The Institute for Middle East Understanding

Visual Arts
Visual arts
IMEU, Jan 14, 2006

An art piece from Palestinian artist Mohammed al Hawajiri at an exhibition in Palestinian. (Charlotte de Bellabre, MAAN News)
The roots of Palestinian visual art can be traced back to pre-Islamic times when Byzantine pictorial iconography, with its two-dimensional patterns, was the dominant influence in Palestine. It reemerged after the influx of Christian monks in the nineteenth century. After 634 AD, with the advent of Islam and a Muslim majority in the area, Islamic traditions played a key role in Palestinian art from which the main conventions of today's art are derived.


As with Judaism, Islam forbids idolatry. Instead of representations of God or the Prophet Muhammad, Islamic art focused on abstract designs and calligraphy. Many examples of this can be found in the mosques of Palestine. Jamal Badran (1909-1999) was a leading Palestinian artist in the Islamic style. He is well known for his many pieces of Islamic art, but most of all for his work on a major renovation of the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem in the 1920s.

Also in the early twentieth century, modern painting began to develop. This occurred due to the increase in European influence that coincided with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and Palestine coming under British control, accompanied by an influx of Jewish Europeans. Most Palestinian artists during this time were self-taught, painting landscapes and religious scenes in imitation of the European style, but overall the discipline was not very developed and art exhibitions were almost unheard of. Notable artists of this era include Khalil Halaby, Nahil Bishara, Sophie Halaby and Faddoul Odeh.


Though the transitions of ruling parties and the tensions due to increased immigration did not create an atmosphere conducive to the development of artistic disciplines, the process was thrown into utter upheaval by the carving up of Palestine in 1948 and the Israeli military occupation of the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967.

One of the first artists to emerge after 1948 was Ismail Shammout, whom some consider to be the father of Palestinian modern art. He is known for both realistic and symbolic depictions of the Palestinian struggle, though in the 1950s, Palestinian art was limited to realism. In 1953, Shammout held the first art exhibition by a Palestinian in Palestine. A year later, Shammout and two other artists held the first joint Palestinian exhibition ever, an event in Cairo attended by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Naji al-Ali, the internationally acclaimed cartoonist known for his character Hanthala, began drawing during the 50s, and was discovered by novelist and artist Ghassan Kanafani in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Governments and papers tried to censor Al-Ali throughout his career, until he was assassinated in London in 1987.

1967 to Present

Palestinian artists were reinvigorated after the "Six-Day War" in 1967 and the subsequent Israeli occupation. The Palestine Liberation Organization created the Union of Artists for Palestinians in the Diaspora, while artists in the Occupied Territories formed the League of Palestinian Artists. Art took on more urgent political meaning, featuring images of resistance and reaffirming Palestinian culture. Attending exhibitions in the Occupied Territories became an act of defiance to occupation and a celebration of identity. In response, in 1980, Israel banned art exhibitions and paintings of "political significance." The grouping of the four colors of the Palestinian flag in any one painting was also forbidden.

Despite these restrictions, artists in the Diaspora, Israel, and the Occupied Territories prolifically produced art and held exhibitions, conferences and seminars. During this time, many prominent artists emerged, including Kamal Boullata with his novel use of calligraphy and geometric shapes, and Samira Badran, whose apocalyptic images critique the occupation. Suleiman Mansour, known for his use of metaphors, most famously Camels of Hardship depicting an old porter carrying Jerusalem on his back, led the New Vision movement after the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987. The movement boycotted Israeli supplies and instead used materials found locally, such as dyes, leather, wood, sand and clay.

Surrealism and abstraction began to be used more by Palestinian artists, often searching for a new way to express life under occupation while broadening their discipline. Installations, multimedia works, and photography have been utilized more frequently by artists, though painting remains the favored medium.

The continued occupation and outbreak of the second intifada in 2000 have brought about a resurgence of interest in, and production of, Palestinian art. In 2003, Made in Palestine became the first museum exhibit of Palestinian contemporary art to be shown in the United States. Touring Houston, San Francisco and now in Vermont, the powerful display contains selected works of 23 artists, including Suleiman Mansour, Samia Halaby, Mustafa al-Hallaj, and Emily Jacir, in a variety of mediums. The success of the project has spawned others exhibits, including the 2005 show Justice Matters: Artists Consider Palestine, at the Berkeley Art Center.


Ismail Shammout
Made in Palestine
"Contemporary Palestinian Art: Trends and Transformations"
Justice Matters: Artists Consider Palestine
"Culture and Customs of the Palestinians" by Samih K. Farsoun

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