How Palestinian resistance art developed between the Nakba and the First Intifada

Pioneers of Palestinian resistance art convened at Sharjah’s March Meeting to talk about the development of the craft

Sliman Mansour, Yaffa, 1979. Photo: Yvette and Mazen Qupty Collection
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Between the Nakba and the First Intifada, Palestinian art revolved around symbols that were representative of the nation’s culture and identity. The olive trees, pigeons and textile motifs were instrumental in opposing the Zionist slogan that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land".

Art has long been a vital front line in the act of political resistance. It has helped maintain and hone the collective Palestinian spirit and has been pivotal in subverting opposing rhetoric. As the conflict has oscillated across the decades, rearing an ever-uglier head with each iteration, artists have sought to reflect upon the social and political realities on-ground, often experimenting with new mediums to do so.

From as early the mid-20th century, Palestinian art has shown the culture that was at stake with the divisive formation of Israel. It was evidence that Palestine was not a country barren of identity, and that in fact, it was home to people indigenous to the land.

Identity, in its very nature, is an abstract concept that is hard to capture and depict. From around the time of the Nakba, until the First Intifada, Palestinian artists often expressed national solidarity with visual symbols that would be popular to people, including embroidery and natural landscapes.

“We [also] took a few things from Islamic art, Arabic calligraphy, as well as Canaanite sources,” Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour said, speaking at Sharjah’s March Meeting on Saturday. “All those sources we used them as symbols to tell people about the Palestinian identity.”

The artworks elucidated the fact that Palestine was a thriving nation before 1948, when Zionist militants launched a brutal and systematic onslaught that destroyed 500 Palestinian towns and villages and forcibly displaced more than 700,000 people.

“The reaction of artists and intellectuals was to prove that we are here and we have our own personality, our own identity and destiny,” artist Tayseer Barakat said during the discussion.

Mansour and Barakat were joined by their peers Vera Tamari and Nabil Anani on the panel.

The quartet have been at the forefront of the Palestinian arts scene since the 1970s, and their conversation provided insight to how it has been a necessary tool in political resistance. The discussion was especially pertinent in today’s context. As the war in Gaza nears its fifth month, more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed .

Mansour and Anani were the co-founders of the League of Palestinian Artists, which was established in the early 1970s with the aim of connecting artists from Palestine and its diaspora. Barakat and Tamari, meanwhile, are among its members, who helped develop the collective’s mission of how art can be used as a tool to raise political awareness and resistance.

“There were many professional artists. But as an active movement, it was very modest,” Anani said of Palestine’s artistic scene after the Nakba.

While there were milestones for Palestinian expressions, including major exhibitions in the 1960s in Palestine and the wider region, it wasn’t until the establishment of the League of Palestinian Artists that a unified artistic effort was shaped.

“We were about 15 to 20 artists from the West Bank and Gaza, we started by organising activities and exhibitions,” Anani says. “We started in Jerusalem, then spread to other areas like Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah. We organised those exhibitions annually. They gave some popularity to the arts because people were hungry to see something about Palestine.

"This movement of art was popular, because there was that connection between people and the artists, people would come, ask questions and discuss artistic works. They were symbolic. They had nationalists aspects, political aspects. We would have also tents for people who just got out of the refugee camps or from jails. We would have Palestinian flags.”

These efforts did not go unnoticed by the Israeli government. Those involved in the exhibitions, including Anani and Mansour, were held for interrogation.

“They did not want those direct symbols, which they considered against Israel,” Anani says. “They closed down many exhibitions. After we founded Gallery 97, they also shut it down many times. They would put a red seal and did not allow us to open for months. Once we could open, they’d just shut us down again. They confiscated paintings, and they put some artists in jail.”

However, these measures did not deter Anani and his peers. If anything, it only strengthened their resolve. And with the political developments in Palestine, the artists sought to revise and develop their methodologies and concepts.

Mansour, Barakat, Anani, and Tamari were among those who shaped the core of Palestinian resistance art after the First Intifada, when they formed New Visions in 1988. As riots began erupting across Palestine, protesting agaisnt Israel, the artists realised that a new form of art had to materialise.

The New Visions movement was dedicated to producing art that contributes to national struggles while staying true to the styles of its individual artists.

“The Intifada led to some sort of deep thinking for us in between the four of us,” Barakat says. “We started working towards something different from before. This allowed us to convey our voice to the rest of the world.”

The four artists began branching out to different mediums, leaning towards abstraction and experimentation while still concerned with issues of political resistance.

Anani began producing works on leather, Mansour on clay, whereas Tamari and Barakat created works that incorporated household items. The choice of media was more than an aesthetic choice as the artists called on others to boycott Israeli art supplies, and instead use natural materials sourced from Palestine, including coffee, henna, straw and clay.

“The Intifada gave us the way to start with a new philosophy,” Mansour said. Among the calls of the uprising was to boycott Israeli products and the group aimed to incorporate this mission into their art. “We thought, why not do the same thing?” Mansour said. “Why not find our own local product so that we can make our own art.”

In today’s context, cultural resilience is ever so important. For many artists in Palestine and its diaspora, it may be too soon to offer any artistic reflection to the chaos. But Saturday’s conversation between some of the trailblazing figures of Palestinian resistance art was a potent reminder of how art is an indispensable tool for the struggle.

“We are seeing a real threat to the existence of Palestinian people, not just their art,” Tamari, who appeared virtually in the panel, said. “This country will go on and we have to be proud.”

Updated: March 05, 2024, 7:26 AM