Palestinian art is characterized by fragmentation and discontinuities. Leading innovations were created by men and women dispersed in many locales. In their distance from one another, artists in the earlier periods were mostly unaware of art created by other members of their generation. Some received academic training; others remained self-taught. Trained and untrained artists both contributed to the creation of a national art, and work by each artist in his or her own way sought to articulate the experience of space, identity, and culture. The nature and quality of each artist’s contribution were frequently determined by his or her proximity to political confrontation.
The history of Palestinian art is here divided into four periods.
1. In the first period, Beginners (1795–1955), icon painting was developed as one of the country’s earliest traditions of picture making. Palestinian icon painters of the early twentieth century concurrently delved into Western art techniques, but the possibility of their developing an indigenous art was aborted when Palestinian society was uprooted in 1948.
2. In the second period, Pathfinders (1955–65), a new art was forged by pioneers, most of whom grew up as refugees.
3. The third period, Explorers (1965–95), includes art created both in exile and in Palestine. In the wake of the 1967 occupation, Palestinian artists in the occupied West Bank and Gaza deployed their art to express collective identity – and often met with harsh repression.
4. In the fourth period, Present Tense: New Directions (1995-2016), Palestinian contemporary visual arts have grown—in the number of practicing artists and in greater visibility and innovation, with a shift toward engaging with multimedia conceptual art.
Derived from the Byzantine tradition, icon painting was elaborated as early as the eighteenth century as the major form of painting practiced by Palestinians. The first practitioners commonly associated with the Jerusalem School were probably apprenticed to Greek monks serving in the Holy Land. The tradition was later perpetuated by Palestinian members of the Orthodox church whose artistic talents were nurtured by the works of Russian iconographers who settled in the country.
Icons produced by the Jerusalem School painters found an eager market. Small icons were originally sought by pilgrims as portable relics for their distant homes. Larger icons were usually commissioned to commemorate a site in one of the country’s many sanctuaries. The reputation of the Jerusalem School painters spread throughout nineteenth-century Syria and Lebanon, where their icons continue to adorn remote monasteries.
Although these icons followed the Byzantine tradition, details developed by the Jerusalem School suggest naturalization: the almond-shaped eyes and rounded facial features of one patron saint recall the characteristic features of the Arab folk hero in the popular arts and Islamic miniatures flourishing in Arab visual tradition. The saddle of Saint George’s horse, usually painted in a plain red, turns in the hands of a Jerusalem painter to a crimson gilded in delicate stars and crescents befitting the turban of an Ottoman sultan. At times, Greek may be the alphabet used to identify the icon’s liturgical title; all other words, however, were usually painted in Arabic.
The tradition of associating the icon painter’s name with Jerusalem appears to have been established by a certain Hanna al-Qudsi, whose signature was composed of his first name, Hanna, followed by his title, al-Qudsi, meaning “the Jerusalemite.” Later painters in the second half of the nineteenth century followed suit by adding to their full names “the Jerusalemite”—for example, Mikha’il Muhanna al-Qudsi, Yuhanna Saliba al- Qudsi, Nicola Tiodoros al-Qudsi, and Ishaq Nicola al-Urushalimi. At the turn of the century the Jerusalem natives Nicola al-Sayigh (1863-1942) and Khalil Halabi (1889-1964) were the two major pioneers who, by emulating their Russian mentors, crossed over from religious to secular painting. Their prevailing influence was decisive in the development of Palestinian art.
During the early decades of the twentieth century, as Palestine slipped out of Ottoman control, its cultural life gradually began to fall under Western hegemony. Easel painting as practiced for centuries in Europe was imported by a steady influx of veteran Western travelers. Under the British Mandate, easier access was granted to newcomers. In addition to the transforming presence of the British, a growing number of Westerners associated with Christian missionaries or with Jewish colonies began to secure for themselves a more permanent residence in Palestine. Many of these resident communities hosted painters who were commonly seen with their portable studio equipment painting in the open air.
In the meantime, several Palestinians exposed to the new method of painting began to dabble with the imported media. Unlike their peers in neighboring Arab countries, who had had access to Cairo’s prestigious Fine Arts Academy since 1908 or to that of Beirut since 1937, the few Palestinians who embarked on painting were mainly self-taught. Two leading talents developed their own style by using the new tools for their customary method of painting; the icon painter Khalil Halabi and the Haifa traditional craftsman of Islamic art Jamal Badran (1909–99). Using photographs for their models, Halabi and Badran painted landscapes of their respective hometowns.
Bezalel, established by the emerging Jewish settler community in 1906 as the first Jewish art school in Jerusalem, did not admit non-Jews, and so most of the younger generation of untrained students learned by observation and crude experiments. These untrained artists included the Jaffa artists Jamal Bayari, Khalil Badawiyya, and Faysal al-Tahir and the Jerusalem artists Mubarak Sa‘d (1880-1964) and Da’ud Zalatimo (1906-2001).
Three Jerusalem women of this generation managed to attain a limited art education: Zulfa al-Sa‘di (1905-88), Nahil Bishara (1919-97), and Sophie Halaby (1906-98). Al-Sa‘di apprenticed to Nicola Sayigh; Bishara studied art in Italy, and Halaby, in France. In the footsteps of her tutor, al-Sa‘di mainly created iconic paintings of national figures. Bishara’s paintings depicted Jerusalem street scenes and genre figures in native robes. Halaby, by contrast, depicted landscapes of stormy skies and olive groves dotting the Jerusalem countryside.
As the embryonic stages of a Palestinian art were gradually evolving in urban centers, violence between Jewish and Arab forces was escalating, ultimately leading to the 1948 war that sundered the country. Growing affiliations among the few local artists were abruptly suspended. With the establishment of Israel, Palestinian artists found themselves facing the predicament of their own people, who were now either reduced to a minority in their country of birth or herded into refugee camps in neighboring countries. Under these conditions, promising talents aspiring to careers in art were thwarted.
For example, the naive painters Badawiyya and Tahir were killed in the battle for Jaffa. By the late 1950s, the young Bayari, who had created memorable paintings of Jaffa’s neighborhoods after the Arab exodus, died at home, a penniless man. A number of painters abandoned their vocation altogether. The self-taught Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1920-94), from Bethlehem, and Ghassan Kanafani (1936-73), from Acre, continued to paint even after Jabra settled in Iraq and Kanafani in Lebanon; each, however, made his true career in writing.
Note: This Highlight is drawn from Kamal Boullata’s entry ”Art” in Philip Mattar, ed. The Encyclopedia of the Palestinians (New York: Facts on File, 2005).