The Artists of "Made in Palestine"

Revolutionary Worker #1221, November 30, 2003, posted at

We received this correspondence from Houston:

In November and December 2002, Jim Harithas, Gabe Delgado, and Tex Kerschen of Houston's ArtCarMuseum/The Station visited Palestine for three weeks in search of Palestinian art. They had no idea what they would find--but the result of that trip was "Made in Palestine."

The exhibit opened in May 2003 and ran through October. It was the first museum exhibition in the United States or Europe devoted entirely to the contemporary art of Palestine.

It was divided into three parts: 1) Al Naqba (the Catastrophe--the expulsion of Palestinians from their land in 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel); 2) the resistance; 3) the artists' and the people's hopes for the future.

The opening was a joyous celebration of 2,000 people who crammed into The Station--a wonderful mix of people from Houston's Arab community, the local art scene, and others. Houston is home to one of the largest concentration of Arab people in the U.S., and the people from the community greeted the exhibit with open arms and traditional dancing.

"Made in Palestine" included works from a broad array of artists living in the West Bank, Gaza, and parts of Israel. Also represented were a smaller number of Palestinian artists living in Syria, Jordan, and the United States.

A press release from the museum stated, "Palestinian art is a unique contribution to contemporary art because of its diversity, its focus on liberation and its singular approaches to pictorial expression.[Palestinian artists] create symbols and visual configurations that define their national liberation struggle for a free Palestine. Being an artist for Palestine is an act of courage."

According to the museum, most of the 23 artists represented in the exhibit "live under military occupation or in exile. Through their art, they communicate Palestinian aspirations for a better future, respect for their martyrs and their love of their land and people. They also express the pain of imprisonment and death, the innocence and the righteous exultation of their struggle."

Walking through the exhibit, I was struck by the impact of each of the works and the exhibit as a whole. As one friend of the museum emphasized, this exhibit was all the more important because it was being shown right here "in the belly of the beast" that backs Israel.


Entering the exhibit, I encountered Emily Jacir's Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages Which Were Destroyed, Depopulated, and Occupied by Israel in 1948.The work consists of an actual refugee tent, embroidered with the names of these villages. Over 140 people came to Jacir's New York studio to sew on the names--including Palestinians, some of whom lived in the villages; Israelis, some of whom grew up on the remains of these villages; and others from many different countries.

Jacir spends half the year in New York and the other half in Ramallah, in the West Bank. Another of her works in the exhibit, Crossing Surda,is a video documentary of her experiences crossing an Israeli military checkpoint between Ramallah and Birzeit University, where she teaches. With a video camera hidden in her bag, she documented the daily horror and humiliation that Palestinians are subjected to by the Israeli occupation forces. On one of her trips, Israeli troops discovered her camera. They detained her for three hours and confiscated the film. When she called the U.S. embassy to request assistance, an official told her, "We can't help you. You should not be there anyway."


Behind the tent was a tribute by Mary Tuma, a professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, to Palestinian women "who provide strength in terrible circumstances but who receive little recognition." It is a series of dresses sewn from one continuous length of black gauze 48 meters long.

This was just one of several wonderful tributes to the role of women in the Palestinian struggle. In the next room was a display of traditional dresses embroidered with Palestinian flags, which are often worn by the women of Palestine in their struggles. Israel has decreed that displaying the Palestinian flag or its colors is illegal, so wearing such a dress is a bold act, and people have been shot and killed for wearing them. Other dresses from the same collection (which were not in this exhibit) have blood and bullet holes in them.

The colorfully painted work of Abdul Hay Mussalam included a tribute to International Women's Day. Written in both Arabic and English as part of the work are the words "The emancipation of women is not an act of charity, but a fundamental necessity of the revolution."


In the front room of the exhibit was one of the most powerful images I saw in the exhibit, covering an entire wall. John Halaka's Stripped of their Identity and Driven from their Land is a haunting image, in shades of gray, of people wandering through a wilderness, some with children, some with missing limbs and crutches. The piece is done in acrylic, and includes rubber-stamped prints of the phrase "Forgotten Survivors." It captures the feeling of Al Naqba. But as the museum points out, "Halaka underscores the universality of political displacement."

After the opening room, the exhibit continued through a series of several rooms with works dedicated to the resistance of the Palestinian people.

Abdul Hay Mussalam lives in a refugee camp in Jordan. He is a self-taught artist whose creations are made out of material forged from sawdust and wood glue, upon which he sculpts colorful three- dimensional scenes. Some of his art depicts traditional Palestinian village life before Al Naqba. Others are based on his experiences in the Palestinian struggle. Sabra and Shatila, for example, depicts Palestinian fighters defending the camp where the Israeli-backed Christian Falangists massacred thousand of people during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1981. He also did the piece honoring International Women's Day mentioned earlier.

Another artist with experience in the liberation struggles of the Palestinian people is Abdel Rahmen Al Muzayen, a former PLO general. Several of his pen-and-ink drawings were in the exhibit. While in Jenin during the April 2002 invasion by Israeli Occupation Forces, he sketched pictures of the destruction. These images are creatively included in the flowing dress of "Anat, the ancient goddess of the Canaanites, symbol[izing] the soul and strength of Palestine." I have to say that these were among my favorite pieces in the exhibit.

Across from Al Muzayen's works was one of the most powerful--and devastating--works in the exhibit. Negative Incursion is the work of Jerusalem artist Rula Halawani. These pieces burst forth with the harrowing reality of the March 2002 invasion of Ramallah in the West Bank by the Israeli military. Her camera captures the brutal Israeli occupation forces in large, ghostlike negative images that show Israeli tanks, soldiers pointing their guns at Palestinian civilians, and a family under a makeshift tarp in the midst of their demolished homes.

Halawani says that at the beginning of the U.S.-brokered negotiations ten years ago, she was full of hope that there would be peace. But her views changed in the midst of the Israeli assault on Ramallah: "Every street and square I visited was dark and empty; no one was in the streets that day except the Israeli army and its tanks. I felt depressed and cold. The only Palestinian I met on the road that day was an old man. He was shot dead. I never knew his name, but I had seen him walking around those same streets before. That night I could not take away his face from my memory. It was that night that my hopes for peace died."

Muhammad Rakouie created his works while incarcerated in Israel's notorious Ashkelon prison. His colorful pieces are striking in their similarity in style to art done by Chicano prisoners in the U.S. Rakouie had to have crayons smuggled into prison. The pieces were done on linen pillowcases and then folded up, hidden in the palm of his hands, and passed on in a handshake. Rakouie's work is influenced by Soviet abstractionism and socialist realism. He now lives in a refugee camp in Damascus, Syria.


The final phase of the exhibit represented the artists' revolutionary hope for the future. This section gave me a sense of the long-standing history and culture of the Palestinian people, the durability of the human spirit, and how art lifts our sights, quenches our thirst for liberation, and nourishes our dreams. A sense of how this vision of a new world springs forth out of the pain and suffering of the people and the joys of their struggles.

Suleiman Mansour is a major figure in Palestinian art. As the museum's curators note, "He creates `emblems of decay' that are `dry, cracked, and distorted,' reminding us of dispersion, waste, pain and death." On one wall there are multiple images of cracked and decaying bodies. Below, "The figures on a broken slab are roses symbolic of the martyrs killed during the current uprising." This piece seemed transitional to me--the decay of Palestinian society and their revolutionary hope for the future as embodied in the memory of their martyrs.

Vera Tamari's contribution to the exhibit was a tribute to the olive tree, which "symbolizes the Palestinian spirit." The Zionists have bulldozed thousands of olive trees on Palestinian land--as part of "collective punishment" and seizing of more territory. Tamari points out that Palestinians see the destruction of olive trees as "destruction of the soul" of their people, for so much of Palestinian culture and community is tied up in the nurturing of the olive trees and their harvest. Her work, as described in the museum literature, is "a dreamy vision in myriad shades of pastel blue, pink, purple, and ochre yellow: the olive tree, green and solid, giving birth to coloured miniatures in itself, is tired of its ancient form and of its constant symbol, breaks norms and transcends tradition, bursting into a dazzling rainbow for the future."

The colors in Sami Halabi's vivid abstract paintings "portend a bright future for her people."

The closing piece of the exhibit was Mustafa Al Hallaj's Self-Portrait as Devil, Man, and God. This incredible work is a series of long masonite block prints, reading from right to left (as in Arabic), which covered the entire back wall of the museum. It struck me with its stark black-and-white images. As explained to me by one of the staff, it is a series of "continuous images inspired by Egyptian and Mesopotamian" style and folklore, mixed with modern images. It was described as "an imaginary release from the boundaries of political regimes and from time itself."

Al Hallaj intended this piece to be his masterwork, and he worked on it over a 10-year period. Tragically, he died when his whole studio burned down. The original work was entirely destroyed in the fire. The print shown in the exhibit was re-created by the Palestinian Artist's Union in Syria, using the original masonite blocks.

Al Hallaj was born in Salame, near Jaffa in Palestine. He studied art in Egypt and spent his last years in Syria. The entire exhibit was dedicated to Al Hallaj. One museum staff member described him as "the hero of the exhibit."


"Made in Palestine" was a truly impressive exhibit. For me, the power of the creations of these Palestinian artists is in the fact that they are art by a people who are not supposed to exist, whose art and culture are suppressed and under fire, and whose very existence has been one of struggle for survival and liberation for the past 55 years.

As one African visitor to the exhibit said, "Even the name `Made in Palestine' is provocative."