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December 18, 2017
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Mustafa Hallaj (1999), River of Life, wood engraving. Photograph courtesy of Al Hoash Gallery.

Mustafa Hallaj, Untitled,
masonite engraving.
Photograph courtesy of
Al Hoash Gallery.

Over forty years have passed since the West Bank and East Jerusalem were annexed by Israel following the Six-Day War in 1967. Subsequent conflicts in the region have not only scarred the physical terrain but have destroyed or, at best, fragmented centuries of artistic production.

While speaking with Rawan Sharaf, director at Al Hoash Gallery in Jerusalem, "conflict" was the word he used most frequently. The word aptly captures the history of Middle East, as well as the complex identity of the Palestinian-Arab population living in the occupied zones - where Muslims, Christians and Jews converge.

"It is hard to privilege the preservation of art while one's daily life is under constant attack. The harsh political reality has for decades placed the Palestinians in isolation - not only on the regional level, but from the rest of the world, negatively affecting their social and cultural development," says Sharaf. The same thing can be said for Israelis, although cultural events are more developed in West Jerusalem. The Tel Aviv Museum of Art also has a proper Conservation Department to preserve Israeli art from the first half of the 20th century.

Language barrier aside, access to cultural activities for the Palestinian community is complicated. A series of checkpoints, a separation barrier and a permit system divide Palestinian Jerusalemites from their kin in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "Organising an exhibition would become hugely difficult, as the artists wouldn't have access to East Jerusalem, and regulations on the movement of goods which would include, of course, artworks are very strict." Despite this, the Qalandiya International event - a biennial art exhibition to promote local talent on the international scene - was successfully inaugurated last November in the small village of Qalandiya, at the border between Israel and Palestine.

East Jerusalem remains the socio-economic and cultural core of Palestine. Local artists here have continually produced high quality art in all forms, but the area lacks the necessary infrastructure, art galleries and schools to examine this artisitic heritage. There are no central museums or archives to collect, preserve or document Palestinian works of art, and the lack of systematic documentation threatens the heritage of Palestinian visual arts.

"As a result many Palestinian paintings, handicrafts, archival sources, photographs and even the names of artists have been forgotten, destroyed during the conflicts or deliberately removed from the narrative of history," Sharaf explains.

With limited research facilities and difficulty in tracing archival documents (which were lost or otherwise made inaccessible during and after the first Israeli-Arab War in 1948), scholars, journalists and researchers refer to a variety of decentralised sources when trying to recover the historiography of Palestinian contemporary art.

A history of expulsion and displacement further complicates the issue of preservation, with many Palestinian artists living in diaspora. The story of late Palestinian artist Mustafa Hallaj (1938-2002) is an example of how the diaspora experience can impact artistic output.

During Palestinian exodus (known in Arabic as the Nakba) after the first Israeli-Arab war, around 700,000 people were expelled into surrounding Arab countries, including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, as was the case for 10-year-old Hallaj and his family, who fled by foot.

"When we talk about Palestinians, we consider over six million refugees of different generations living in diaspora across the globe. They left behind not only their houses, but their belongings, personal memories and cultural heritage - living completely different experiences in diverse contexts, speaking different languages and interacting with a wide range of cultures. This has resulted in the production of multiple fragmented identities across Palestinian communities and obviously artists, which visibly influenced their artworks," Sharaf adds. 

...[Diaspora] has resulted in the production of multiple fragmented identities across Palestinian communities and obviously artists, which visibly influenced their artworks.

The exhibition "Mustafa Hallaj: Diasporic Meanings. A Retrospect," held at Al Hoash Gallery in Jerusalem, explores the importance of preserving Palestinian visual arts. Alongside 30 works by Hallaj are videos, research and archival materials from his writings, interviews and sketches; there's also a short film produced by Al Hoash of conversations with those who were close to Hallaj, both artistically and personally. In the film, Ibtissam Zubaidi, Hallaj's wife, explains how he died trying to save the last piece of his 101-meter long mural from a fire. The tragedy occurred in his studio at Gallery Naji Al-Ali in Damascus in 2002, and Zubaidi believes the fire was most likely caused by one of his cigarettes.

A special section of the exhibition is dedicated to those three meters of Hallaj's mural which survived, as well as a video showing the whole mural before it was broken up. Sharaf explains that some of the art displayed in the gallery was successfully recovered in Syria, where Hallaj spent most of his life as a refugee. Other documents came from the artist's relatives in Palestine and from Palestinian art collectors.

Hallaj was named Sheikh al Fananin ("Master of Artists") because he was one of the pioneers of the Palestinian plastic art movement. With engraving, etching and printing techniques, Hallaj represented in his artworks the nostalgic landscape of Palestine, the loss of his homeland and the pain of expulsion.

"The Mural named River of Life is Hallaj's last work, a long term project created with the technique of wood carving prepared for printing by attaching a one meter piece of paper to another, taking the lead from the previous one and proceeding with the new one. It evokes the history of Palestine through the personal experience of Hallaj," says Sharaf. 

The work depicts mythological figures of men and women, half human, half animal, as well as giants and miniatures. It is inspired by allegories and symbols from Sumerian mythology and ancient Egypt as well as ancient Palestinian folk tales and customs. According to Palestinian art historian Tina Sherwell's essay, Hybridity in the Work of Mustafa Hallaj, she tells of the endless journey of the Palestinian population, the sense of shame, sadness and anger. 

Mustafa Hallaj, Untitled, masonite engraving.
Photograph courtesy of Al Hoash Gallery.

The spread and preservation of art is inevitably conditioned by the political situation. "In constant exile, artist Mustafa Hallaj could hardly transport his heavy stone sculptures so he decided to make masonite engraving and wood engraving prints - lighter to carry while being on the move and accessible to a greater audience. It wasn't easy to collect his works as many of them were confiscated or damaged, not to mention the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon when 2,500 of his etchings and paintings were lost."

Art can undoubtedly be a powerful medium of self-expression. Palestinian artists play an essential role in the preservation of their heritage, even when cultural production is largely related to the political and socio-economic changes they face. But the Palestinian community has not been exposed to a visual culture; they have not had the opportunity to engage and relate to art on an intellectual, or simply enjoyable, level.

Therefore, how can the knowledge of Palestinian visual arts improve in the future? "The enhancement of the preservation of visual arts should start by debating not only about the artworks already produced, but by exploring the organisations that patron the cultural events, their relations with the financial resources, the international art scenes and markets. This could be done through detailed studies, publications, seminars and wide global forums as well as involving social media into discussions to give the public the tools to have critical access to art across the world," Sharaf concludes, "It will be more and more crucial to preserve, maintain and present the productions of Palestinian visual arts, as a major component of the Palestinian cultural, human and ethnic identity."

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