Friday, September 30, 2011

Committed art radiates hope

Work by Abdul Hay Musallam on display at the Jordanian Plastic Artists’ Association in Jabal Luweibdeh (Photo by Mohammed Abo-Afefa)

Committed art radiates hopeBy Sally Bland

Abdul Hay Musallam has become known for his depictions of Palestinian heritage and pre-1948 village life, and these elements are present in the exhibition of his works titled “Art and the Cause”, which opened November 12 at the Jordanian Plastic Artists’ Association in Jabal Luweibdeh. But the real focus is elsewhere, for the works on display all have a political thrust. They are the artist’s response to recent and historical events affecting the Palestinian cause.

Two opposing currents are apparent in Musallam’s reliefs now on display at the Jordanian Plastic Artists’ Association. One is the recurring Israeli drive to eliminate the Palestinian people. The other is the Palestinians’ persistent efforts to defend themselves and recover their lost rights and homeland.

The power and detail with which these opposing trends are depicted - often face-to-face in the same work - is impressive. There are several reliefs commemorating massacres, starting with the one inflicted on Musallam’s home village, Duwaymeh, in 1948. Yet, however severe the attack, Musallem adds a sign of resistance, a sprig of hope for the future. A striking example of this is the relief showing the massacre in Jenin, where a small group of militants remain standing on a mound of dead bodies still trying to defend their camp.

Of the 23 exhibited works, some will be familiar to those who know Musallam’s work, while others are entirely new. A few are in muted green, brown or reddish earth tones, but most are brightly painted in primary colours - a virtual celebration of Palestinian traditional culture which has become Musallam’s signature, forming the backdrop to the events portrayed. His works are unmistakable. Who else would paint every stitch of the embroidery pattern on a woman’s thob and sometimes even the tattoos on her chin or forehead?

The intricacy of the design defies that simplicity of the media, for all of the exhibited works follow Musallam’s special recipe for mixed media. Combining sawdust and glue into a paste, he moulds his figures onto a slab of wood, creating a relief, which he then paints, often in minute detail.

Many of the pieces honour martyrs. One of them, titled “A Dove from America in Rafah”, is dedicated to Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to prevent a house demolition. She appears as a dove cloaked in a Palestinian kofia and embroidered thob. In the background, a cactus stands as a symbol that the Palestinians will remain on their land, defying the odds, despite the costs.

In another relief, a tree sprouts from the blood of a martyr, its shape formed by inscribed poetry, in what is sometimes called a concrete poem. There are also reliefs honouring Mahmoud Darwish and Palestinian artist Mustafa Hallaj.

Bright green is a predominant colour in the exhibited works, the sign of new life, as in the piece titled “The Martyr”, showing a fallen Palestinian draped in green being carried in a funeral procession. In the process, his body has stretched horizontally to an extraordinary length and sprouted a row of young trees, flowers and cacti.

“The Martyr” is the centrepiece of three large reliefs, all new, that together cover one wall of the exhibit. To the left is a complex composition of struggle and martyrdom. To the right is a depiction of the Apartheid Wall, showing how it arbitrarily cuts through villages, shutting off neighbours from each other, yet at the same time uniting them in resistance.

Another large relief is boldly titled “Holocaust in Gaza ,” commemorating the many Palestinians killed by the Israeli army in February 2008. Here Musallam is keen to gage reactions to this crime. A row of cacti endowed with wide, shock-filled eyes stand as witnesses, while three male figures mimic the “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” paradigm, trying their best to ignore what is happening - a graphic depiction of Palestinian disappointment at the meager regional and international response to Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians.

In many of the reliefs, it is children who signify the continuation of struggle and hope for a better future. Most often, it is a strong, mature woman entrusting the future to the new generation. In a particularly striking work titled “The Right of Return”, a woman holds out her thick braids to serve as bridges for marching children heading to recover their homeland.

This is committed art at its best, combining beauty with protest, revealing real events and challenging the viewer to take a stand. No art should be reduced to a single message, but if the exhibition can be summed up in one theme, it is that despite the immense difficulties of the present state of the Palestinian cause, the people will not be daunted, nor will they simply go away. On the contrary, the Palestinians will remain and persist by all means, striving to regain their rights and homeland.

The exhibition continues until November 26.

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