Society Magazine: Interview with SARI KHOURY, ARTIST
Q: What is
your family background?
A: I was born
in 1941 in Jerusalem
to Ibrahim and Adla Khuri. At the time, my father was a prominent
educator, and headmaster of the Al-Nahda college. When the 1948
war broke out in Palestine
my family immigrated to Birzeit to live in the house we inherited from my
grandfather Shihadeh. Like all the other refugees, my family had left
everything behind. I was only seven then. My fondest childhood memories
were of our Birzeit house were we used to play around Sidi Shihadeh’s
grave. In Birzeit also my late brother Basil, and I were initiated into
country living. He and I used to roam around the best vineyards of all of
and eat all the wonderful and juiciest grapes of the whole world. After
a short stay in Birzeit we moved to Ramallah were my father became a teacher
at Abu Rayya’s school Al Kuliah Al Wataniah were I also received my
Elementary and Secondary education.
Q: How did
you become interested in art?
A: I became
interested in art at a young age. Talent was never short in the Khuri
family. Everyone drew or painted to one degree or another. To
ease the tragedy of our exile my sisters sang and drew, my brother and I
created our own sculpture and toys out of simple wire and scrap wood.
My mother was a dress designer, and my father always taught us not to be
ashamed to use our hands-- to make, to construct, to fix, and also how to
till a garden. That was the Birzeit spirit in him! I started
drawing at age eight or nine and haven’t stopped since. In grade 7 I
was drawing caricatures of my teachers on the blackboard. My teachers
pretended to be mad, but inside, they were impressed by my work.
Everything I learned about art at a young age was self-taught since the
school’s only art experience was restricted to practicing Arabic handwriting,
and drawing geometric shapes.
At age 12 I
became interested in serialized comic strips and started creating my
own. To do this I had to learn to draw the human figure and to practice
facial expressions. As I grew older I became more preoccupied with
serious themes, and I became more introspective searching for the meaning of
life and human suffering associated with the Palestinian tragedy. So I
directed my energies in creating social themes. Using oils and
watercolors I painted people in suffering, old people, poor children, refugee
camps, and political prisoners. Some of these pieces I showed at the
Sahhar Bookstore in Jerusalem ,
and at the Jerusalem Orthodox Club.
It was at
that time that I established my contact with the artist Kamal Boullata.
He and I used to walk the narrow streets of Jerusalem and talk about all the great
artists and their accomplishments. We provided great encouragement to
Q: When did
you arrive to the U.S. ?
A: At age 18 I
began exploring possibilities of attending a university abroad. I
dreamed of going to Europe, Cairo , or the United States .
At that time, my father became disillusioned with the lack of opportunity for
himself and his family and sought immigration procedures to the U.S. where my
sister Mary was already residing with her husband David Salah. She
sponsored our immigration. They arrived in ‘58 and I came a year
later. Arriving penniless to this country, I was fortunate to secure a
full scholarship from a fine university, Ohio Wesleyan
University . The
money for my scholarship was donated by another anonymous Palestinian.
What a miracle that was. At that point I was determined to study art.
A: I received
my Bachelor degree in art from Ohio
in 1963. The subjects of my concentration were in Painting and
Sculpture. I then went to study at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan were I
received my Master degree in art. Cranbrook
is the most prestigious art schools in the United States , and provided me
with specialization in my own expressive style.
does it mean to be an artist?
A: Upon my
graduation I was concerned about my future. My professors tried to
encourage me to work as an artist in New
York , and find a successful career. But I
knew I would find difficulty achieving my goals there. I chose to
follow a teaching career in a university. First I taught art at Berea College
in Kentucky , then I moved back to Michigan were I married my wife Suheila Ghannam and
took a teaching position at Central
Michigan University .
I have been in that position for twenty four years. Now I am the
chairman of the Art
Department . Mt. Pleasant
became my new Birzeit, were I raised three boys. The youngest is now
My work as a
teacher of art and as a practicing artist go hand in hand. I teach to
communicate my ideas and principles, and I paint to communicate my
feelings. Teaching and practicing art can be very time-consuming, but I
try to exhibit my work in as many professional exhibitions as I
can. I have exhibited in all the major cities in the U.S. and at
museums such as the Detroit Institute of Art. Art is my life and I will
continue to work till the end.
Palestinian artist working in the U.S. I have to reconcile the
dilemma of serving my people and meeting the artistic demands of my
profession. Americans here will not understand art that has political
content and I try to stay away from it. If I had stayed in the West Bank , I would definitely be working
differently. My culture, however, is a strong part of my work. I
have a definite connection to the art of the Orthodox icon, and in other
respects to the art of Arabic calligraphy. No matter how abstract my
work gets, those two influences remain in my work. There is mysticism
and spirituality in the art of the icon, and there is grace and fluency in
Arabic writing. They both appeal to me.
Q: What is
your relationship to other Palestinian Artists?
A: I try to
maintain contact with other Palestinian artists in the U.S. and
abroad. I have exhibited with Suleiman Mansour, Kamal Boullata,
Vladimir Tamari, and Samia Halaby. I also showed with a group of
artists at the Alif Gallery in Washington .
I was one of several Palestinian artists who showed their work in a show
called “It is Possible” with Israeli artists who seek peace and who support
statehood for the Palestinians. The exhibition traveled to many cities
in Europe and the United
States , and met with tremendous
success. Three years ago I hosted a group of ten Palestinian artists
led by Suleiman Mansour. They were received warmly as they presented their
work to the university students and faculty. It was a successful event.
Q: How does
it feel living away from the homeland?
A: Like all of
us who are professionals, whether doctors, engineers or artists, I feel the
pain of exile. The pains of the events of the Intifada and earlier the
war in Lebanon
are doubly felt by being away. You want to do something to help your
people, and you feel frustrated by the distance. As an artist I try to
communicate that anguish in my work. People seeing my work can see the
turbulence of my emotions. It is hard to paint pretty things when you
feel grief or anger.
Q: What are
your ambitions at the moment?