x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Visual memories: a new book on Palestinian artists

Kamal Boullata's latest book comprehensively documents the contribution and struggle of Palestinian artists.

Kamal Boullata's latest book, Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present, presents a pioneering selection of artwork.
Kamal Boullata's latest book, Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present, presents a pioneering selection of artwork.

"Every image of the past that is not recognised by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably," says the artist and writer Kamal Boullata. The words are those of the critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, who, remembering the destruction of the First World War, contemplates the dawn of a second. Like Benjamin, Boullata recognises the importance of the past and its place in the present, and seeks to uncover buried realities in order to restore truth to an unstable future.

The Jerusalem-born Boullata has had a prolific career. Having graduated from the Rome Fine Arts Academy and the Corcoran Museum's College of Art and Design, he became the recipient of a Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellowship to conduct research on Islamic art in Morocco. His work is held in a number of prestigious public collections, including the British Museum, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, the New York Public Library, the Sharjah Art Museum and Monaco's Bibliothèque Louis Notari.

Boullata combines his passion for painting with a penchant for art writing. His latest book, Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present, offers the reader a pioneering selection of artwork, including pre-1948 paintings presented alongside contemporary media works. It highlights the political concerns of Palestinian artists and their contributions to modern Arab culture. Works by artists who live in Palestine are examined alongside those of artists from the Palestinian diaspora.

The challenges of producing a study of this kind are significant. As Boullata argues, the nakba "included the looting of artworks from urban homes. With that, the nascent art movement suffered a fatal blow. Classical rules of art history writing could not begin to describe all of the fragmentations and disruptions in people's lives, but art continued to unabatedly rise out of the unremitting chaos reigning over Palestinians.

"Over the last 60 years, the uprooting of the Palestinian people, their dispersal and recurring displacement across disconnected territories and the absence of a geographic and cultural centre have been among the key reasons that rendered any sort of linear narrative of Palestinian art almost impossible," he says. These external factors were exacerbated by the fact that Arab culture has traditionally prioritised verbal and auditory art over visual forms. Throughout the centuries, Boullata says, poetry was revered as the supreme form of self-expression. The visual arts that penetrated the public and private space, including architecture and objects, were never considered to be personal forms of expression. For centuries, artists and artisans embodied a collective aesthetic sensibility at the expense of individualisation.

During the golden age of Arab history, a miniature artist would have been paid a 10th of the wage given to a copier of calligraphic text. Boullata uses this fact to demonstrate how visual representation has been relegated while verbal expression has been celebrated, and suggests that written art histories in Arabic literature have consequentially been neglected. "With no serious studies of the history of Palestinian art, I needed to start my project from scratch," he says. "My attempts at writing an art history could only evolve through a critical perspective which involved finding lineages where discontinuities prevailed and recognising affiliations across fragmentation. Only that way could I demonstrate how artists over a century and a half related to each other, without even knowing of each other's work, and how each responded to their cultural traditions and the challenges of their political plight."

Boullata's book, then, retrieves a lost narrative, creating history by unifying disparate, unknown, unappreciated and silent fragments. "I don't think that you can lead a purely creative life or a purely political life," he says. "Everything is interrelated, even if we are unaware of that fact. When artists in Gaza were under bombardment and looking after their families, they still kept on thinking about art. They were able to take photographs, make images and create installations even when they were struggling to preserve their own lives."

By weaving a coherent story, he gives life to the buried and demonstrates that though the world of Palestine is constantly dynamic, its citizens form constituents in the same quest for freedom. As the writer John Berger announces in the preface to the book: "Boullata takes the reader close to the struggle of those visionary, obstinate Palestinian artists who create so that their anonymous heroic land with its ancestral olive trees may survive."

"I started first by talking to the people I grew up with; my mother and my aunts," Boullata says of the research process. "They each had their own memories. I always kept a record." The findings were as personal as they were collective and helped Boullata to trace his artistic growth. "At one point I threw myself into geometric work and started doing sketches based on the grid. I didn't know where this fascination had come from. Then I remembered that in my childhood my parents had sent me to study with some artists, and one of them was an icon painter who used to do icons based on the grid. That is the method I learnt as a child. The process enabled me to revisit something forgotten," he says.

In addition to these early findings, Boullata has also tried to support new and emerging artists, including Hani Zurob, whose work was chosen for the cover of the book. "He is a typical Palestinian from the class which has suffered the most," Boullata says. "His most recent paintings have been made up of bitumen and not paint. I find this very symbolic. Bitumen is the dirtiest of all materials and yet out of this he creates art, producing human faces that look illuminating. He is a guy to watch as he connects with all generations of image-makers."

Rather than concerning himself with canon formation or encyclopaedic coverage, Boullata has attempted to open up this new field of learning to a wider audience and remains conscious of the huge responsibility that comes with this type of documentation. "I am not a historian," he tells me. "I am an artist that wanted to give some order to the chaos that Palestinians have been living through. I hope that the book will pave the way for historians. The Palestinians have been silenced and people don't realise the wealth of what is there in terms of production and creativity. I want Palestinians to be seen, not only as victims, but as artists asserting their creative potential."

As artists, the Palestinians are part of a wider Middle Eastern creative community, and Boullata is excited about the cultural advances being made in the Gulf. He gives particular praise to creative initiatives championed in the UAE. "What is happening there is very, very special. We have to remember though that the Renaissance in Europe took hundreds of years and though we have all the right ingredients, we are temporally too close to it to really be able to judge.

"It's also important to remember that art can flourish anywhere," he says. "In the 1967 Six Day War, a book of children's art was published. A young Palestinian child had painted a picture entitled Mother Rabbit Giving Birth to Baby Rabbit While the Air Raid Is Going On. I will never forget that. It proved to me that one cannot kill art or the spirit of creativity. It is part of our human continuity, our reproduction, our sense of everything."

Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present is available at www.amazon.com.