Two texts are focused on “Palestinian Art”; one is written by Gannit Ankori, the other by Kamal Boullata, both educators and authors, who aim to elucidate Palestinian visual culture produced since the late 1800s through to the near-present. I reviewed both texts as part of the research conducted for my MA Fine Art critical essay entitled, “Academic Orientalism and Palestinian Art”**, completed September 2015.

Re-writing history through visual culture

Palestinian culture, it turns out, can be as equally as contentious as the whole notion of Palestine. There are two sides to every story, and so, within three years of each other, two books are published about Palestinian art. Released first in 2006, “Palestinian Art” by Israeli art historian Gannit Ankori appears in reference libraries, bookshops, and, followed closely in 2009 by “Palestinian Art: from 1850 to Present” by Kamal Boullata, a noted Palestinian educator, artist, and author.

Both texts appeal to the reader as not just imparting facts, but also as attempts to clarify and define Palestinian art, and by extension, Palestinian artists or maybe even something about Palestinian people themselves.  Clearly the audience for these books is the English-literate art lover; more specifically, these books are for anyone who does not read Arabic but wants to learn more about the art of Palestine. But to treat either of these books as a gift to neo-Orientalists with a taste for the exoticism of “native” art – and then leave it there – would be a huge disservice.

These two books are an absolutely necessary chapter in the world’s history of cultural output, from a people subjugated for what is soon to approach a century (in the longest military occupation in modern history), their lives ever a struggle from birth to death, their very identity in question; both texts try to tell more of the story through the language of visual art.

Palestinian art from the perspective of an Israeli scholar

Mona Hatoum, 'Present Tense', 2006/2014, installation of soap and glass beads, in '500 years of British Art' at Tate Britain, London. Photo credit Kelise Franclemont.
Mona Hatoum, ‘Present Tense’, 2006/2014, installation of soap and glass beads, in ‘500 years of British Art’ at Tate Britain, London. Photo credit Kelise Franclemont.

I picked up “Palestinian Art” by Gannit Ankori because I was writing an essay on the subject for the critical essay for my MA and anyway, I am keenly interested in art from the region, maybe for some of the same reasons as she: I wanted to understand another aspect of this culture, which she describes,

their profound experiences of displacement, cultural hybridity and fragmentation, as well as a strong desire for healing and belonging.

Right from the get-go, there are a few niggling problems with Ankori’s book. First, she has sectioned the text into four parts: “Foundations” gives us a brief history pre-1960s of visual culture and focuses there on just four artists: Sliman [Sulemein] Mansour, Kamal Boullata, Mona Hatoum, and Khalil Rabah.

Sulemein Mansour, 'Camel of hardship', 1973, oil on canvas. Image courtesy
Sulemein Mansour, ‘Camel of hardship’, 1973, oil on canvas. Image courtesy

One reviewer suggested, maybe her title and sections are misleading and should be more along the lines of a “survey” of four Palestinian artists. It’s not that it was wrong to choose these particular artists; I just wonder why these four and I’m not convinced by discussions grouping them further into sections named: “Earth and Sky“, “Body and Home” and “Being an Arab in Israel“. And then I wonder, how could a Jewish Israeli possibly enlighten the reader about “Being an Arab in Israel” when she refers to herself as an outsider (being Jewish, also spending parts of her life in USA, historic Palestine, and Israel?)

Khalil Rabah, 'Dictionary Work', 1997, Oxford dictionary and nails. Image courtesy
Khalil Rabah, ‘Dictionary Work’, 1997, Oxford dictionary and nails. Image courtesy

One could agree with Tania Abu Kishk’s point in her review that Ankori seems more keen to justify herself in writing this book about the “dirty subject” of anything to do with Palestine, expounding on the visual culture of a society which for many in the world, this place and these people don’t even exist – as it is not “officially” recognised as a nation, say, by the UN and various other nations.

Yet Ankori addresses her subjectivity as best she can, citing the reason she was “compelled to pursue her research and write this book” is that she simply finds Palestinian art “particularly powerful and moving” and that she feels she can relate as she was always an “outsider”, either as “the new girl” in Columbus, Ohio, or “the American…’back home’ in summer vacations in Jerusalem”. Invoking memories of family members who were “killed by the Nazis” and the story of an army officer (her own father) who witnessed looters take away Palestinian property, including art, during the Nakba [“Catastrophe”] of 1948 offers additional loosely relevant (and somewhat ironic) context for the book.

Palestinian art from the perspective of a Palestinian artist

Naji al-'ali, an illustration of 'Hanzala', al-'ali's famous character, as the 'conscience of Palestine'. Image courtesy
Naji al-‘ali, an illustration of ‘Hanzala’, al-‘ali’s famous character, as the ‘conscience of Palestine’. Image courtesy

The second treatise on Palestinian art published in 2009 by Kamal Boullata seems to be a rebuttal of the first by Ankori (published three years earlier) and makes a clear and direct case as if arguing that no one could explain Palestinian art more clearly than, well, a Palestinian expert on Palestinian visual culture. Boullata has written scores of books and articles on the subject over the last 30 years of his career as art teacher, author, and activist – primarily in Arabic. But Boullata’s “Palestinian Art” is somewhat different than his usual fare in that it compiles his vast knowledge into a single tome – in English.

Juliana Seraphim, 'Entrance of the Inner Self', 1991, acrylic. Image courtesy
Juliana Seraphim, ‘Entrance of the Inner Self’, 1991, acrylic. Image courtesy

Boullata casts his spotlight quite a bit further than Ankori does, covering a greater range of artists over a wider timespan and in more depth. He comes off as talking from a position of great authority, having studied as well as having been a part of this art arena for more than three decades, compared to Ankori’s experience of a few years as a post-grad student. Boullata also takes the time to contrast Palestinian artists during late 1900s with Jewish artists who settled in Palestine in early part of this century – something Ankori misses entirely. “The connections made and the crossing over between terrains,” he explains

…is to include how artists brought up within the Jewish state reflect in their own art the overlapping codes of being recognised as Israeli citizens while they continue to cherish their Palestinian identity.

He sections his book into four areas: From Religious to Secular Iconography (1800s to 1940s highlighting Zulfa Sa’adi and Khalil Halabi), Memory and Resistance (post-1948 including Ismail Shammout and Naji al-‘ali), Art from the Ghetto (post-1967 with Abed Abedi, Sulemein Mansour), and The Evocation of Place (post-1980s in which Boullata writes about his own work in detail).

Nicola Saig, 'Husseini Surrender', 1918, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Khalid Shoman Foundation, Amman, in 'Palestinian Art' by Kamal Boullata.
Nicola Saig, ‘Husseini Surrender’, 1918, oil on canvas. Image courtesy Khalid Shoman Foundation, Amman, in ‘Palestinian Art’ by Kamal Boullata.

These sections seem to offer well-constructed and comprehensive discussion of Palestinian art in the vital context of its making and from a richly detailed perspective that only a writer such as Boullata could offer. “The discussion within every chapter”, he writes,

reveals how place is an incessant factor that often predisposes the formation of art and how each period…unfolds in context of its association with the different place in which the art activity has been undertaken.

From Nichola Saig to Emily Jacir and almost every key Palestinian artist in between for the past 150 years, Boullata provides in-depth analysis as well as more anecdotal morsels about each artist – along with a bit of salient history, politics, connections, and individual background of all them – as if Boullata is intimately acquainted with each one.

Abed Abedi, 'Intifada', 1986. Image courtesy
Abed Abedi, ‘Intifada’, 1986. Image courtesy

Which “Palestinian Art” would I buy?

As someone interested in all aspects of Palestinian culture from food to language and music to visual art, I have to admit I was a little disappointed in Ankori’s book because I didn’t think it offered any more depth than I had already discovered on the Internet or seen at London’s Tate Britain (such as the work by Mona Hatoum). I only bought her “Palestinian Art” because I thought it was the only one around at the time (I didn’t come across Boullata’s book until two years later).

So if you have only the budget for one book on “Palestinian Art”, go for Boullata’s. I preferred it because comparing the two, Boullata’s gives the reader much more depth as well as breadth in his overview of the artists he writes about. Boullata also is clearly much more attuned to the art world in Palestine – surely because he himself is an artist from Palestine and has studied and written about art and culture there for much longer. Although he covers the same four artist as Ankori, Boullata expounds on about 100 others in the Palestinian “canon” and his tome was published more recently so has included more contemporary artists. Finally (and this is simply a personal and subjective choice), I prefer Boullata’s writing style – it has a lovely “flow”, with a keen turn of phrase, and his passion for Palestine, her art, and her culture, is brightly evident.

As Walter Benjamin stated in the early years of WWII, “…every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” He continued, “only the historian will [fan] the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.

Kamal Boullata is such an historian.

Kamal Boullata, 'Lam Alif'. Image courtesy
Kamal Boullata, ‘Lam Alif’. Image courtesy

More links and information

Reviews – “Palestinian Art” by Gannit Ankori


Reviews – “Palestinian Art: 1850-2005” by Kamal Boullata



** Feel free to contact me if you are interested in reading “Academic Orientalism and Palestinian Art”, submitted in 2015 as a major component of the MA Fine Art at UAL/Chelsea College of Arts, London.