Contemporary Art of Palestine: Development Issues

Issue #2 • 1291

Since the times when it was a British mandate, Palestine has constantly been in the band of political instability. An ordinary citizen looked upon art only in terms of its utility, and it was thus no accident that that period primarily saw the development of applied arts. Art experts – artists and critics – had to receive education abroad – in Europe and some Arab countries.

Following the 1948 war and the occupation of Palestine, people were compelled to flee to the neighbouring countries. Some artist remained on the occupied territories, others left for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, for Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. At that time Palestine was divided into three geographical areas: the first was under the sway of Israeli administration (Palestine of 1948); the second, the West Bank, was under the power of Jordan; and the third, Gaza Strip, under Egyptian rule.

Art in the West Bank was in an inert state, and it was no chance that the first institution that united Palestinian artists appeared in Jerusalem. It was called The Fine Arts and Sculpture Society, which later on was the organizer of numerous cultural events and functions.

1950s-1960s saw the beginning of active creative work of such renowned masters as Ismail Shamut, Tamam Al-Akmal, Mustafa Al-Khalaj, Vladimir Tamari, and Kamal Blata. They left a remarkable trace in the nascent Palestinian art (1).
After the 1967 war and the occupation of the part of Palestine, the country was left to comprise the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There were signs of cultural rise in every sphere. This period coincided with the graduation from art schools of a number of talented youth who received education in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Russia, Italy, France and Germany. The arrival of the new generation of artists enlivened decorative art, and in 1975 the Association of Palestinian Decorative Artists was founded as a section of a Union that was based in Beirut. Initially, there were 15 members in the Association, the majority from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In its operations the Association faced many challenges posed by occupation authorities who made every effort to stifle Palestinian culture: they closed exhibition halls, banned the movement of artists, restricted the freedom of press, etc. Still the artists carried on with their work and organized exhibitions in many Palestinian cities, from Khalil to Janin, Um Fahm, An-Nasira and Gaza. It should be noted that there were national institutions that supported decorative art; among them were municipalities, Red Cross, Engineers’ Trade Union, universities and others.

As for the artists from the territories occupied in 1948, they did not join the Association as members, yet took an active part in many exhibitions abroad and at home.

At that time among Palestinian men of art there were representatives of several generations; artists with professional education as well as self-taught ones coming from small villages and refugee camps. Art life was concentrated mainly around large urban centres such as Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus and Gaza. (2)

So, over the last five decades the Palestinian art has gone through a complex development path: from lamentable state as a result of territorial dissociation of the country to a true heyday. Palestinian artists have proved that there is a balance between local cultural and artistic heritage and different trends and kinds of contemporary art in both the Arab world and globally.

Given dire economic situation in Gaza Strip, art was limited to school education and few other activities, such annual exhibitions organized by the Association of Decorative Artists, owing to which the professionalism of artists began to grow.

Between 1975 and 1994 Palestinian art has gone through the tree stages of development:
The first, symbolic-political stage (1975-1980);
The return to the roots of cultural heritage (1980-1987);
The period of searching, experimenting and renewal (1987-1994).

The symbolic-political stage of development was marked by the appearance of the Association of Artists that was the first artist organization since the attempt to create Jordanian Society of Painting and Sculpture in Jerusalem. This period was characterized by the expression of bitterness caused by the results of the 1967 war and the occupation of Palestinian land by Israeli forces supported by the West. The period acquired its name owing to the fact that the art, which had an explicitly political orientation, widely used the images of Palestinian political and national symbols such as flags, rifles, Al-Aksa Mosque, etc.

The Association of Artists organized exhibitions called “For Peace and Freedom” dedicated to the Prisoner Day, the International Child Day, Women’s Day, The Day of the Earth, and Action against settlement building. This period saw the appearance of new names among artists: they were Suleyman Mansour, Nabil Anani, Isam Badr, Kamel Al Mugani, Fira Tumari, Fathi Gaban, Abdel Abidi, Karim Dabbah, Taysir Sharaf and Ibrahim Saba. Despite difference in style, the artists employed political symbols in their works.

During the second period, the return to the Palestinian historical heritage, the methods and style of the artists’ works change markedly. They came to realize that the method of political symbolism ceased to be effective and began to hinder the development of art. This facilitated the deepening of thought in their works and the appearance of different symbols with more capacious inner content, which historically distinguished the art of the Arab world in general. This period began in 1980 with the exhibition called Palestinian Village. In their works the artists employed different materials and used different styles and methods. The main content of the works was associated with ancient customs and traditions, as well as with urgent problems of the Palestinian working class. (3)

The third stage, searching for new ways, has led to the renewal of artistic language. It coincided with the beginning of the first Intifada of 1987 and continued until 1994 and on, when some like-minded artists began to create new entities and societies, among which of a particular interest is “Jerusalem” – an experimental society of the masters of chisel.

The artists saw their most important task in exiting the domain of cultural heritage and moving towards renewal, drawing themes from the events of the first Intifada. They stopped buying foreign-made materials and began to use local materials, which resulted in the creation of new vision that asserted its existence in the sphere of applied art on the local, Arabic and global level. The authors used hide, henna, clay and pigments, and applied the technique of poker-work. They began to explore new kinds of applied art such as stone carving and raised stone sculpture. Palestinian applied art was reaching a new level of creative achievements worthy of representing it at the global arena. The artists’ works demonstrated non-standard approaches, and bold and free thinking not typical of decorative Palestinian art before. At that same time some artists began to use installation as a new contemporary art technique and were a success both locally and internationally. (4)

The connoisseurs of Palestinian art may notice that there is an ongoing creative activity, both internal and external, in spite of difficulties in artistic, financial and spiritual domains. Yet there are things that are absolutely essential for its further development, such as the identification of strategy that would create a favourable environment for creative work and facilitate the building of the national and Arab culture, distinct and clear in its form. To implement this important long-term cultural project a joint effort is required for the realization on the set objectives. Efforts should be focused on:

1. Regular review and renewal of methods and techniques in the domain of Palestinian fine and decorative/applied art. There is a need to design a five-year plan of its development in accordance with aspirations and needs of Palestinian society, taking into account its history and philosophy, which means the introduction of everything new that would be useful for the future generations, and benefiting from the experience of other countries, taking modern technologies into consideration, as bringing up new generation is the primary objective of such project.

2. Analysis of condition and quality of training at existing art schools, starting from the establishment of two committees, administrative and academic, whose responsibility would include checking the methods of accepting students and the application of successful experience accumulated earlier in this sphere.

3. A need to create management and administration group, as artists, due to their nature, usually cannot handle administrative work. Along with the system of administrators, it is essential to introduce the system of curators that would galvanize artistic process and give objective critical review of the works of art. The new entities would help address many administrative and artistic issues and would allow getting rid of unqualified cadres unable to establish either local or international connections.

4. A need to issue laws in the area of decorative art that would encourage the allocation of resources for the construction of buildings and structures taking into account local flavour and architectural traditions; to exempt enterprises from taxes in the amount equal to the value of art work.

5. Streamlining relations among Palestinian cultural and public organizations, such as the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Education, and the State Committee for Education, Culture and Science.

6. Improving the look of Palestinian cities and villages by installing monuments and performing all-out landscaping works. All these works should be done for the purpose of aesthetic education of the population. The formation of committees comprising artists, engineers and municipal managers to implement the set objectives.

7. Creation of national museums for keeping the items of cultural heritage and decorative art and preventing their misappropriation and loss – similar to the museum of the national heritage. This requires the establishment of a special national committee for museum affairs.

8. Creation of organizations supporting decorative art; creation of a decorative art catalogue covering the period from early 20th century till present. Completion of a project to establish the Art Centre in Jerusalem that was started in 1997.

9. Expanding the capacity of exhibition halls to house Arabian and international exhibitions for the purpose of reciprocal cultural exchange between Palestine and the rest of the world, and the creation of the Supreme Council of Palestine on biennale in Gaza and on the West Bank.

10. Active participation in important international exhibitions, such as biennale in San Paolo and similar biennale in Arab cities, Cairo, Alexandria, Sharja, etc.

Asad Al Asad (Palestine)

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