Since the late 1990s, the visibility of and innovation within contemporary visual arts have expanded, with a shift toward engaging with multimedia conceptual art. Accordingly, contemporary Palestinian artists largely do not address grand national narratives with romanticized militant or folkloric visual motifs. Instead, they deploy aesthetically minimalist probings of landscapes of occupation and exile, mediated by their subjectivities.
Material and Institutional Transformations
The expansion of opportunities for Palestinian artists in the contemporary visual arts scene has been called “a golden age.” The visual arts field is becoming the most dynamic field of cultural practice, given its resources, innovation, and renewal. This expansion is accompanied by a professionalized institutional fabric of art competitions, art centers, festivals, commercial galleries, auctions, and unprecedented opportunities for formal education with new art departments at an-Najah University, Al-Quds University and Birzeit University, Dar al-Kalima in Bethlehem, and the new specialized International Academy of Art - Palestine in al-Bireh.
The visual arts are also internationalized as more artists travel, study, and exhibit outside of Palestine and return, while artists from the diaspora who carry western passports visit Palestine, work, and create works with a Palestinian content.
The visual arts are also characterized by a new feminization of its practitioners. Artists with the most local and international recognition are female, such as Mona Hatoum (b. 1952), Emily Jacir (b. 1970), and Ahlam Shibli (b. 1970). In addition, most Palestinians studying art inside 1948-Palestine today are women.
New Media and Techniques
The conceptual turn in contemporary art stresses art as embodiment of an idea or a concept. This shift has seen the development of the use of digital and electronic media and the development of site-specific exhibitions. Since the late 1990s, painting, printmaking, ceramics, poster, and semi sculptural works have given way to the development of photography, performance, video art, sound art, and critical presentations on spatial politics and architectural research. These new approaches and techniques have been adopted by young as well as veteran artists.
Painting itself has changed into three directions: the hyperrealist approach of Michael Halak (b. 1975), Amjad Ghannam (b. 1981), and Bashar Khalaf (b. 1991); the expressionism of Ousama Said (b. 1957), Mohammed Saleh Khalil, and Ibrahim Noubani (b. 1961); and the conceptual approaches of Asad Azi (b. 1955), Jeffar Khaldi (b. 1964), Inass Yassin (b. 1973), Hani Zurob (b. 1976) and Durar Bacri (b. 1982).
Photography has emerged as a major new art form, mixing the documentary approach, as is demonstrated in the work of Rula Halawani (b. 1964) on destroyed villages and checkpoints, with the formally aesthetic as in the work of Steve Sabella (b. 1975) on urban architectural motifs. Video art closely reflects Palestinians’ contemporary condition in its articulation of the loop of time made up of repetition, recurrence, and waiting. Video has also become popular as a means to overcome limitations in mobility and obtain visibility for artists’ works. Video use encompasses the documentary and the performance, with both disjointed narratives and visual sequencing, as in the work of Jumana Emil Abboud (b. 1971) and Jumana Manna (b. 1987).
Performance art takes place in galleries and theaters and is documented in photography and video as in the work of Manar Zuabi (b. 1970) and Hannan Abu Hussein (b. 1972). Performances also take place in the public space, mixing installation and design as in the work of Dima Hourani (b. 1985).
Principal Approaches and Themes
Three approaches in art production dominate: dark absurdist humor, archiving, and humanizing.
Humor is a familiar dispositif in literature, and it has spread to film and the visual arts. As humor allows the juxtaposition of the tragic and the absurd in the contemporary Palestinian experience, some artists’ entire output consists of deploying irony; the works of Khalil Rabah (b. 1961) and Sharif Waked (b. 1964) provide examples of that approach.
Another popular focus has been the adoption of the archival/ documentary approach to document destroyed aspects of Palestinian lives, landscape, public life, or property. Emily Jacir uses this approach, notably in ex-libris (2010-2015), which deals with the books looted from Palestinian libraries in 1948.
Another common approach is to emphasize the normal humanity of Palestinians, as their potentials and quotidian activities are denied by occupation and exile, as in the work of Mohamed Abusal (b. 1976) and Abdul Rahman Katanani (b. 1983).
In terms of representations of time, contemporary art focuses on matter of fact representations of the present or on dystopian representations of the future. Such works visualize and concretize the mirage of “peace” and the absurdity of the future, as can be seen in the work of Larissa Sansour (b. 1973) and Wafa Hourani (b. 1979).
A new thematic of an anxious individual identity replaces the former production of a stable identity rooted in rural lore or collective struggle. National identity is now indexed on that of specific individuals’ and is fraught with uncertainty about such matters as Palestinian Arab identity in Israel and in exile; the works of Ashraf Fawakhre (b. 1974) and Taysir Batniji (b. 1966) take on these themes.
The increase of females among artists ushered in the questioning and contestation of gender roles, often articulated with nationalist concerns, as in the works of Raeda Sa‘adeh (b. 1977) on marriage and the Separation Wall.
In addition, customary themes of the shaheed, landscape, exile, memory, and the past are still present but reworked. The memory of place is mediated by personal experience, as in the work of Hanna Farah (b. 1960) on Kafr Bir’im, while the past is explored critically as in the work of Amer Shomali (b. 1981) on the 1980s.
The ubiquitous object of contemporary Palestinian visual arts is landscape, in a reclaiming of spatiality by artists, as Palestinians’ access and grasp of physical space decreases. Landscape also allows a focus on related themes like maps, the Nakba, architecture, spatiality, restrictions on movement, checkpoints, the Separation Wall, Israeli destruction of farmland, “Bantustanization,” and neoliberal urbanization, as in the works of Ayreen Anastas (b. 1968), Rana Bishara (b. 1971), Hazem Harb (b. 1980), Khaled Jarrar (b. 1976), Ruanne Abou Rahmeh (b. 1983), and Basel Abbas (b. 1983). While landscape in previous periods was often idealized in paintings of Arcadian simplicity, it is now mainly photographed, as a space scarred by occupation and settlements, graffiti covered walls, destroyed orchards, and dilapidated neighborhoods, as in the works of Laila Shawa (b. 1940), Suha Shoman (b. 1944), Sami Bukhari (b. 1964), and Rafat As‘ad (b. 1974).
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