Artists Against the Apartheid: the Struggle for Palestine

by Danielle Krikorian

 
"The performance of Palestinian culture is a symbol of solidarity and unity against a world that denies their rights and existence."
Juliana Seraphim (1934 - 2005). Lebanon. Untitled. 1980. Oil on canvas. 88 x 116 cm. Courtesy of Ramzi & Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation
Juliana Seraphim (1934 - 2005). Lebanon. Untitled. 1980. Oil on canvas. 88 x 116 cm. Courtesy of Ramzi & Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation

In May 2021, the Israeli regime attempted to illegally displace 38 Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem. It escalated when the army attacked worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque during Eid El Fitr. As Palestinians from all over Israel, the West-Bank and occupied territories rose in solidarity, Hamas responded by firing into Israel. For eleven days, Israel sent countless rockets into Gaza, tearing down media towers, and killing more than 248 people.


Many cultural organizations and activists were targeted. Dar Yusuf Nasri Jacir for Art and Research in Bethlehem was raided by the IDF and destroyed during the airstrikes.


Amidst this despair, Palestinian voices and cultural institutions have risen demanding freedom and equal rights. So how does history, art, culture and activism fight the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians?

 

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Collective history and solidarity


Culture and history are key to keeping identity alive. Palestinian writer and historian Nur Masahla quotes Sa’di who says that collective memory and history “connects all Palestinians to a specific point in time that has become for them an ‘eternal present.”


Certainly, for Palestinians all over the globe and within Palestine this shared history and culture is a method of communication. It unites them in a world where they are deprived of being re-united in a Palestinian state.


The performance of Palestinian culture is a symbol of solidarity and unity against a world that denies their rights and existence.


History and intellect are the vehicles that counter the propaganda and false narratives which enable Zionists to perform ethnic cleansing.


Ismail Shammout (1930-2006). Palestine. Where to? .1953. Oil on canvas. Fair use.
Ismail Shammout (1930-2006). Palestine. Where to? .1953. Oil on canvas. Fair use.

Memory of love

Recent events prove that this memory and history is a reality - an ‘eternal present’ shown through Art, Photography and archival materials. These mediums provide a visual language that is Palestinian and cannot be erased.


In her work, Palestinian artist Juliana Seraphim (1934-2005, pictured at top of article) used dreamscapes and fantasy to delve into memories of her intimate and inner world. Seraphim was fourteen when her native city, Jaffa was attacked, after which her family was forced to flee to Lebanon. She drew her imagery from memories of her grandfather’s house in Jerusalem, whose ceiling had colourful frescos.


Her contemporaries like Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout (1930-2006) employed a pictorial language that would represent the Palestinian refugee experience. Where to? (1953) displays the Lydda Death March in July 1948 (during the Nakba) and the heartbreak and pain of exile. These visual representations of memory are still expressed today.

Malak Mattar (2000). Palestine. The Flower. 2020. Oil on canvas. 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
Malak Mattar (2000). Palestine. The Flower. 2020. Oil on canvas. 50 x 50 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

In her art, Palestinian artist Malak Mattar (2001-)’s paintings depict Palestinian aesthetics and the harrowing violence inflicted on them. The oil painting The Flower is a tribute to Iyad Al-Hallaq, a 32-year-old autistic man who attended school to learn how to plant trees, cook and protect the environment.


He was killed by the Israeli police when they suspected he was armed. The painting portrays a figure hugging a small potted plant, against a cacti background. The vivid colours, red, yellow, blue and green are reminiscent of life. Yet, the hugging gesture of the plant is an intimate and heartbreaking moment that represents love and loss of the homeland. It further symbolized the innocence of Hallaq and his dire situation.


In parallel, juxtaposed photographs General strike in Palestine Jerusalem 1929 / General strike in Palestine 2021 comes from Instagram account DocumentingPalestine. The ‘eternal-present’ struggle is jarring. It showcases that archival documents, art and photography are essential in understanding the stories of the Palestinian people and that colonialism is ongoing.

 

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According to DocumentingPalestine, “The Zionist narrative is very fragile, and it relies heavily on censorship to strengthen its impact. By alienating all opposing narratives, it ensures that its own narrative is the one received and broadcast to the masses."


The more Palestine is made visible, the more that people are exposed and become inquisitive about the cause. Every culture and identity is beautiful and when it is your own history, culture and identity you are highlighting, that beauty is magnified.


“Every image tells its own story, first through the visual and secondly through the caption that provides a description of time and place and activity. They offer a means of imagining and understanding the vastness of Palestine and Palestinians. They allow us to connect with our history and compare our past, present and imagine our future.”


The ethnic cleansing, censoring and violence against Palestinians is the attempt to erase Palestinians from Palestine. These artworks, photographs and documents showcase that this is impossible as the Palestinian cause is the memory of love and love itself. Those never die.

General Strike in Palestine. 1929. Photograph. Courtesy of DocumentingPalestine.
General Strike in Palestine. 1929. Photograph. Courtesy of DocumentingPalestine.

Overcoming Obstacles


This love is ever present, and through it, cultural centers and institutions continue their efforts to offer Palestinian people opportunities. Certainly, cultural institutions and initiatives, like Dar Yusuf Nasri Jacir center for Art and Research, the Palestinian Museum, Jersualem Quarterly, Institute for Palestinian Studies, and the Edward Said National Conservatory offer places for Palestinian voices to be heard.


According to Raed Hussein, “The experience of performing at the [Edward Said National Conservatory] conservatory was cathartic as a Palestinian that has lived his entire life outside of Palestine."


He added: "I had the opportunity to develop a relationship with the Edward Said Conservatory and I would describe their efforts to maintain any sort of thriving musical community in Palestine to be heroic. Because the kinds of obstacles that they face both in terms of the quality of instruction, the ability to be teachers, the availability of instruments, the ability to be able to be heard and perform wildly is extremely difficult."

 

Related: Why artists are being targeted in Lebanon

 

"[...] I am absolutely conscious that in the international classical music community, Israel’s philharmonic, which is based in Tel Aviv, has traveled all over the world. That is because of their resources and the fact that Israelis can travel and also obtain the best artistic education imaginable. They are the ones that get the opportunities, international visibility and I highly doubt that there are Arab members."


"Palestinians are literally doing the same thing but under occupation. Where is the opportunity for the Palestinian musicians and why is it that they are simply left behind? People don’t even know that they exist and that there is musical talent in Palestine. The only difference between an Israeli musician and a Palestinian musician is opportunity.”


The fight against apartheid and ethnic cleansing is ongoing. Palestinian voices and cultural institutions continue to raise their voices. The resounding echo is more than a legacy of loss. It is the dream of a people of rights, homeland, and peace. The echo will never fade. Their voices won’t be silenced.


(This article was originally published in our print issue, PRECIPICE, in August 2021. The views expressed in this article are that of the writer)

 

Danielle Krikorian is an art historian and graduate student from UCL's MA History of Art programme.