London, Asharq Al-Awsat – “How does one create art under the threat of sudden death and the unpredictability of invasion and siege? More specifically, how do Palestinian artists articulate their awareness of space when their homeland’s physical space is being diminished daily by barriers and electronic walls and when their own homes could at any moment be occupied by soldiers or even blown out of existence?”
These were questions asked by the artist and Palestinian art historian Kamal Boullata in his 2002 essay “Art under the Siege”.
Jump forward ten years to 2012, the “Despite” art exhibition – currently taking place at east London’s multi-art platform, RichMix – continues to ask similar questions. The show, co-organized by Aser Al Saqqa, director of the London-based culture venture Arts Canteen, and curator Nicola Gray, is exhibiting sixteen artists from across Palestine. The artists hail from Ramallah, Galilee, Jerusalem and various diasporas, whilst nine of the sixteen artists are either based in or originally from Gaza, the most volatile and vulnerable of the Occupied Territories.
Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, al-Saqqa asserted that “Gaza is a world in motion, in all the senses. In colour, in sound, in image and in peripheral circumstances so there are intense movements.”
He added “the events that happen in the peripheries create this reality. The physical, personal and political oppression has affected the modes of expression. But despite this, there is great production and creativity.”
Although some themes do surface when looking around at the various art works on show at the “Despite” art exhibit, there is no real unifying thread other than the fact that the artists are all Palestinian. This can either be seen as having too general a curatorial line, or as a challenge to pre-assumed ideas on what “Palestinian art” should depict.
Al-Saqqa stressed that “diversity is a very important ingredient to this exhibition, it is the basis of the idea of ‘Despite’ as a title.”
He added “I wanted to speak about the issues that have to do with the colours, depths, the sky, nature, water, fish, walls, landscapes along the roof tops of homes and houses.”
Among the most prominent themes that stand out in the exhibition is that of urbanity. Gaza-based photographer Shareef Sarhan moves away from his regular media to exhibit four 23×23 cm works of acrylic on canvas. Entitled “Washing Lines”, they show a fragmented, refracted view of a congested street. Lines zigzag across the small square pieces of canvas, whilst the frayed fabric utilized in the work give a sense of texture.
In similar hues of red, orange and strong blue are the works of self-taught artist and winner of the 2002 Qattan Young Artists Award, Raed Issa, depicting the congested environment of a Gazan camp. For his part, al-Saqqa opines “his impression of the ruthless tightness of the camp is expressed with great colours. The blueness of the sky gives a great meaning to his work.”
Another reoccurring theme is that of innocence and new beginnings.
Al Saqqa also shares his thoughts on the work of artist Mohamad Abusal, saying “he presents a natural study of the cactus as a fruit; there is colour and life. The Cactus is a sign of patience and enduring hardships. Abusal lives in the Al Boreij camp in Gaza; he grows cactuses so he can watch them grow and understand their differences.” Although at face value this perspective is non-political, it conveys Abusal’s thoughts and views on his living conditions.
Hani Zurob’s series of paintings repeatedly feature a young boy, on an airplane, on a scooter as well as other forms of transport. Zurob, originally from Gaza, is now based in France; the boy featured in these works is his son. According to Zurob, his art works contemplate what his son – too young to understand the politics of identity cards – thinks when he asks his father why he cannot travel to Jerusalem with him. As a Gazan identity card holder, Zurob cannot travel to Jerusalem when his wife and son go to visit family there.
The issue of ID cards is also visited by Mohammed Joha in his piece “Who Am I?” In this art work we see a man hiding behind his leather jacket, covering his face with his ID card which is something that basically defines him, guiding where he can and can’t go.
Reactions to these works have varied. Some visitors to the exhibition have asked Al Saqqa why they don’t feature more explicit Palestinian symbols, with al-Saqqa revealing that “one person, for example, asked where is the Palestinian flag?”
On the other hand, others have remarked on the diversity of the exhibit, wondering if Al Saqqa and Gray intended this. Al Saqqa said “we’ve seen people’s surprise at the diversity of styles, subject matter and vividness of colour.”
Without a set venue to host their exhibitions, Arts Canteen believes it is important to take the works they expose to different parts of London to attract the widest possible audiences. For his part, al-Saqqa told Asharq Al-Awsat “we will be curating a new exhibition in May next year at the University of Kent” adding that there are plans to extend this to other parts of England.
Boulata completed his afore mentioned essay with the point that, “the very act of creating a work of art deﬁed the bleak reality of everyday life in the ghetto where indiscriminate violence was being mercilessly waged against the people they belong to.” Today, in bringing these works to London and the wider United Kingdom, Al Saqqa and Gray make the point of fostering this defiance towards a global audience.