Art of the dispossessed in Dubai

An exhibition of Palestinian art in Dubai reflects the contemporary concerns of a group of modern masters.

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A sunrise the colour of dynamite heralds the day over Nabil Anani's olive pickers. The artist's fleshy but flat figures have gathered in silhouettes around the promising roundness of the olive trees. Behind them, hills in rural Palestine shelter a pastoral dawn.

But a closer look at these images reveals that Anani has had to scrape this peaceful world into being. He begins by daubing his canvas in a coat of black, then covers this in smouldering red. To create his scenes, the artist then nicks and slices through the red paint with a blade to create a composition as the black beneath becomes visible with each cut.

How does a mature artist - from a generation that explored the spectrum of political ideas in their art - now try to seek harmony in their work under the occupation? The situation is more fraught then ever at the moment, as settlers and hardline settler rhetoric have become more belligerent in response to the Palestinian statehood bid. Anani's recent work suggests that to achieve this, artists must be willing to scratch deep at themselves and their artistic practice.

Anani is joined by two other modern masters in this three-man show at Dubai's Meem Gallery: Sliman Mansour, to whom the Meem director Charlie Pocock refers as "a rock star" of Palestinian art, and Tayseer Barakat, the winner of the Alexandria Biennale prize in 2010. Collectively, these artists offer insight into the contemporary concerns of an older generation in Palestinian art, as all of the exhibited work was created in the past two years. All three continue to work and live in the Occupied Territories.

The olive tree has been a well-worn symbol for the Palestinian struggle since the 1980s. It reappears frequently throughout this show, a representation of those rooted in the land, the steadfast who survive despite undernourishment.

"It's normal to see piles of burning trees every day," says Mansour, arguably the most famous of the three artists, whose latest works show olive plantations being strangled by encroaching walls and isolation. "There's a war against the olive tree going on in Palestine, especially when you are near Nablus."

To destroy the trees is to edge people further away from their land, he explains, and has become a fairly common tactic. Walls, highways or just plain landscaping are all excuses with which settlers can uproot trees across the countryside. This sense of something slowly dissolving away permeates all of Mansour's new pieces. A woman is shielded by an olive grove as the vibrant colours of her dress and the pleasant leaves around her slowly seep away.

Another canvas shows a bristling field of trees ("the land handed to me by my grandfather," says Mansour), isolated from each other by a web of low, stone walls. In the foreground is the ominous concrete of a watchtower, and from it emanates a ray of negativity, sucking colour out of the field.

Tayseer Barakat, on the other hand, is far more slanted in his approach to the situation. He has created mixed-media works that layer acrylic into a consistency and sheen like that of a ceramic tile. On this base, Barakat has then painted elemental, cave painting-esque images of cattle, dancers and curious symbols that might have informed the first alphabets.

The artist, born in Gaza, formulates much of his work from extensive research into the soul of the Levant. He looks at the writers, embroiderers, craftsmen and colours of the land stretching from Iraq to Palestine, via Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. Barakat suggests that the diversity of landscape across this area has fed into a diversity of thought from its people. "You can easily find sea, snow, desert, mountains - it's a small world in itself just in Palestine," he says. "Because of that, I think a lot of philosophy and religion came from Palestine and the area around it."

All three artists say that something went very wrong in Palestinian art in the 1990s, which set the tone for two decades and is now only just being dispelled. "They were revolting against our way of doing art," says Mansour. "They wanted to strip any trace of Palestinian identity from their art. They fell into painting abstract expressionism."

But they say that a new generation, now in their 20s, is returning to ideas that were closer to their own. "They're coming back to politics but with different tools like video and installation," says Mansour.

Art Palestine continues until November 5 at Meem Gallery.