Five important works by renowned Palestinian artists that capture their people's story

From Ismail Shammout to Samia Halaby, these artists experienced the Nakba first hand

These works by Ismail Shammout and Sliman Mansour have helped to shape Palestinian visual identity. Photos: Wikiart; Sliman Mansour
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The 1948, Nakba changed the Middle East forever.

Since then, writers, artists, filmmakers, thinkers and creatives from the region have attempted, through various mediums, to understand and reconcile the social and political ramifications of the ethnic cleansing.

In particular, there is a generation of renowned Palestinian artists, most of whom were expelled from Palestine, who have used their work as a means to make sense, connect or archive and voice what happened to their families, their homeland and how their identity has been and continues to be attacked.

Among the abundance of important Palestinian artists, five innovative and pioneering figures have created pivotal work from a stylistic perspective that also narratively contributes to the visual story of Palestinian identity, resistance and freedom.

These are the five Palestinian works you should know about that exemplify important artistic milestones and crucial cultural representation of the Palestinian narrative.

Madonna of the Oranges by Ismail Shammout

Painter and art historian Ismail Shammout is considered a pioneer of contemporary Palestinian art.

Shammout's realistic, symbolic and slightly expressionist style has been a means for him to chronicle the experiences of Palestinian people. A constant subject matter in his work is the Nakba, an event in which his own family were expelled from their home in Palestine.

In his work Madonna of the Oranges, painted in 1997, Shammout tackles the universal theme of mother and child – a theme that has been particularly explored in the Italian renaissance though the subject of the Madonna cradling baby Jesus.

Shammout reimagines this popular trope as a Palestinian narrative.

The young mother gazes proudly out at the viewer. Her head is draped in a white shroud, its folds echoed in the lines of the trees and the foliage of the orange grove behind her. She carries her sleeping baby against her chest and her young daughter is by her side mimicking her mother's pose, cradling instead a bunch of oranges. Both are framed by the branches of trees and the ripe, bright fruit.

Behind the woman to her right are boxes of oranges that have been packed from the grove ready to be sold, and in the background are presumably her husband and son who are harvesting more of the fruit from the trees.

Through this scene, Shammout illustrates the significance of the land to Palestinians. Not only is it a source of food and sustenance but livelihood for a family and a whole community. It is protected and cherished by them in the same way the mother holds her child, and her daughter holds the oranges close to her chest.

Shammout has painted the white shroud of the mother, the white shirt of the daughter and the off-white clothing of father and son to reflects the tones of orange and green from the surrounding landscape. Not only does this make the work more visually cohesive but it further emphasises the idea of the people’s connection to nature and their land.

Madonna of the Oranges was painted in the year Shammout first returned to visit his place of birth in Al Lydd, 50 years after his family were expelled from their home. The work is now part of the Barjeel Art Foundation in the UAE.

Jamal Al Mahamel (Camel of Hardships or Camel of Burdens) by Sliman Mansour

Palestinian painter, sculptor and author Sliman Mansour has been a key artist in creating and developing an iconography of Palestinian national identity.

One of his most important paintings, Jamal Al Mahamel (The Camel/Carrier of Hardships), painted in 1973, has become a symbol of the Palestinian struggle and Arab resistance.

The painting depicts a traditionally dressed Palestinian elderly man, weary as he wanders an endless blue landscape. His wide shoulders and anatomical proportions are painted similarly to the sculptural models of the ancient Canaanites, the indigenous people who inhabited the modern Levantine region. Through this reference, Mansour attempts to connect present Arab nationality with its ancient past.

On his shoulders and back the old man carries the city of Jerusalem. This powerful symbol weaves itself into several important narratives through the work.

First, it represents the idea of the lost homeland that Palestinians continue to carry with them whether in Palestine or in the diaspora.

The old man's age and his obvious exhaustion is symbolic of the struggle Palestinians continue to face. Despite being weighed down from the pain of the past and the dream of the future, he is determined to keep walking.

The almond-shaped window into the city clearly shows the famous gold Dome of the Rock and other Christian architectural motifs. This is a reminder of Jerusalem’s multicultural and multi-religious significance. The window is also shaped like an eye, another reference to the idea that the eye of the Palestinian people is always on their homeland.

While the original painting is thought to have been destroyed, Mansour had already reproduced the work on a poster in 1975, and due to its popularity, Jamal Al Mahamel became an image that sat in the intersection between art, identity and resistance.

The poster and other reproductions of the image have become common place in the home of Palestinians, with the figure of the old man endearingly being referred to as a father or grandfather.

Aside from Jamal Al Mahamel, Mansour's paintings such as The Daughter of Jerusalem and From the River to the Sea have been widely shared on social media as a show of Palestinian solidarity since October last year.

Despite the unknown whereabouts of the original painting, Jamal Al Mahamel is considered priceless as the image of the work lives on across many platforms in Arab and Palestinian culture.

The Spring of Palestine by Jumana El Husseini

Jumana El Husseini was a prominent Palestinian painter and sculptor known for combining geometric and abstract imagery with elements of Arabic calligraphy.

El Husseini’s work explores her Palestinian identity and roots, which are connected to her and her family fleeing their home during the Nakba.

The Spring of Palestine, was painted in 1970 by El Husseini as a symbol of hope and a mark of the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom and resistance.

The artwork depicts the map of Palestine in white, against a golden yellow background, its borders surrounded with stylised, colourful birds that symbolise freedom. Decorated with motifs inspired by traditional Palestinian embroidery patterns, the birds add a colourful pictorial balance to the work while symbolising unity and diversity of Palestinian culture.

The map also offers a peek into the powerful words of the Palestinian poet and author Mahmoud Darwish. The words in Arabic are from his poem known as La Taloumny (Don’t Blame Me) that expresses the Palestinians people’s collective grief, resilience and their desire for freedom and return to their homeland.

“Don’t blame me if my land weeps. Can I endure silence while the mother suffers?” reads a section of the poem.

The Spring of Palestine is part of the Dalloul Art Foundation's collection in Sharjah, UAE.

Jerusalem, My Home by Samia Halaby

Samia Halaby is a pioneering Palestinian abstract painter, scholar and activist. She is considered one of the most important living Arab artists.

While her work is primarily concerned with exploring colour, shape and abstractions, she is heavily influenced by nature and early Islamic architecture. Halaby explores her experiences of exile and displacement since 1948 in her work but this is not always obvious due to her abstract style.

An example of this is Jerusalem, My Home, painted in 2014 and part of Halaby’s broader Jerusalem series. It is a powerful work that depicts the most recognisable architectural element of the city of Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is an Islamic shrine at the centre of the Al Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Dome of the Rock does not only hold a significant place in Palestine but also in Islamic culture as Muslims believe it is the location from which the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.

Halaby reimagines the dome in an abstract, geometric style, using vibrant colours and clean lines. These elements together capture the recognisable architectural shape of the landmark but also symbolise and speak to the social and political unrest experienced by the Palestinian people.

Jerusalem, My Home was on show at Halaby's first retrospective in the Middle East at the Sharjah Art Museum in January 2023 and now sits in the Dalloul Art Foundation collection, courtesy of Ayyam Gallery.

Homage to the Flag by Kamal Boullata

Palestinian artist and art historian Kamal Boullata has explored his Palestinian identity and experiences of exile through his practice. His unique visual language incorporates Arabic calligraphy, geometric patterns and visual influences from his childhood in Palestine.

Homage to the Flag, painted in 1990, is a significant work in his oeuvre.

The stylised reinterpretation of the Palestinian flag within a square composition transforms its green, red, and black colours into triangles that form a modern geometric pattern that is also reminiscent of traditional Palestinian embroidery.

The silkscreen print serves as an important symbol of resilience and unity, as well as a bold political and social statement. It is also part of a broader narrative in Boullata's work in which he explores notions of Palestinian identity through universally accessible language.

While Homage to the Flag has been reproduced as a poster and has made its way into online visual culture in connection to Palestine, the whereabouts of the original painting is currently unknown.

Updated: June 13, 2024, 10:24 AM