Art has a way of transforming ordinary daily experience into a profound emotional journey. Art has the power to illuminate what lies beneath the physical and to paint volumes upon the stories of many with mere brushstrokes, stitching into cloth, or an eye behind a lens. However, it takes the courage of an artist to pursue their passions and bring them to light for all to share in. Four Palestinian artists stand out in this task, all with a unique story and personal inspirations: Emily Jacir, Nabil Anani, Samia Halaby, and Laila Shawa.
Nabil Anani is considered to be a key founder of contemporary Palestinian art and is one of the most well-known Palestinian artists working today. He graduated from Alexandria University in Egypt as a Fine Art major and returned to his home-country, Palestine, in 1969 once completing his degree. His modalities include paint, ceramics, and sculpture. He was a pioneer in utilizing innovative media based on his culture such as henna, natural dyes, leather, wood, beads, Papier-mâché, and copper. Never lacking in context or emotion, his work paints many narratives of Palestinian experience, the struggle, waiting, and even mourning. He melds history, culture, and identity into a story to help Palestinians and the world alike understand, acknowledge, and to remember. Yasser Arafat awarded Anani the first Palestinian National Prize for Visual Art in 1997. In 1998, Anani became the leader of the League of Palestinian Artists. After retiring from teaching in 2003, he played an integral role in helping establish the first International Academy of Fine Art in Palestine.
Painting of Palestine by Anani
“When I was growing up, art was the one place where I could speak.” Emily’s path to pursue art led her to a variety of modalities including painting, performance, installation, writing, sound, film, and photography. Her inspiration is fundamentally grounded in her Palestinian heritage and the struggles of her people. She uses art as a forum to communicate her feelings and those of who she wishes to represent through her various projects. In Where We Come From, she asked Palestinians living around the world: "If I could do something for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?" She then filmed herself completing these acts on behalf of these people, all of whom are either prohibited from entering or have restricted movement in their homeland. For one, she visited a mother’s grave, in another, she was asked to play soccer with a boy in Haifa. She also paid visit to a student’s family in Gaza, as he was prevented from returning home while studying in the West Bank. For another project, she created a Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages which were Destroyed, Depopulated, and Occupied by Israel in 1948. For this piece, she opened her studio to all those who wished to help her create the Memorial, which involved sewing all the fabric for a mock-up refugee tent. Participants came from all backgrounds including Palestinians, some of whom were villagers, Israelis, and international collaborators as well.
Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages which were Destroyed, Depopulated, and Occupied by Israel in 1948
Jerusalem born in 1936, Halaby was forced out of her home in Jaffa at the age of twelve. However, she is now a world leader in abstract painting and a scholar of Palestinian art. Although residing in the US since 1951, she is considered a pioneer of abstraction in the contemporary Arab art world as well. She was the first full-time associate professor at the Yale School of Art to be female. She also authored Liberation Art of Palestine: Palestinian Paintings and Sculpture in the Second Half of the 20th Century, which is considered to be a seminal text in Palestinian art history. She considers all her experiences and worldviews to come through in her abstractionist paintings. She believes that by becoming the most advanced artist as possible, her work can contribute to aesthetic, social, and technological development. In more recent years, she has worked to bring Palestinian artists together in her groundbreaking exhibitions. Although she never paints to specifically portray Palestine, she acknowledges that all her life experiences, feelings, and motivations come through in her highly acclaimed and globally recognized art.
Halaby working on For Niihau from Palestine
Laila Shawa is born to one of the oldest landowning families in Palestine. After her Fine Arts education in Rome, she returned to Gaza to lead arts and crafts education for refugee camps in coordinance with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Growing up in the Middle East, she learned several languages and became familiar with many cultures. She says, “Speaking different languages helps one understand how complex problems give rise to multiple explanations that are often mutually exclusive. From the privileged vantage point of the artist, I try to consider all sides of any question.” She enjoys utilizing her art as a way of pointing out societies ironies, dichotomies, and hypocrisies which many seem unaware of. Her art is unapologetically forward with an activist flair. In Women and the Veil, she created a sociopolitical critique of its use. The following series, Women and Magic, she crafted an artistic discovery focused on the practice of witchcraft and magic in Islamic societies. Of this series, you are probably already familiar with The Hands of Fatima. Shawa’s bold colors have captured international audiences for years and are not shy in calling out social taboos or the structural violence which has affected so many children and adults alike. Her unique uses of paint, installation, and sculpture continue to leave their lasting impression on contemporary Palestinian art and all those who have experienced it.
Art is perhaps one of the oldest forms of expression, next to spoken word. Visual art can write a novel out of a canvas or tie a thousand stories into one with a moving installation such as Jacir’s. Art is a means of communication that has lasted throughout all modern human history, and will likely continue to mold and shape individuals and society for much time to come. All those who have dedicated themselves to art and their raw emotional expression have helped move and will continue to move society towards a more self-aware and a more compassionate place.