Date: 2006

AUTHOR: Adila Laidi




Book review by Adila Laidi

Liberation Art of Palestine : Palestinian Painting and Sculpture in the Second Half of the 20th Century , by Samia A. Halaby. New York : H.T.T.B Publications, 2001. iv + 95 pages. $50, paper.

Reviewed by Adila Laïdi [1]

This book by prominent Palestinian-American artist Samia Halaby analyses an important feature of Palestinian visual arts, albeit one that has been disappearing slowly in the last decade, in favor of more intimate meditations on Israeli oppression and the Palestinian condition, using contemporary multimedia tools. The originality of Liberation Art further lies in its thesis that there is a “Liberation art of Palestine ” (p. iv) akin to the traditions of cubism, constructivism, and the Mexican muralist movement. In terms of existing research, the book has the merit of focusing on a relatively under-studied aspect of Palestinian culture—the visual arts—albeit one dominated by the meticulous and complex scholarship of Kamal Boullata. The target audience of the book seems to be one unfamiliar with Palestinian history and art, and also a potentially hostile one.

Liberation Art begins with an interesting analysis of the organic relationship of Palestinians’ visual production with the physical makeup of the land of Palestine , through a formal linkage in modern art with the art of the Canaanite and Byzantine periods. The book vividly documents the enormous difficulties faced by Palestinian artists. Repeated cycles of production, destruction, and reestablishment are imposed on artists dispersed from Palestine to one diaspora center after another, as they try to salvage their art works and adapt their scale and materials. The book also charts extreme Israeli exactions, ranging from prohibition to paint the colors of the Palestinian flag, confiscation of art works, refusal to license artists’ organizations, arson of exhibit halls, discrimination, surveillance, arrests, torture, resulting in psychological breakdowns, illness, etc.

Halaby’s brief biographies of selected artists recreate the disappeared worlds of pre-1948 art workshops in Jerusalem and Lod or the cultural ebullience of 1970s Beirut . For sources, she chiefly used communications with local and diaspora artists, some of whom have passed away. This technique makes Liberation Art a valuable record of these interviews. More important, however, is the selected artists’ works, for which she provides detailed descriptions, interpreting their motifs and symbols and analyzing their political allegories and historical influences. Whereas Halaby mentions artists who worked before 1948 in Palestine , she rightly dates the start of the political trend in art to the 1953 Ismail Shammout exhibit in Gaza , an exhibition devoted to figurative depictions of the impact of the nakba and the exodus.

Liberation Art records little-known chapters of Palestinian art history, such as the 1960s Jerusalem art scene, as well as the multidisciplinary cultural dynamism in 1970s Beirut that led to major local and international group exhibitions, outreach to refugee camps, sending artists to study aboard; culminating with the formation of the nucleus of the Museum of Solidarity with Palestine in 1978, its 1982 destruction, and attempts to salvage its contents.

In the First Intifada section, the author charts the transfer of the scene of political activism from the diaspora back to Palestine , accompanied in the arts by a similar phenomenon that took the form of increased output by artists, mirroring political concerns. Organizationally, there was a multiplication of local and traveling art exhibitions, the establishment of artists’ leagues and exhibition halls, etc. This chapter also features a valuable sub-section on the little-known development of prisoner pictorial work, the materials used, Israeli retribution, and biographies of some of its practitioners.

Stylistically, the writing is militant and often emotionally engaged. History is narrated with expressions such as: “The Zionist settler entity which is merely the tip of the iceberg of imperialism” (p. 17); “The masses” (p. 3); “Bourgeois power” (p. 18); “Loving attention” (p. 20); “Disgustingly” (p. 26); and “Bravely” (p. 37). The successive intifadas are described as “Uprising of the Palestinian working class” (p. 26).

Liberation Art defines political art as “A practical art and needs to be clear and useful as a poster, leaflet, or banner” (p. 45). Further, the point is made axiomatically that “good” art is “political” art. As a result, there is a focus on artists whose works are thematically overtly political, sometimes regardless of their depth, complexity, and influence in the overall development of Palestinian arts. This approach also is articulated in the narrative, as in: “The quality of art work rose with the uprising and declined with its recession” (p. 32); and: “The art of Palestine rests on the Palestinian struggle for liberation. Without that base, Palestinian artists would be an atomized collection of imitators of fashionable international styles, and many are. The liberation artists of Palestine are aware that they are fortunate to have a cause, and in fulfilling their duty to serve it, their art gains historical significance as a school with particular characteristics” (p. 54). Further: “Those who feel very vulnerable focus on subjects of individual rather than social identity. Palestinian artists who disregard liberation themes create regionalist art twice removed from the internationalist, capitalist currents of the late 20th Century. They imitate the Israeli imitators of art from capitalist centers” (p. 37).

In addition to the political criterion, there is also a focus on the drawn pictorial output, with exceptions for a few photographers and sculptors. As a result of these twin approaches, the integrity of major Palestinian artists implicitly is questioned, and major artists who work with installation and video go unmentioned. Using personal political opinions poses problems not only because of the placing of non-artistic value judgments on artists and their work, but also because it undermines the soundness of the book’s argument: That diverse political artworks form an art movement.

Cubism, futurism, constructivism, the Mexican muralist movement, and indeed all art movements are characterized by a relative unity of time, and often place. Some of them sprung unselfconsciously but evidenced a unity of style, whereas others arose from intellectual manifestos and/or political projects. Because of the occupation, Palestinian artists always have been conscious of their social and political responsibilities, an awareness realized in their artwork and/or through activism. Artistically, this commitment was manifest in a common political thematic, either of a direct expression as showcased in Liberation Art, or through original and illusive approaches. Therefore, the book’s valuable listing of explanations of recurring themes and motifs in Palestinian pictorial art, and its appendix of 62 color plates evidence a shared thematic of preoccupation with politics, resistance, and yearning for a lost Palestine, through the use of clear visual compositions, or through drawing from the semiotic reservoir of Palestinian culture, history, politics, and geography, a characteristic shared with Palestinian militant poetry, and popular culture.

However, like all aspects of Palestinian life, Palestinian art has suffered remarkable dislocation: Many artists did not build on the experiences of their predecessors, and were, and are still, unaware of the work of their contemporaries.

Therefore, recurrent themes and motifs cannot suffice to make an art movement in the combined absence of unity of time and place, and of a founding intellectual paradigm. Iterated themes have been used for centuries across heterogeneous art movements’ styles and schools.

Liberation Art tries to mold select art works by diverse artists, chronologically and geographically dispersed throughout almost a century of Palestinian art practice, into a coherent art movement. However, that only has been evident when there was a unity of time, place, and purpose: the deliberate revolutionary fervor of late 1960s–mid 1970s Damascus and Beirut ’s art scenes. Also, the stylistic and political coherence of 1980s West Bank and Gaza output on canvas and ceramics, celebrating the Palestinian village and its stylistic and visual vernacular, recalls the Indigenismo of the Muralists. The clear intellectual and political impulsion of the West Bank ’s late 1980s artists “New Visions” movement focuses on local media, eschewing imported materials. Thus, three different approaches artistically accompany and celebrate different phases of the Palestinian national movement.

Liberation Art is a strongly personal articulation of its author’s keen sense of social and political responsibility. Born in Jaffa in 1936, Halaby’s family was exiled after the nakba. She taught art in American universities, including Yale. She widely exhibited across the world. Her work includes paintings, set designs, and kinetic paintings from software she designed. She was the driving force behind the organization of the recent major exhibit “Made in Palestine ” in the U.S. She is also active with Palestinian diaspora political organizations. Her website ( features a panorama of her remarkable artwork, as well as her writings.

[1] Adila Laïdi ran for 8 years the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah, where she curated the exhibition “100 Shaheed-100 Lives.” She is now preparing a Ph.D.