From the period of 1947 to 1949, more than 700,000 people were forcibly displaced and over 500 Palestinian towns and villages were destroyed.
May 15 marks Nakba Day, which commemorates this period in history. Inaugurated in 1988, it falls just after the anniversary of the declaration of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948.The devastation around these events and the conditions in the consequent decades are often reflected in the works of many Palestinian artists. Much of the art produced during the modern period was characterised by depictions of tragedy, loss, natural landscapes and the heroism of Palestinian subjects.
“Modern Palestinian art focused on either representing the idyllic pre-1948 period, the gorgeous sunlit fields of Palestine and the beautiful arcadia that was lost,” Adila Laidi-Hanieh, director of the Palestinian Museum, explains.
Last year, the Palestinian Museum presented Intimate Terrains: Representations of a Disappearing Landscape, which traced nine decades of Palestinian art across different periods and genres.
Scroll through the gallery to see modern and contemporary Palestinian art that address the issues of occupation, resistance and loss.
One of the works shown was Sliman Mansour’s Yaffa, from 1979, a portrait of a young woman with a basket of harvested Jaffa oranges. It exemplifies much of Palestinian modern art as Laidi-Hanieh describes it, from the peasant woman as a key subject to the natural environment as a backdrop.
The use of the fruit as a national and political symbol is also significant, and it emerged after Israel began marketing Jaffa oranges as an Israeli product. Its use in visual art is a way to reject this narrative and reclaim Palestinian ties to the land.For the contemporary period, we had an abandonment of romanticism, whether it is the joyful or the tragic
The artist Ismail Shammout also employs this visual element in his Madonna of the Oranges, which is part of the Barjeel Art Foundation’s collection. The female figure echoes Madonna paintings from the Renaissance as she stands against a lush verdant setting. Shammout and his wife, Tamam El Akhal, have not only explored the Nakba extensively, but also depict the struggle for an independent and peaceful Palestinian state.
Another work by Mansour, titled Jamal Al Mahamel (Camel of Hardship), from 1973, depicts an elderly porter carrying the load of Jerusalem on his back. The image has become ubiquitous in Palestinian homes, schools and offices. The painting was once owned by Muammar Qaddafi, who kept it in his compound in Tripoli until it was ruined by American air raids in 1986.
Over the years, contemporary Palestinian artists, including those who have lived most of their lives outside of the state, have addressed displacement, the conditions of those who live in the diaspora and the occupation.
Laidi-Hanieh notes a shift in the way themes are approached and subjects are chosen. “For the contemporary period, we had an abandonment of romanticism, whether it is the joyful or the tragic. Now we have a focus on what I call ‘the grim positivity of the occupation’. There is no depiction of the heroic freedom fighter, the strong peasant woman, the beautiful Palestine… This means that now, when Palestinian artists represent political subjects, it is not a direct manner like modern artists. It is an indirect manner filtered through their personal and subjective experience”.