A Refugee Artist, Interview With Abdulrahman Katanani

10847674_660005704118540_2095863325317127826_oAbdulrahman Katanani, a sculpture artist a little over 30 years old, is a representative of the increasingly prominent young Palestinian artists who are staging exhibitions around the world. Unlike many of his peers, Katanani is a refugee; the descendant of refugees from 1948, who was born and raised in the Sabra refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. Sabra remains Katanani’s home and his stateless status has denied him many opportunities afforded to other Palestinian artists, such as travel permission.

Refusing to be confined by an inherited injustice, Katanani has earned an MA from the Lebanese University, staged exhibitions from London to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and utilizes the camp’s very own scraps to mold liberating art work. It is this triumph in the face of a bleak reality with limited horizons for Palestinian refugees (especially in Lebanon, the Arab nation that has treated Palestinian refugees with the most disdain) that makes Katanani an extraordinarily endearing and inspiring artist.

After an 18-month residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, Katanani has crafted a new exhibition on display at the Agial Art Gallery in Beirut till May 30. Ferociously conveying despair and hope, steel sculptures of a tornado and olive trees are brought together: one symbolizing mad destruction, the other growth, renewal, and perseverance.

Palestine Square recently spoke with Katanani about the new exhibition, his status as a refugee artist, and his aspirations for Palestinian refugees still living in camps after 67 years.

One question I always start off with when speaking to Palestinian artists in the diaspora: What is your connection to the land?

My family’s from Jaffa, actually from a nearby village that used to be called Yazour [The Israeli town of Azur was established on Yazour after 1948]. My connection to Palestine as the descendant of refugees since 1948 is the heritage passed on to me through stories told by my grandfathers and grandmothers. I never saw Yazour, but I have a strong feeling that I belong to the land. When my grandfather used to speak about Jaffa and Haifa, I felt like I had already visited them, and that my real roots are still there even though I’m the third generation of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon.

You were born in the Sabra refugee camp in Beirut, but, today, as a young artist you could presumably live somewhere else outside of Lebanon. Why have you continued to stay in Sabra? 

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In fact, I wish I could move from the camp and live somewhere else, but we are obliged to stay in the refugee camp because of discriminatory Lebanese laws, and because of an international community that has dealt irresponsibly with the cause of Palestinian refugees in the Middle East; and also because of the Palestinian Authority, which has delayed resolving the refugee problem until a final settlement with Israel.

In Lebanon, for example, we don’t have many civil rights like labor rights (more than 70 professions are closed off to Palestinians) or property rights. So we can only buy an apartment outside the camp if the contract signatory is a Lebanese national. We don’t have a passport either – instead we have a travel document specifically for Palestinian refugees. So the chance of acquiring a visa for foreign travel is almost impossible!

Beyond the visual, the material of your art work makes it stand out. It is not paint on a canvas or fine material, but the very rough material of Sabra – its disposable metals and fabrics. Why have you chosen to use the material of the camp? And can you guide us through such a process? Do you think of an idea for an art work and then search for useful material or does the material spontaneously inspire you?

I believe that these materials are the symbols of the camp and represent its identity. I tried in the beginning to paint and use different fine materials, but I felt that it didn’t really belong to the place.

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In the beginning, most of the materials I collected I had found along the camp streets and I started to work on certain objects . . . it was more experimental at first. The vision and the material eventually come together. Sometimes the idea is born beforehand. When I was working on the subject of kids playing in the camp, I happened to be walking through a junkyard where I found scraps of metal that I figured would work well with the project, but other times the materials can inspire me with ideas.

On that note, children are the focus of much of your art work. Naji al-Ali [late Palestinian cartoonist] made the symbol of the refugee child, Handala, an icon of the Palestinian struggle. What does the Palestinian child symbolize?

For me, it was how the kids inside the refugee camp can create a new world through their imagination. They can imagine themselves playing in a very beautiful place, and they can create their own games out of scraps. So it was a very powerful sign of hope that we can change our lives if we believe in ourselves.

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After nearly 70 years, Palestinian refugees in the Arab world remain in camps, clinging to the hope of return. Your art is an intervention: by taking the camp’s material and re-configuring it to create something new, which conveys a spirit of optimism and aspirations, you demonstrate that the camp can be reborn, so to speak. What is your vision for how Palestinians should reimagine camp life?

I believe that while we are waiting for a political decision or a solution from the international community, we can develop our abilities and raise an independent generation that believes in freedom through education, arts, creativity, et cetera. . . . and I think it’s a good place to start to look toward the future through artistic projects.

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My art – in a certain way – is demonstrating that we can change our lives by using material that at first glance may appear worthless and through that material transformed into art we can escape the camp’s demoralizing circumstances. And that can empower us to be free to chart our own course.

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For a long while, political parties in the camps neglected arts and education, and they are compelling us to think that it is only through armed struggle that Palestine will be free. They’ve forgotten that many of the leaders of the Palestinian revolution in the 1960’s were intellectuals!

You’ve spoken in the past about a belief among camp residents that they could not grow up to be, say, Mahmoud Darwish or Ghassan Kanafani. Do you see yourself as an affirmation that camp residents can, indeed, be artists?

I think there are two answers. One in particular is that they can’t reach the level of Darwish or Kanafani because they are considered icons. The second answer is that art is not a big deal in the shadow of a bad situation. People inside the camp are fighting for food, and thus art is more like a luxury that can’t feed a family. For me, I had a simple belief that through creativity I could change something, and I didn’t think so much as an “artist” or about the lofty question of “art.” I hope that when camp residents look at my experience they see an example that with art we can do what we are dreaming of: in a word, freedom.

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Much of your art work conveys stories. What role has storytelling played in your art?

Stories play a big role in my work because we still live within stories and memories from Palestine. My grandparents played a big role passing on our history and stories to the younger generation. And, in fact, I chase stories in the camp from camp elders. Storytelling preserves our identity somehow and gives us hope that one day we will return to our villages.

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Your most recent exhibit was quite powerful in its representation of the current state of the Arab world: a tornado made of barbed wire, symbolizing destruction. You also constructed three olive trees, the traditional symbol of Palestine, in barbed wire. Is the project optimistic, or pessimistic, or simply representing the current moment?

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The exhibition is more about illustrating the psychology of the Palestinian people who have lived in refugee camps for more than 65 years without any resolution on the horizon. It’s now the third generation and people are still asking the same questions about the future since the first generation that left Palestine. The olive tree represents attachment to the past, literally roots to the land, and also a search for the future since the Palestinian hope for return is rooted in past expulsion.

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As for the second object, the barbed wire rounded into a tight circle forms into a tornado symbolizing connection to the past (since the 1948 Nakba), a tornado still swirling in the camp and collecting our generations, lives, hopes, happiness and dreams, and a storm moving toward the future. As for the material, barbed wire represents the occupation [barbed wire is ubiquitous at Israeli checkpoints on the West Bank and along Israel’s Separation Barrier] and the fear and instability of occupied life.

In the moment some could interpret it as the tornado of violence in the Arab world, which would also be true. I made the tornado from barbed wire to show that violence has been ongoing for a long time and continues until now. And that violence is leading the region to oblivion!

As a born, raised, and current resident of a Palestinian refugee camp, your very experience is representative of so many Palestinians; but, conversely, rare among Palestinian artists, most of whom do not come from refugee camps. Was it more difficult to start off as an artist in the camps? And what do you want people to know about the refugees? 

It’s not easy to think about art in a refugee camp, but I think that the camps have a lot of talented people who do not have many opportunities. For me, starting off as an artist was very hard, but with the support of my family and friends I labored on, and I believe that a lot of youth in the camps could do it too.

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And that’s what I want the world to know about my people inside the camps, that they have lots of abilities and they are educated and talented. And, of course, I wish to counteract the stereotype that presents refugees as militants, gangsters, or terrorists!

Do you see yourself as an unofficial ambassador of the camps?

I believe that I represent Palestinian refugees more than the camps. I believe that we belong to Palestine and not the camp, it’s just a temporary residence even after 67 years. I wish that most of the refugees could represent themselves and tell their stories and be free from all borders.

Photo credits: Abdulrahman Katanani’s Facebook. 

Interview conducted by Khelil Bouarrouj.