“Their Oil would become Tears”: Palestinian Oil Paintings

Untitled, by Micahel Halak, oil on canvas, 2009.

“If the Olive Trees knew the hands that planted them, Their Oil would become Tears.”

– Mahmoud Darwish 

Michael Halak

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Untitled, by Micahel Halak, oil on canvas, 2009.

Haifa-based artist Michael Halak draws his inspiration from the Western realist tradition rooted in ecclesiastical imagery to reflect his own reality as a Palestinian citizen in Israel. His painting (above) depicts a serene reality, but that first glance is deceptively alluring as the painting conveys a state of separation and dissolution. It is this dual reality that illustrates Halak’s notions of “presence and absence, identification and dis-identification, witnessing and silencing, memory and intentionally imposed oblivion.” As a Palestinian inside Israel – a citizen but not a national, an Arab artist awarded by state institutions but marginal to Israeli culture – Halak’s paintings dramatize the nature of inclusion-exclusion for Palestinians citizens. This painting portrays two young Palestinians urinating on a sabra tree: a seemingly mundane act, but one that is submerged in allegory. The Arab act of desecration is an act of rebuking “the attempt of the ‘Israeli sabra’ [in Zionist myth, hardened settlers akin to the cactus tree] to mark out a new territory instead of the borders previously marked the ‘Arab sabra,'” as one observer wrote

Halak’s paintings are so breathtakingly in their realism that the audience is compelled to ascertain that it is, in fact, an oil painting and not a photograph.

Ismail Shammout

The doyen of Palestinian oil painters would arguably be the late Ismail Shammout. Evicted from his home in Al Lydd on 13 July 1948 by Zionist forces, Shammout died in exile in Amman, Jordan nearly 58 years later to the day (July 4). Although torn from his beloved Palestine at a young age (17 when he was expelled), he spent the rest of his life mining his early memory and tenderly evoking the lost homeland. His paintings were often straightforward in their portrayal of daily life – say, the rituals of harvesting fields – but the manner in which Shammout wove an animating spirit in motionless paintings was anything but. Whether refugees in despair, a resistance fighter embracing his lover or a self-portrait, Shammout’s paintings cry out in affirmation of a living people who have been denied their place in the world.

Ashraf Sahwiel

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Homeland, by Ashraf Sahwiel, oil on canvas, 2004.

In 2014, Ashraf Sahwiel was one of over 40 artists to showcase their artwork at an exhibit in Ramallah titled “Traces, a testimony to memory.” For the Gaza-based artist, it was a rare opportunity to reach the outside world. Gaza’s artists are blockaded by Israel and Egypt and most Gazans are too destitute to afford fine art, so exhibits like the one in Ramallah provide crucial support for Gaza’s artists. Sahwiel, a former director of the Gaza Association for Culture and Art, displayed his painting Homeland. As these faceless guerrillas trail one another, we are reminded of the ultimate goal of freedom fighters – to return to a freed homeland. For all that, is the painting lionizing sacrifice or eulogizing fighters who may never return?

Abdel Rauf Ajouri

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The Bitter and the Bitterness, by Raouf Al Ajouri, oil on canvas, 2014.

Fellow Gazan artist Raouf Al Ajouri has made a name for himself with his experimental take on the expressionist tradition of art, especially for his collection “Children.” As we previously wrote, the series “presents a collection of portraits where nudity stands in for the openness and honesty often found in youth, away from the mendacity and falsehood of adulthood, and all the faces appear expressive in their truth.” Ajouri is also the co-founder of the E l t i q a Group for Contemporary Art in Gaza.

Ibrahim Al Awadi

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The Plumber, by Ibrahim Al Awadi, oil on canvas, 2014.

Palestine’s downtrodden is the focus of observation for artist Ibrahim Al Awadi. Raised in Gaza’s cramped refugee camps, Al Awadi lived among the very people he now paints. His paintings neither glorify nor aim for sympathy, but, rather, portray his subjects with a humanitarian regard for their perseverance in life. Akin to the Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose films portray the hardships and quiet dignity of the underclass while steering clear of mawkish drama, Al Awadi is an artist for the working class. He captures your gaze and compels you to recognize the resilience of the human spirit. A plumber (above), from the same refugee camp as Al Awadi, was drawn from memory.

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The Boy, by Ibrahim Al Awadi, oil on canvas, date NA.

By Khelil Bouarrouj.

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