Friday, September 30, 2011

Celebrating Palestine through the Art of Abdul Hai Musallam

Celebrating Palestine through the Art of Abdul Hai Musallam
By George Al Ama and Nada Atrash

Palestine and its celebrations were the motivation behind the talent of Abdul Hai Musallam. At the age of five, Abdul Hai lost his father and continued to live peacefully among his five sisters and their mother in his little village of Al Dawaimeh, near Hebron. They were expelled from the village in 1948. That period of Abdul Hai’s life was the most influential on his art; he spent his childhood in his village home where all the women in the neighbourhood used to gather each morning. He represented this repetitive event in his work Abdul Hai’s Mother’s House, in which he recounted the daily routine of the village women who came together to embroider and chat while sipping their morning coffee. The little child Abdul Hai is observing the details while sitting in a tree and watching the scene.

In 1970 - a date that Abdul Hai refers to as his true date of birth - he began to use a carpenter’s technique of mixing sawdust with glue to produce a dough-like substance to fill the cracks of a piece of wood in order to form bas-relief figures and shapes. The ensemble is later painted to form masterpieces that reflect the memoirs of the artist’s early life in Palestine. It was a long journey for the self-taught Abdul Hai to discover the artist that lay inside him; his ultimate dream was to fight for Palestine. Unable to fulfil this dream, he was led by an urge to employ his art to serve the Palestinian cause.

In Tripoli, Libya, the first station of his mysterious journey with art, the Libyan Desert added to his feelings of pain and alienation. Later he moved to Beirut and then to Damascus before settling back in to the crowded neighbourhood of Al-Qusour in Amman. Throughout his journey Abdul Hai maintained his spontaneous nature and honesty, which were reflected clearly and freely in his representations of pre-1948 Palestine. He concentrated on the beauty and simplicity of the Palestinian village and its richness - daily life, celebration, feasts, and traditions - forgetting the painful reality of Palestine.

The late seventies and early eighties in Beirut were an important period in Abdul Hai’s art, during which he continued to work under the Israeli bombing. Sitting on a chair in his makeshift studio in the entrance of a building, Abdul Hai spent his days working vigorously on his art. At sunset he would arrange his equipment, pick up his rifle, and leave to begin his night duty as a guard. His art during that period reflected the Palestinian struggle; a bas-relief work of young women and men dancing with rifles in their hands represents pride and power, and the commitment to resist. His works of that period were exhibited in many places. One of the most significant exhibitions of that time - and one that was visited by the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat - was held in Beirut in 1982, under the fire of the Israeli invasion.

Another approach to resistance is noticeable in the prominence of “the woman” in works that reflect Palestinian heritage and folklore. For Abdul Hai, woman is the reason for life; she is the mother, the daughter, and the lover. Sometimes she is there with her impulsive nature and at other times she is there simply wearing her traditional dress; she could be as lofty as an empress in a legend or as transparent as a mistress. For him she is a symbol of the earth, the revolution, or freedom; she is a representation of fertility and the land.

Born in 1933 and living in his home village until 1948, Abdul Hai now enters his Amman studio in the morning and leaves behind his reality to return to those fifteen early years, trying to assemble his memories and arrange them in artistic masterpieces together with the joys and delights of Palestinian cultural heritage. Abdul Hai creates folkloric portraits and documents traditional songs, sayings, and poems that relate to various occasions and situations. His works represent traditional dresses from various areas of Palestine; a collection of relatively small art pieces shows one to three figures modelling costumes from the various areas of Palestine. He often inscribes sayings on love, romance, affection, and sorrow on these works.

A detailed illustration of village weddings is a living witness to all the celebrations that accompany the occasion, starting with the visit of the groom’s family to the bride’s house, the bride’s henna, the bride’s arrival on a camel (al-zafeh), the arrival of the bride at the bridegroom’s house, and the dancing and dabkeh that accompany the celebration. His works display a spontaneous yet sophisticated illustration of embroidered traditional dresses, headdresses, veils, and jewellery, as well as rugs, carpets, and scenes of the village in the background.

Other special celebrations, feasts, and activities of the Palestinian village are documented in the works of Abdul Hai; the Festival of the Tree - Spring Festival, Sham Al Nasim documents a traditional festival that is no longer celebrated in Palestine. Fasting Ramadan is another work of art that represents the holy month of Ramadan: men are gathered around a low table holding their beads and waiting for the sunset prayer. In a distance, boys and girls are standing on the roofs, observing and waiting for al-mu’athen at the mosque to call for prayer, after which they would run to their houses to break their fast. The popular poet, the women’s return from the vineyards and fig groves, and the celebrations that accompany circumcision are also documented in his works.

Not only did Abdul Hai celebrate the Palestinian village and the Palestinian diaspora and struggle, he was also involved in, devoted to, and influenced by the turbulence that afflicted Palestine. After the assassination of his colleague and friend of eight years, the artist Naji Al-Ali, in London in 1987, Abdul Hai dedicated his time to produce a collection of works on the artist, leaving behind all his other works and insisting on keeping alive the memories of a great friend.

Gold Dust is a film produced in 1986 by Mohammad Mawas that tells the story of Abdul Hai Musallam. The title refers to the ability of the artist to transform cheap raw materials into pieces of art that tell the story of Palestine. Today, Abdul Hai Musallam still lives in Amman and continues to dream of gathering into a museum his 1,200 bas-relief works that document Palestine, its cultural heritage, its traditions, and its folklore.

George Al Ama and Nada Atrash are part of the Research and Training Unit at the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation (CCHP). George and Nada can be reached at

“The Visit of the Groom’s Family to the Bride’s House” 2007. Photo courtesy of Dar Al-Anda Gallery, Amman Jordan.

“The traditional Dance”. Photo courtesy of Dar Al-Anda Gallery, Amman Jordan.

“The Bridal Trousseau” 1991. George Al Ama collection.

“The Festival of the Tree” or “Sham el Nasim”. Photo courtesy of Dar Al-Anda Gallery, Amman.

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