In 1987, what is now known as the First Intifada, i.e. the first uprising, broke out in Palestine. The Intifada was a culmination of many years of resistance against the Israeli military occupation of Palestine. It was characterized by acts of civil disobedience such as general strikes, refusal to pay taxes to the Israeli administration, and protests, as well as many other forms of resistance. One of these acts was the call to boycott all Israeli products; this is where the artwork in question الخروج إلى النور (Alkhurooj Ila Alnoor, Exit into the Light 1) began its life: out of rebellion.
The artist Nabil Anani was part of an influential group of artists at the time, along with Vera Tamari, Sliman Mansour, Tayseer Barakat, and others. Before the First Intifada they were mostly depicting the rootedness of Palestinian identity and its relation to the land, so as to give people moral support, to mobilize and reinforce Palestinian identity and perseverance. In a recent panel discussion at the International Art Academy, Palestine, artists Sliman Mansour and Nabil Anani said that in the 1980s they were becoming weary of working with cliché representations of Palestine and the Palestinians.2 This had also become the audience’s expectation: that the artists represent the Palestinian narrative through familiar iconography such as the orange grove, barbed wire, the olive tree, and so on. The artists felt they were becoming limited by this iconography. When the popular upheaval started, they felt relieved and exempted from what was coined—in the aftermath—as “committed art.” Eased from their commitment or dedication to the political cause represented in their art, they were now more free to formally experiment with their work. This does not mean that their art became disengaged from the community and the struggle. In terms of culture, the First Intifada also amounted to a revolution in form: classical and familiar forms in poetry, literature, and theatre were questioned.3 These changes came as a response to an ever-present query by artists in the moment of revolution or uprising: what does it mean to be revolutionary?4
On January 18, 1988, about a month and three communiqués after the beginning of the First Intifada, the third leaflet issued by The Unified National Leadership of the Uprising 5 called on the Palestinians to boycott Israeli products: “From this day we will begin to boycott Israeli merchandise and products that our industry also manufactures.”6 Nabil Anani and his colleagues until that point had been using mostly oil colors and canvas for their paintings, materials that were coming from Israeli factories and import companies. They decided to join the boycott, forming the group “Towards Experimentation and Creativity.” This was a beginning of a formal transformation in the work of many artists. Sliman Mansour started experimenting with mud, hay, and other materials from land,7 while Vera Tamari made her own clay for sculptures. Nabil Anani took on experimenting with leather.8 He remembered that he had been to a leather factory in Hebron, his native city, where the leather industry is historically located. He started using leather as canvas and henna (a natural local dye used for wedding rituals) and tea as paint. He recounted to me that the leather slipped and crumpled in the first painting he attempted to make, because he treated it as one would treat canvas, stretching it on a frame. Slowly Anani adapted to the new material. It allowed and required different practice than canvas and oil colors. The first painting Anani finally succeeded in finishing using leather, henna, and tea is Alkhurooj Ila Alnoor.
Although Exit into the Light continues to use familiar Palestinian symbolism, such as embroidery motifs, one notices a growing abstraction in Anani’s later leather works. The title of the artwork is extremely suggestive, a literal translation of Alkhurooj would be a “coming out,” which could refer to, on the one hand, to the exposure of the closeted desire to experiment with artistic form—which previously was constrained by the “committed art” iconography—and for which then the First Intifada allowed. On the other hand, the title could also allude to the “coming out” of the Palestinians into the streets. According to the artist, one of the formal changes that the leather as a material enabled, or even necessitated, was the transgression of the borders of a geometric canvas, so that it could spill over the usual limitations. Anani’s use of local materials such as leather and natural dyes (tea and Henna) relieved him of the obligation to use familiar and overused symbolism, while his commitment to the struggle went undoubted since the use of the material itself came as a “committed” act.
The word “intifada” literally means “to shake off.” This uprising seeped into every field, in literature, theatre, and art; it seemed to cause a “shaking off” in the very material and processes of production, where style and form were suddenly revealed as ideological, and therefore had to be rethought. The First Intifada was led by leftwing socialist and communist parties; consequently, there was a growing concern and recognition of labor conditions, production processes, and both economic and social class. Prior to the First Intifada, the artists had performed a certain role in order to take part in the struggle by inciting and mobilizing. Throughout this process, they had not considered where the canvas and paint were manufactured. However, once the uprising began, and they were relieved from their role seeking to incite an uprising, they suddenly became aware of the infrastructure that transmitted their work.
Anani continued to work with local materials, introducing sawdust and other local dyes. One would have thought that the use of local material would have halted or changed with the advent of the Oslo Accords, which were intended to officially conclude the First Intifada and aimed to bring about a peace treaty, where the PLO leadership returned to Palestine, which meant a brief, deluded period in Palestine full of hope for self-determination. However, Anani—along with his generation of artists—continued to work with local materials into the late nineties. This is quite curious, since one might assume from their earlier work and their attachment to changes in the form of the struggle that they would either go back to painting on Israeli manufactured canvas or begin a new phase as a response. Perhaps this was their most “revolutionary act” where, instead of establishing a new order in parallel with the new political order, they continued to make artworks responding to the First Intifada. When I asked Anani why he pursued further working with leather, his justification was that he needed to exhaust experimentation with the material. The 1987 Intifada opened a fissure for the artists to practice a revolutionary act within artistic forms and styles, which they had to continue regardless of the political situation, making them partly immune to reactionary work. This period is now often overlooked or not given much attention in the artist’s oeuvre in favor of the prior era from the 1970s to the mid ‘80s. Even though it is mentioned in books on the history of Palestinian art, it is usually sidelined.9 This might suggest certain expectations from the artists, or perhaps art in general in Palestine, whereby the caveat for being revolutionary means only the clear depiction and representation of the people, rather than a questioning of the medium itself.
Let us return to our borrowed question: what is revolutionary art? Especially in Palestine, a territory under settler colonialism, where there is an ongoing revolutionary struggle for emancipation. This is a question facing every artist and cultural practitioner in Palestine today. Many Palestinian artists tend to make artworks that are tautological, with the very good will of making the truth of colonial reality visible. However, medium and form are seldom questioned10 because they are employed for the clarity of content. What Anani and his fellow artists did during the First Intifada was the very shaking off of the medium itself. They became aware of the very infrastructure that holds the work of art, and that is one form of revolutionary art.
About the author
Lara Khaldi is an independent curator based in Jerusalem. She is a recent alumna of the de Appel curatorial programme, Amsterdam and the European Graduate School, Switzerland. Khaldi has curated exhibitions and projects in Ramallah, Jerusalem, Cairo, Dubai, Oslo, Brussels, and Amsterdam. She teaches at the International Academy of Art Palestine and has taught at Dar Al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem.
- My own translation of the painting’s title. The artist translated it as “Passage into the Light.” ↩
- Also mentioned in Gannit Ankori, Gannit, Palestinian Art (London: Reaktion Books 2013), 80: “For several years Mansour and some of his colleagues, according to their own testimony, had felt that their art was limited and stagnating and they wanted to develop more innovative techniques and artistic style.” ↩
- For example, if one takes a look at the literary journal Al Fajr, which was published in Ramallah during the years of the First Intifada, one finds numerous essays questioning form in poetry and prose. ↩
- I am borrowing this question from Boris Groy’s essay “Becoming Revolutionary: On Kazimir Malevich,” e-flux Journal 47 (2013), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/47/60047/becoming-revolutionary-on-kazimir-malevich/. ↩
- It was a coalition of the Local Palestinian leadership during the First Intifada. It played an important role in mobilizing grassroots support for the uprising, such as publishing and secretly circulating the underground communiqués which informed the Palestinians of demonstrations, incited civil disobedience and raised their morale. ↩
- The Unified National Leadership of the Uprising. Leaflet #3. N.p.: The Unified National Leadership of the Uprising, 1988. Print. ↩
- For more on Sliman Mansour’s earth works see, Gannit Ankori, Palestinian Art 80 –81. ↩
- Nabil Anani, Vera Tamari, Sleiman Mansour, and Tayseer Barakat formed a group called “Towards Experimentation and Creativity” each working with a different local material. ↩
- Such as Gannit, Palestinian Art. and Kamal Boullata, Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present, (London: Saqi, 2009). ↩
- This is no call to boycott canvas and paint (although that should be considered), but is rather calling attention to the medium itself. ↩