Palestine-Israel Journal: Maybe we can start by talking about
the importance of the Nakba in Palestinian art and how, in turn,
the Nakba was portrayed in Palestinian art.
Suleiman Mansur: The Nakba greatly affected Palestinian art. Even
now when we want to document the history of Palestinian art, we
start with the Nakba. All Palestinian art historians, including
their doyen, Ismail Shammout, start their documentation of
Palestinian art movements after 1948, because the year 1948 has
impacted on Palestinian lives on all levels. After 1948,
Palestinian painting had for subject, naturally, refugees, the
dispossessed living in a tent or in the open air. At the end of the
1950s, another trend took place: artists started to paint nostalgic
subjects, such as the good life they had led in the villages prior
to the Nakba, the homeland, working the fields, wedding scenes.
Later, the hero of Palestinian painting became the fighter, the
proud Palestinian, and so on.
One of the important aspects of the Nakba was the dispersion of the
Palestinian people and the loss of their land. The trend in Arab
countries, at the time, was to wipe out Palestinian identity. So it
became the most important thing in Palestinian painting, to
emphasize this identity and to make it into a major issue. To
recreate Palestinian identity, painters started to use symbols,
such as scenes from Palestinian villages, dabke dancing, as well as
the colors of the flag, the flag itself, barbed wire, prison bars,
etc. So much so that in 1981, the Israeli authorities passed a law
forbidding the use of the Palestinian flag in all contexts. I was
once summoned to the military governor in Ramallah, and was told by
the officer that we were not allowed to use the colors red, white,
green and black in our works.
All the artists' thinking was influenced by political problems, by
daily incidents under occupation, the commemoration of historical
events, martyrs. Looking back at this, I think it was something
normal for people living under occupation, and who had national
aspirations. After the 1993 Oslo agreement, political works ceased
to have such an import. Many Palestinian artists stopped working
for good because their knowledge and experience had been seeped in
politics. Nowadays, they are facing a lot of problems trying to
deal with the new reality.
The most important issue now has become the question of quality:
how good an artist one is, not how good a political or
nationalistic painter. Because these artists have been so much
confined to local subjects, they are, as a consequence,
ill-informed about universal art, contemporary art or the various
art movements. They feel lost. We were 70 painters; now only around
20 are still working. There are no art institutions in Palestine in
order to promote Palestinian art, give artists knowledge and
know-how or connect them to the world. I think that Palestinian art
is now going through a crisis. The only hope I can see is from
Palestinians living in Israel. There are a lot of young Palestinian
artists in Israel and I think they will be the future of
Palestinian art. Here in the West Bank, very few young good artists
Every Palestinian artist expressed the Nakba from his/her own
perspective. How has painting affected the coverage of the Nakba
itself? Some were trying to show refugees, people uprooted from the
land. Is this the only subject or has it gone beyond?
As I mentioned earlier, Palestinian art passed through certain
distinct stages - short ones. At the outset, painters painted
refugees and the dispossessed, then came the nostalgic period, with
the orange groves and villages in nice romantic settings. Next came
the influence of the PLO and the growing feeling of power among the
Palestinian people, expressed in the strong, proud and fighting
Palestinian. In the 1970s, Palestinian art tried to get out of this
political circle and to produce art that could transcend the local
and be part of universal art movements. They went back to origins
and chose their subjects from Canaanite, old Egyptian, Assyrian,
Babylonian motifs, as well as Islamic art, Arabic calligraphy,
ornaments, embroidery, etc.
Speaking of all these stages, I noticed that the young artists in
the 1970s and 1980s went through all the above-mentioned stages in
their paintings, all in the span of two years. Then these artist
moved on to their own personal experimentation, but the political
influence was always there; the political atmosphere was
Were Palestinian painters aiming merely at popularity, because
it was political and nationalistic subjects that gave them
popularity and fame, albeit on the local level?
That is true, but also on another level, they wanted to create a
Palestinian art with the aim of recreating and emphasizing
Suleiman Mansur, for example, had he not dealt with these
political issues, would he have been known or popular? Would you
have had any input in the Palestinian national movement? Do you
consider yourself as someone who has contributed to the national
movement through your painting?
Yes, but maybe I would have been a much better artist had I not
limited myself to those subjects. Artists do not rely solely on
popularity, appeal to the masses; nowadays, they want to be known
in art circles, among museum curators, galleries, etc.
You wanted to be part of the Palestinian national
I am part of it and it is reflected in my work. At this point, I
would like to mention something about the relationship between
Palestinian and Israeli artists.
In 1974, we decided to create the Palestinian Artists' League. We
went to the military governor for a permit and were denied one. To
this day, we are operating as an illegal union, in confrontation
with the Israeli military authorities. But we decided to go ahead
with the union. To reach as many people as possible, and due to the
lack of galleries, we decided to print our work in the form of
postcards and posters. The Israeli authorities started confiscating
the posters, fining the sellers, confiscating works from
exhibitions, even from artists' homes. Then in 1981, they revived a
British law that called for the censorship of anything that was
presented to the people. We, of course, were against sending our
work to the censor. That same year, an exhibition for a Palestinian
painter was held in Ramallah. Three days later, the authorities
came and closed the gallery. The accusation was that the paintings
were inciteful, but the real reason was that they wanted to fight
and suppress Palestinian culture, in light of their denial of the
existence of the Palestinian people. Thus, in the West Bank we were
subjected to all kinds of raids, even imprisonment. The situation
became quite dangerous. The only places left open to us, free of
"problems," were Jerusalem and Israel, in towns like Nazareth,
Haifa, and Acre.
In the wake of all these developments, some Israeli artists came to
us in a show of solidarity. We decided to establish a working
relationship with them, to protect Palestinian art and artists
through them. We organized a joint exhibition at the end of 1981.
At the time, they refused to call us Palestinians: we were instead
referred to as "Arab artists from the West Bank." They even
rejected the name of "occupied territories" on the invitation
cards. In 1984, we had another exhibition. This time, with their
agreement, we used the name "Palestinian" and the title of the
exhibition was "For Freedom of Expression." The next year, we had
another exhibition, calling for an end to occupation and with the
title "Stop the Occupation - For a Palestinian State." Every year,
the tone grew progressively stronger. It is interesting to note
that, at the time, the work of Israeli artists was more political
than ours. Our main concern was to show good art.
Now let us go back to the Nakba. You started talking about the
development of the artist's thought relating to people's causes.
You mentioned Ismail Shammout, who had the most important impact on
the painting of the Nakba and also documented the Palestinian
history of art.
I think the reason is that Ismail Shammout was himself a refugee.
He was old enough to know what was happening. He had studied art
before the Nakba happened. He became a refugee, lost his lands and
lived in a refugee camp. For him, to be a refugee was a physical
reality. His work was inspired from his experience. His political
ideas were with the people who started the PLO. They were in Egypt
and he met with Arafat, Abu Jihad - he was one of the group. There
were other artists who lived the experience, like Mustafa Hallaj,
Kamal Bullata (from Jerusalem), Ibrahim Hazzimeh, to mention only a
Do you think their works managed to introduce the Nakba to the
rest of the world?
I can't say to the whole world, but certainly to the Arab world and
to a certain degree to the Islamic world. Ismail Shammout's works
were taken in the early 1950s to the UN and, I think, it was the
first time that the Nakba was shown in such an international
Most importantly, Palestinian art affected the Palestinian masses
many of whom had not experienced the Nakba first hand, so it was
important to create an awareness. We tried to reach the people
through realistic art. We wanted our work to have an impact so we
painted works that people could understand and relate to, from
Nakba to occupation. We wanted people to move and to be moved by
our works and to take a stand. Our paintings aimed mostly at the
creation of a national identity.