural regions of Palestine. When he was nine years old, El Hallaj and his family fled Zionist violence on foot, ultimately settling in Egypt, where the artist would complete all of his training. In 1963, he graduated in sculpture from the fine arts faculty of Cairo, and in 1968 he completed graduate training in Luxor. El Hallaj left Egypt in the early 1970s, living between Beirut and Damascus until 1983, when he permanently settled in the latter city.
Ibrahim Ghannam (1930-1984)
Born in 1930, in the village of Yajur near Haifa, Palestine, Ibrahim Hassan Kheite is also known as Ibrahim Ghannam, was a Palestinian artist based in Lebanon. As a child, Ghannam contracted polio. Hence, he used a wheelchair throughout his life. In 1948, Ghannam and his family fled the Zionist violence to the Tal-el-Zaatar refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. Since he was seventeen years old, Ghannam favored solitude; he stayed in a small cell-like room. He found refuge and solace in painting and in playing the Oud- an oriental string instrument. Ghannam was instrumental in the inception of Palestinian modern art. He was a founding member of the General Union of Palestinian artists foundation, and the General Federation of Arab Artists foundation.
Ibrahim Ghannam gave visual form to Palestine as an idealized lost paradise; he registered the pleasant times before the Nakba. In a primitive and naïve style, he depicted daily life and peasantry in rural Palestine. He adopted vivid colors in his paintings, which featured panoramic scenes of harvesting, olive picking, and wedding ceremonies. The artist portrayed village people dressed in traditional folkloric outfits preserving the cultural heritage of his country.
Jumana El Husseini (1932-2018)
Born on April 2nd, 1932, in Jerusalem, where she lived until her family’s forced flight in 1947. El Husseini’s family ultimately settled in Lebanon, where, in 1953, the artist began an undergraduate degree in political science at the Beirut College for Women (now the Lebanese American University). An interest in politics came naturally to her, having been born into a prominent family of Palestinian nationalists; her grandfather, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, served as Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during the British Mandate and was an avid opponent of both British and Zionist colonial rule. Jumana’s educational path took a different direction when she transferred to the American University of Beirut, where she enrolled in an art class and was encouraged by her teachers to develop her skills. She graduated from AUB in 1957 and participated in her first group exhibition at the Sursock Museum three years later. El Husseini lived and worked in Beirut until the Israeli invasion of 1982, when she relocated to Paris, a city she would call home for the rest of her life.
During the 1960s and 1970s, as the late artist and art critic Kamal Boullata has noted, Beirut’s Palestinian artists generally operated either in the orbit of the PLO in the refugee camps or the more cosmopolitan world of Beirut’s art galleries. Husseini was a notable exception, bridging the scenes with art that was both politically committed and aesthetically experimental.
Juliana Sewraphim (1934-2005)
Born in Jaffa, Palestine, in 1934. Following the Palestinian Nakba, Juliana fled with her family to Sidon, Lebanon by boat in 1949, and four years later, faced with the impossibility of returning home, they moved to Beirut. In the Lebanese capital, Seraphim worked in the UNRWA headquarters as a secretary before leaving Lebanon to complete her education in the arts. She studied at the Academies of Fine Arts in Florence and Paris, as well as the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid. Just fourteen years old, when Zionist forces conquered Palestine, Juliana Seraphim was part of the first generation of Palestinian artists whose practices evolved in exile.
Paul Guiragossian (1926-1993)
Born in 1926 in Jerusalem, Palestine, to Armenian parents survivors of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, Guiragossian later took Lebanon as his permanent home and received Lebanese citizenship. Forced into exile, his parents relocated from Iskenderun to Jerusalem, where both Paul and his younger brother Antoine were raised. Paul’s father, a blind fiddler back then, was hardly present. His mother, Rahel, had to struggle to make ends meet. As a result, Paul remained in the custody of nuns at the Order of the Daughters of St. Vincent de Paul in Jerusalem; from age four till the age of seven. Then, Paul lived at the orphanage of the Salesian priests and completed his formative education at Ratisbonne seminary of the Salesian community of St. Don Bosco, in Bethlehem.
Recognizing his remarkable talent, resident priests took Paul on as an apprentice in stained-glass making. Some sources state that he trained under icon-maker, Pietro Yagetti, and at a place called Studio Yarcon, most likely in Jaffa. What is certain is that in the mid-1930s, he became an apprentice at the studio of Italian painter Fernando Manetti. Also, during this period, he learned Arabic Calligraphy with a local Sheikh. As the Zionist assault on Palestine escalated in 1947, the Guiragossian’s relocated to Lebanon. They first settled in Camp Trad in Burj Hammoud, a northern suburb of Beirut populated with Armenian refugees. Paul worked as an art instructor at several Armenian high schools in Beirut, where he met Juliette Hindian, who became his wife in 1952. Hindian was also an artist in her own right.
Malihe Afnan (1935-2016)
Born in Haifa, Palestine, in 1935, to a Persian family who fled Iran persecuted because of their Baha’i faith. In 1949, a year after the Nakba (the Zionists deadly attacks on Palestinians in 1948), and after witnessing the second world war and the air raids on Haifa, the Afnans were forced to leave and settle in Beirut. There, Maliheh Afnan attended high school then received her BA in Sociology and Psychology at the American University of Beirut, in 1955. She moved to Washington DC, USA, in 1956 and graduated with an MA in Fine Arts from the Corcoran School of Art in 1962. Since, she had a life of perpetual displacements, moving to Kuwait from 1963 to 66 then to Beirut until 1974. Afnan left Beirut to Paris and finally settled in London in 1997.
Vladimir Tamri (1942-2017)
Born in Jerusalem in 1942. After completing his primary and secondary educations at a Quaker school in Ramallah, Vladimir went on to study physics and art at the American University of Beirut. In 1963, Tamari spent a year at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London, after which he spent another year at Pendle Hill School Quaker Center of Study and Contemplation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Between 1966 and 1970, Tamari was based primarily in Beirut, where he worked with UNRWA to document the plight of Palestinian refugees on film. During this time, he also worked with Jordanian artist Mona Saudi on a book of drawings and interviews with Palestinian refugee children and produced cartoons and graphic design in support of the growing Palestinian liberation movement. The artist then relocated permanently to Japan, where he and his wife Kyoko raised two daughters. He spent the rest of his life in Kyoto and Tokyo as a modern-day “Renaissance man,” exploring his interests in fine arts, graphic design, physics, and industrial design.
Kamal Boullata (1942- 2019)
Born in Jerusalem in 1942. He earned a degree in fine arts from the Academia di Belle Arti in Rome and from 1968 to 1971 continued his studies at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington, D.C. Boullata taught at Georgetown University while producing his work and in 1993 was granted the Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship to research Islamic art in Morocco. He lived and worked between Paris and Morocco throughout the ‘90s and settled in Berlin. In addition to making his own work, Boullata is a leading historian of Palestinian art; his Palestinian Art From 1850 to the Present remains the most comprehensive survey written on the topic of modern art in Palestine. Boullata passed away in Berlin in 2019.
The third group of artists I’ve chosen are those who remained in occupied Palestine and some are considered Arab-Israeli citizens. This group includes ASIM ABOU SHAKRA(1961-1990), ABED ABDI(1942), RANA BISHARA(1971), SLIMAN ANIS MANSOUR(1947), ASAD AZI(1955), NABIL ANANI(1943), and TAYSEER BARAKAT(1959).
Asim Abu Shakra (1961-1990)
Born in 1961 in Umm El Fahem, Asim was the seventh of ten children in a Muslim family. Despite his limited oeuvre, the Palestinian artist left a mark on the region’s cultural history by generating controversy around Palestinian art created in present-day Israel. Abu Shakra completed his secondary education in a Jewish school in Afula, after which he moved to Tel Aviv to pursue his post-secondary studies. Here, he attended Kalisher Art School on a scholarship from 1982 to 1986, where he continued to work as a teaching assistant and drawing instructor following his graduation. He produced his last paintings from a studio on Nahmani Street in Tel Aviv, before succumbing to cancer in 1990 at the age of twenty-nine. Abu Shakra’s legacy is a corpus rich in expressionistic depictions of the cactus, or “sabra”, which has become a nationalistic symbol for both Palestinians and Israelis.
Abed Abdi (1942)
Born in Palestine, in the northern city of Haifa, February 1942. At age 6 Abdi and his mother and siblings were forced to flee when they were uprooted from their home during the violent Naqba of 1948 and for three years they moved from one refugee camp to another in several surrounding Arab countries until their return to Israel. Abdi made his connections in the Israeli art scene through the Communist Party in Haifa, which also gave him protection. The artist was a major motivator of a “Liberation through art” movement by Palestinian artists who lived in the areas of Palestine that were lost to Israeli Occupation in 1948. The trauma of living the Naqba in their childhood is what lead them to using art as an outlet. Abdi belonged to that generation of young Palestinian artists and this shows through the themes of his paintings and sculptures.
Rana Bishara (1971)
Born in 1971, in the village of Tarshiha in the Galilee, Palestine, Rana Bishara is a Palestinian interdisciplinary artist. Her body of work spans across painting, photography, graphic design, sculpture, installation art, and performance. She received a BA degree in Fine Arts, Women’s Studies and Philosophy, from Haifa University in 1993. In 2003 she completed her MA in Fine Arts on a Fulbright Scholarship at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia, USA.
Bishara’s art revolves around the ongoing occupation of Palestine and the consequent political conflict. She sheds light on the cultural annihilation and human rights abuse exercised in the occupied territories of Palestine, yet, overlooked in the mainstream media. Based on collective memory and storytelling, she explores notions of identity, displacement, and loss. Symbolic materials and imagery are central in Bishara’s body of work. Though highly political, her art is provoking and poetic. It reflects the irreversible trauma, distress, and emotions common to the Palestinian experience.
Sliman Anis Mansour (1947)
Born in Birzeit, Palestine, in 1947, Sliman Mansour is a painter, sculptor, and cartoonist who played a pivotal role in shaping Palestinian modern art and in building an infrastructure for the arts in the West Bank. The fourth son in a family of six, Mansour lost his father at the age of four and moved to Bethlehem, where he studied and boarded at the Evangelical Lutheran School. Mansour showed a profound interest in art at an early age, mentored by Felix Theis, a German art teacher who introduced him to European art history. He enrolled at the Bezalel Art Academy in West Jerusalem in 1967, where he studied drawing and painting under Yossi Stern and Joseph Hirsch. One of the few Palestinians at Bezalel, Mansour earned his BFA in 1970, after which the artist co-founded the League of Palestinian Artists (1973). He was the head of the league from 1979 to 1982 and 1986 to 1990, and founded the Al Wasiti Art Center in Jerusalem in 1994, serving as director from 1995 to 1996. In addition to teaching at Al Quds University, he participated in the establishment of the Palestinian Association for Contemporary Art in 2004 and the International Academy of Art in 2006, both in Ramallah.
Mansour was born at the dawn of the Nakba, and as a young adult, he lived through the Naksa, which marks Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War and subsequent seizure of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. Between 1967 and 1970, he lived in East Jerusalem, which had been occupied during the war, while studying in West Jerusalem, already formally a part of the Israeli state. As a result, his work during this period related to his experiences of estrangement, distress, and oppression, expressed in an idealistic style that reflected triumph amidst melancholy.
Asad Azi (1955)
Born in 1955, in Shefa-‘Amr, Lower Galilee, to Druze parents of Syrian and Lebanese descent. After completing his secondary education at a Jewish school in Kiryat Ata, he completed three years of compulsory service in the Israeli army. He studied sculpture, philosophy, and Hebrew at the University of Haifa, earning a BA in art in 1980. Azi attended Beit Berl Art College in Kfar Saba and Tel Hai Art College in Upper Galilee and pursued an MA in art history at Tel Aviv University in 1982. He co-founded Rega Group, an art gallery that serves as a space for artistic and political discussions. Azi has also written and published poetry in both Hebrew and Arabic and has taught art in Haifa and Jaffa. Though trained initially as a sculptor, the artist is now primarily known for his paintings.
Nabil Anani (1943)
Born in 1943 in Latroun, Palestine. During the Nakba of 1948, he fled with his family to Halhul, a city in the southern West Bank, where he completed his early education. He graduated from the School of Fine Arts in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1969, and in 1989 earned a master’s degree in Islamic Archeology at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. Upon returning to Palestine, he worked as an art teacher at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) at Al Tireh College and the United Nations Training College in Ramallah. Anani co-founded the League of Palestinian Artists in 1973, becoming its director in 1998. In 1994 he was a founding member of the Al-Wasiti Art Center in Jerusalem. Anani taught at Al-Quds University until retiring in 2003, after which point he dedicated much of his time to the League’s activities and, in 2006, helped establish the International Academy of Art in Ramallah. Anani lives with his wife in Ramallah, where he continues to produce stirring works that call for national liberation through coded iconography.
Tayseer Barakat (1959)
Born in 1959 in Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp, Tayseer Barakat belongs to a family originally from Al-Majdal, a village in the Lower Galilee that was bulldozed by Zionist forces in 1948. He completed his early education at Abu Hussein School for Boys in the camp and later pursued his graduate studies at the College of Fine Arts of Helwan University in Alexandria, Egypt. After earning his BA in painting in 1983, he returned to his homeland to teach art at the UNWRA-run women’s teacher training center in Ramallah. Barakat became a founding member of Al-Wasiti Art Center in Jerusalem, Al-Hallaj Hall in Ramallah, the Palestinian Association for Contemporary Art (PACA), and the International Academy of Arts in Palestine in Ramallah. To date, Barakat runs the Ziryab café and art space in Ramallah, which he also founded as a meeting place for artists and intellectuals of the West Bank.
Since birth, Barakat has lived in times of war, conflict, and displacement. Following the 1967 Naksa, at the age of eight, Barakat witnessed the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the subsequent deterioration of living conditions for Palestinians there. Growing up amid the squalor and hardship of a clustered and highly populated refugee camp, Barakat felt imprisoned within his homeland. During the long intervals of curfew, he vented his frustration through his art production. Nevertheless, the fertile agricultural lands of Gaza inspired the young Barakat, who first discovered his artistic inclinations while enjoying the natural landscape.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #53