ART OF RESISTANCE
WRITES ON A PALESTINIAN COUPLE WHOSE ART REFLECTS THEIR PEOPLE’S STRUGGLE
Sharjah Art Museum (SAM) is currently hosting (Oct. 24 – Dec. 15) the artworks of Palestinian couple late Ismail Shammout and his widow Tamam El-Akhal. Around 70 pieces are on display, as part of the long running ‘Lasting Impressions’ series.
Each of the pieces has been chosen by the artists’ family, to relect their importance.
On the canvas and in video loops, the artists capture the tragedy, hope and pride of the Palestinian people’s agonising struggle of the past few decades. They are part of the Palestinian diaspora who have recorded their lives and are ighting for the right to return.
They have themselves experienced expulsion and became refugees during the Nakba of 1948. They have dedicated their entire art careers to the cause of their homeland.
Since the very early days of their professional lives, they became the “artistic face” of the Palestinian freedom struggle. Their memories of Palestine, their dreams of return as well as the dignity and pride of their people, form the soul of their art. The simplicity of their themes – more effective since they focus on essentials - and their artistic skills have won them a huge popularity.
The exhibited works are taken from particular stages in their development as artists. Hence they show different styles and emotions. They have been grouped as:
*Years1948–1964(approximately three works by Shammout and ive by El-Akhal) - After the Nakba, before the Revolution – Searching for an own identity.
After 1948, more than half of the Palestinian people were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in neighbouring places.
It took them years to recover from this shock and deine their political path. For Shammout and El-Akhal, who married and worked in Beirut in the late 1950s as well as for many other Palestinian artists at that time elsewhere, the phase was characterised by the “search for own identity” - at both artistic and social levels.
*Years1965–1985(approximately twenty works by Shammout and eight by El-Akhal) - Expressing the Revolution – Art in the shadow of the Palestinian struggle and Palestinian life.
In 1964, the PLO was established as the national political movement of the Palestinian people. As the sole representative of Palestinians, it encompassed the entire spectrum of political and social groups and organisations.
It had a profound impact on deining the Palestinian political struggle and creating a national identity. The struggle inspirited artists like Shammout and El-Akhal.
Arts became then an indispensable weapon that played a major role in representing the Palestinian cause to themselves and to the world.
*Years1986–2006(approximately ten works by Shammout and twelve by El-Akhal) - Nostalgia – Between the Dreams and the Reality.
For the Palestinian revolution, 1982 was a major turning point. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the summer of 1982 forced the PLO leadership and infrastructure to disperse yet again towards a new diaspora.
Shammout and El-Akhal remained in Beirut until the mid1980s and continued their art careers; but this was in the absence of most Palestinian intellectual and political communities. In 1984, they relocated to Kuwait where they found themselves among a sizable Palestinian group.
Living between the reality of a peaceful daily life and longing for
a lost homeland, a wide spectrum of works was created which varied from landscapes and portraits to tragedies and dramas.
* Years 2006 – today (approximately sixteen works. All by El-Akhal) - We are still together – Continuing the road with Ismail always in mind.
Shammout and El-Akhal moved to Amman, Jordan, in 1994. Shammout passed away in 2006, leaving behind a legacy that cannot be detached from the collective memory and cultural heritage of modern Palestine.
El-Akhal continued working, physically alone, yet, as she says, with Ismail, her beloved husband and companion always present in her heart and in her mind.
Shammout has long been recognised as one of Palestine’s leading modernist painters. His style employs familiar symbols of Palestinian traditions and culture that have contributed to constructing a visual narrative of Palestinian nationalism. To this day, it continues to inluence Palestinian, as well as Middle Eastern artists.
At age 18, during the Nakba, he was forced by Israeli forces to lee from his birthplace (Lydda, Palestine) and take shelter in a refugee camp in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip. His wife experienced the tragedy of expulsion from her home in Jaffa during the Nakba in 1948. She can be said to be instrumental in the development of Shammout’s career.
Both artists contributed decisively to the artistic visual preservation of the Palestinian tragedy and history and together significantly mark the contemporary collective memory and cultural heritage of Palestine.
One of the two videos on show was made by the late artist himself. Produced in 1973 and stolen by the Israelis and stored in the Israeli Military Archive since 1982, it was only recently the family accidentally rediscovered a copy of the ilm, thought to be lost for years. It has no narration - only music and sound effects. It won the short ilm prize at the Leipzig Film Festival in 1974.
Says Dr Tina Sherwell, author of many texts on Palestinian art: “Often emotionally charged, Shammout was able to capture the sorrow, anguish and hopes of the Palestinians through a repertoire of iconic and animated igures such as the elderly father igure, young vulnerable children, youthful Palestinian women in traditional village costumes, village life and Fedayeen who carried the dream of the people for freedom and return.
“With the rise of the Palestinian national resistance movement he moved beyond the more solemn visual representations of the plight of the Palestinian people by depicting optimistic images of heroic ighters, dancing women in national dress and Arcadian representations of the liberated homeland and thus his works became more political in nature”.
In a talk in SAM on Oct. 27, ElAkhal recalled how she had heard people “screaming and crying” as she led Jaffa during the Israeli invasion. “I aimed to be educated while in Beirut; I talked to my friends about my future aims. But they were talking about their sufferings”.
She said that despite the dire surroundings, her parents also wanted her to be educated. It was around that time she discovered a passion for art. She started working on her ideas and tried to be “unique” on the canvas. “I discovered my artistic soul!” she said.
She noted that she received many calls from many countries to write about their lives. Thus she began to write about their journey. “I wanted to show people how my husband had reached his point in life – Ismail sacriiced a lot to fulill his aim”.
“I choose colours with the aim to make people feel my feelings”, she said. “We wanted people to feel the pain and suffering caused by the Israeli invasion”.
She said that it was very important for English speakers to know about Arab culture, since they are not very knowledgeable about it. Many of the duo’s works are found in Western collections, partly fulilling this aim.
“In the West I found that teachers take students to museums and teach them about paintings”, El-Akhal said. “I hope this takes place in the Arab World also”.
She also spoke about the iner points of art and advised artists to choose the titles of their works carefully. They should reveal the meaning of the artworks and should be attractive to viewers.
Ismail Shammout, Memories of Fire, 1956.
Tamam El-Akhal, Shushana Occupies My House, 1988.
Ismail Shammout, Love and Dream, 2005.
Tamam El-Akhal, Oh Lord, 1990.