‘Despite’ presents a selection in London of the vibrant and engaged work of a group of artists from Palestine, a troubled place that has been subject to a seismic history with more than a fair share of injustice and violence in all its forms. The consequences of this history continue into the present with inadequate proposals for unrealisable solutions, while an ongoing military and political occupation manifests itself through oppression and control and assumes it is above any international codes of practice or law.
Cultural life and artistic practice could have been destroyed by this state of affairs, but they have proven remarkably resilient. Despite – maybe even because of – the situation, visual artists in and from Palestine have never stopped producing thought provoking works and there is a compelling desire and need for creative expression to counter the violence and to celebrate and affirm life, vitality and hope.
What is remarkable in the paintings in ‘Despite’ is how ‘sane’ they are – not in the sense of being moderate or sensible, but in being clear and coherent. There is no muddle, confusion or pretension here. Palestinian artists have experienced more serious consequences of historical events than most, and for longer, but the luxury (or laziness) of ignoring the deleterious effects and consequences of actions perpetrated against them has not been theirs. The effects of occupation, forcible removal from and destruction of land and homes, enforced or voluntary exile, and unnecessary and excessive military aggression are aspects of historical (and ongoing) experiences which it is impossible to ignore. Events have all played a part in the lived circumstances of the artists, in the art they produce and in the locations in which it is received and exhibited. Their art never reduces itself, however, to simplistic renditions or illustrations. It does, at times, record, although never overtly – and it is essential and important to document and inform – but it also celebrates, affirms, imagines, hopes.
Distance and a life in exile can amplify memories and knowledge of events at home, whereas for those still there the daily realities can force a turning inwards and a conscious and deliberate search for beauty and normality. There are bleak and disturbing images in, for example, the work of Mohammed Joha, a young artist from Gaza currently living in Italy.
In Hani Zurob’s paintings, an artist from Gaza who has lived in Paris for some years, there is a strong sensation of exile and distance, and even alienation. The idea of the projectFlying Lesson occurred when his son surprised him with the question, “Daddy why don’t you come with us to Jerusalem?” Holding an identity card from Gaza, it would be hard for his son to grasp the incapability of never being able to travel with him.I notice that he increasingly chooses to play with transportation toys, in his belief that there has to be a kind of transportation that can get us together to his grandfather’s house in Jerusalem.
Ghostlike presences can also be seen in the work of Tayseer Barakat and Jawad Al Malhi, two artists who both grew up in the inner displacement and confines of the overbuilt and overcrowded spatial complexities of refugee camps. Barakat describes his work as ‘a mosaic of images,’ which explores the recent uprisings, Palestine’s history and his personal struggle with living under the occupation. He states: ‘The chanting of the uprisings across Arab streets has recovered my shattered soul from the alleys of exile and my deep desire to return home.’
Yet there is a lightness, a delight and joy in the subtle dance of brush marks in both Hosni Radwan and Rana Bishara’s works on paper. Rima Mozzayen also celebrates colour and pattern, employing metaphorical images such as the palm tree that grows in the desert with limited water, the black and white kuffiyeh scarf that is the symbol of Palestinian national resistance. The geometric precision and complexity of pattern in traditional islamic art has also been a source of inspiration and pride for many of the artists, particularly the older generations.
For the contemporary artists in the restricted and isolated space of Gaza – such as Mohammed Abusal, Mohammed Hawajri, Raed Issa, Dina Matar and Shareef Sarhan – there is a vibrancy of colour and a dynamic energy in their paintings and works on paper. Theirs is an emphatic refusal to focus on destruction and confinement; they celebrate light and colour, the poetry inherent in the arabic script and language, the beauty of a simple everyday object or the view through a window, the existence and symbolism of light to see by.
Mohammed Abusal’s recent works subtly explore the magical power of electric light we often take for granted: in Gaza electricity is often only available for limited hours in the day, so it is appreciated and treasured.
All these artists have used photography as a means of recording, and seeing, the beauty they witness around them. They do not shun the brutality and harsh realities they have seen and experienced, but they use art as a space in which to celebrate life and human resilience, to rejoice in colour and light.
The exhibition will be from Friday 7th December until Friday 28th December 2012.
Participating artists are: Nidal Abu Oun, Mohamed Abusal, Jawad Al Malhi, Mohamed Al Hawajri, Nabil Anani, TayseerBarakat, Rana Bishara, Mohammed Joha, Raed Issa, Dina Mattar, Rima Muzayan, Hosni Radwan, Majed Shala, Shareef Sarhan and Hani Zurob.
Arts Canteen is a London based cultural venture. Its aim is to build artistic relationships between the Arab world and Europe. It provides platforms for emerging and mid-career artists who create exciting contemporary visual art and music.
More information: http://www.artscanteen.com/
Written by Malikka Bouaissa
Photos: Arts Canteen (courtesy artists)
This post is also available in: Dutch