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The identity of Palestinian art

CM 14/09/2021 3

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What do we really know about places around the world we have never visited, or cultures we have not studied close-up? In all likelihood that “knowledge” comes from the media and/or the Internet. Either way, we probably not only don’t get the whole picture, even the little that is conveyed for our consumption may be inaccurate, slanted in some political direction or other, or simply taken out of context.
That can also apply to groups that live alongside our own mainstream society with which, by rights, we should be more familiar than we actually are. How many Jewish Israelis, for example, know much about the inner workings of Arab society? Mind you, there are numerous layers to that and one should be wary of generalizing?
Most of us, it is fair to assume, consider Arab society as largely, if not wholly, run along patriarchal lines. That may very well be true, but again, there are societal nuances to be had too.

That is core to the “The Father, The Daughter and the Holy Spirit” exhibition currently on show at the Kibbutz College of Education’s Ahad Ha’am 9 Gallery in Tel Aviv. Curator Dr. Housni Alkhateeb Shehada, who serves as head of the Department of Art at Levinsky College of Education in Tel Aviv, puts it succinctly: “This group exhibition presents a selection of the works of six Palestinian artists currently working in the field of art inside and outside Israel.” 
He might have added that each of the exhibitors is female and, as such, presumably, was brought up to follow her father’s line of thought, regardless of her own ideas about life, and her place in the world.
ANISA ASHKAR certainly wasn’t about to follow any patriarchal edicts. 
“I am a rebel, but so is my father,” she laughs. 
She also didn’t bother asking his permission before summarily commandeering some of her dad’s equipment and incorporating them into her work at the gallery. 
“My father fishes, and this is one of his good nets,” she states matter-of-factly. 
I wondered whether he knew he was missing some of his gear. 
“No,” Ashkar chuckles, “but I don’t think he will be coming to this exhibition. I have so many. My parents can’t come to them all.” 
Indeed, Ashkar hails from Acre, which is a fair distance from Tel Aviv
Ashkar’s slot in the show is suitably called “A Wayward Soul,” although, while challenging the male familial hegemony, she says she never slammed any doors. 
“That is too easy,” she says. “You can stand up for yourself without causing irreparable damage.” 
Clearly she has a wise head of her thirty-something shoulders
The fact that she went her own way, she notes, may have been helped by the strong female presence at home.
“There are eight sisters and three brothers, and I think I see the impact of that on my brothers too. My father is a strong character, but he is not afraid to show his softer side.”
That yin-yang equilibrium comes through in Ashkar’s paintings incorporated in the fishing net-fronted installation.
“There is heaven and earth,” she says, pointing to the paintings. “And there is an elliptical circle,” she adds, noting a Sufi symbol which conveys the idea of the universe as a circle with revolving souls. 
The paintings also feature attractive Arabic lettering. That, too, is central to Ashkar’s artistic ethos. 
“I have been interested in calligraphy since the age of 9,” she says. 
When we met she was made up with generous eyeliner and a curvaceous string of letters marked next to her right eye. 
“That means soul of the soul,” she says somewhat enigmatically. “Each day I decide what to write on my face. It just comes to me.”
Ashkar is happy just to go with her flow, marrying spirituality with the mundane, and integrating her creative fruits with base items from everyday life. It makes for compelling viewing.
NARDIN SROUJI also sees both sides of her utilitarian coin, while facing up to accepted mores and conduct within Arab society. Her instillation initially looks, from the side, reminiscent of an open telephone booth. 
“It is like an alcove in a church, where you see a statue of Mary, with Jesus,” the Christian artist explains. That certainly makes more sense.
The center of the niche arrangement is occupied by a cutout female figure with arms akimbo. When a light comes on the backdrop to the figure looks like a wavy swimming pool floor in aquamarine with swaying tiling lines. With the light off you are left with the contoured centerpiece, which references both Srouji’s favored physical activity and her relationship with her dad. 
“I am a swimmer. I could swim for hours and hours, like my father.”
The delineated shape reflects the artist’s constant critical engagement with topics like boundaries, territory, hierarchy and gender. But while there may be a pristine outline to the female form, Srouji’s viewpoint on the life tenets around her are far from clear-cut. 
“My work interprets the reality I grew up in,” she explains. She says that much of her work is inspired by her parents. “My father works as a building renovator and my mother is a seamstress. Through my parents, I talk about us as a society.”
Tellingly, the installation goes by the evocative and quizzical name of Titled. That, it seems, also targets masculine domination of society. 
“When a woman gets married she normally takes on her husband’s surname,” Srouji notes. “But I am titled. I have my own name.”
There are plenty of autobiographical story lines across the group exhibition, which is supported by the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery. Most of the works look not only at daughter-father relationships, they also fearlessly examine politics, religion and traditional practices. Identity also comes into it, particularly the challenging divide between Palestinian and Israeli societies.
THE PERSONAL, familial and political balancing act also comes across in a number of works that combine delicate and rugged textures and materials. Fatma Abu Rumi’s super-realistic portraits of her father convey an ebb-and-flow dialogue with her parent, while Nasrin Abu Baker’s deft fusion of coarse and tender materials not only reflects her ruminations on her place in her family, and traditional Arabic society, it also references her ongoing efforts to straddle the chasm between her Middle Eastern baggage and the Westernized society in which she lives.
“All of these artists struggle with that,” says Alkhateeb Shehada. “They are all Palestinians and they all live in the Western world, and studied in a Western academic institution. You can see that in who they are and the work they produce.”
There are also some intriguing video works in the layout, including Manar Zuabi’s triptych in which we see her observing her own prostrate body and the anguish generated by identity crises. A graduate of the Wingate Institute of Sports and Movement, the installation, video and performance artist’s penchant for dance is central to her dramatic output. 
The local historical-political continuum is addressed in Manal Mahamid’s The Tale of the Palestinian Gazelle video work as she, literally, runs through local geographic and historical milestones, looking at the way the history books have fashioned the regional ethnopolitical narrative. 
“This exhibition aims to reclaim the act of creation for women, and to emphasize its pioneering and creative role in the context of Palestinian art in particular, and Arab society in general,” Alkhateeb Shehada states. 
There is much to see and consider in “The Father, The Daughter and the Holy Spirit.”
‘The Father, The Daughter and the Holy Spirit’ closes on October 23.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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