Friday, 7 December 2012


"I want people to know me first as an artist and then as a Palestinian"
Tayseer Barakat. 

This statement is one of sixteen projected onto the wall of the gallery at RICH MIX London, each representing one of the sixteen Palestinian artists included in this diverse and very well presented show.

I am actually a little surprised that this show curated by Aser Al Saqqa and Nicola Gray has not received more attention. Among the artists exhibited are several internationally renowned and prize-winning veterans of the Palestinian arts scene alongside younger artists. Collectively representing Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Diaspora this show is perhaps the closest semblance of a unified Palestinian state that is currently available. Otherwise it is probably best represented by Mohammed Musallam's Torn Map.

Mohammed Musallam  

It is particularly interesting that there are so many artists from Gaza - eleven in total with nine of these still based in Gaza itself. It is something to be celebrated that artists continue to live and work in Gaza despite the pincer movement of both internal and external pressure. Any sense of this humanising normality is now largely absent from public consciousness particularly when the recurring psychotic episodes of this 'war' are accompanied by an often word for word regurgitation of infantile media simplicities and lots of pics of blood and emotion.

Walking around a room in which that same reality is presented from within and in such a completely different way, is like taking a day trip to a parallel universe that is more intelligent, more reflective and always constructive. Getting involved in the movement and colour of Dina Mattar's bright, strong abstractions of nature, for example, is a very uplifting experience.

Dina Mattar 

Mohamed Abusal's succulent Sabr is another reminder that there is nature, beauty, texture and colour that exists in perpetuity and it is this aspect of his cactus that asserts primacy with its underlying symbolism in relation to Palestine a gently understated given.

Mohamed Abusal

The strength of the work from these two artists introduces nature as one of the thematic strands running through this show. Another is text but this too is used in very different ways. Majed Shala uses Arabic text, cut up and arranged in vertical forms on canvases layered with texture and vibrant colour.

Majed Shala 

These distinctive compositions suggest classical Arabic calligraphy while  undermining the form at the same time. Nabil Anani has taken the beauty of illuminated Quranic manuscripts to produce a mixed media work that sublimely presents this ancient art in a contemporary way.

Nabil Anani (Detail)

Mohammed Al Hawajiri's three works on paper in ink and acrylic also use text in a very contemporary and free flowing style, arranged either within or as accompaniment to other Palestinian symbols and motifs. Rana Bishara's urgently brush-stroked watercolours hint at text although the movement and the medium are the message. Rima Mozayan interprets traditional motifs and pattern in two small works that communicate a subtle atmosphere of delight.

Rima Mozayan

Another theme that comes through in this show is space or rather the lack of it, a reality acute in the Palestinian experience. However, Tayseer Barakat's The Camp, although essentially depicting the architectural density and claustrophobia of a refugee camp has a quiet earthy beauty as do Shareef Sarhan's series of four small also earthy toned abstractions called Washing Line.

Raed Issa's chunky and colourful sunlit houses covered in satellite dishes reflect not just a local but an increasingly recognisable experience of condensed city life.

Raed Issa

There is a definite absence of people in this show and that is perhaps defined best by Jawad Al Malhi's 2000 work, The Presence of Absence. This barely-there figure is nicely accompanied by Hosni Radwan's barely-there face.

Jawad Al Malhi and Hosni Radwan 

The Fisherman's Daughter by Nidal Abu Oun does feature a figure but in the context of a surreal and remarkable image which received a lot of attention from the audience. There was something about it that actually brought the early work of Bahraini surrealist Abdullah Al Muharraqi to mind.

Nidal Abu Oun

The only two artists whose work does feature human figures are Hani Zurob whose two powerful paintings are another highlight of the show and Mohammed Joha. Hani Zurob was supposed to be attending the Private View of DESPITE on December 6th. However, the UK is not a signatory to the Schengen agreement so despite the fact that he now lives in France and very obviously had a reason to visit the UK he was not granted a visa. This is a shame because not only is this the first time his work has been shown in London but Between Exits, a book about his work with text by Kamal Boullata was published in London in November! 

"What I try to do when I paint is to rewrite my life; I try to place myself as a witness of the situations and the events I experience. That’s why there are no boundaries between political matters and private stories in my work". 
Hani Zurob

Last but definitely not least is Mohammed Joha. One of his pieces Four Faces has been used in the publicity for this show and it was a treat to discover that there were three more. The two I particularly liked use a mixture of paint and collage so carefully that the only way I could tell what was collage and what was paint was to have a sneaky touch when no one was looking. Who I am is a bold and dramatic Palestinian film noire contained within a a single frame. I loved it. 

Mohammed Joha

Equally impressive but for different reasons is What's behind the wall. In both of these works the medium and the story are perfectly interwoven and there are suggestions of all sorts of other cinematic and artistic preoccupations. I also loved the rusty blue car.... 

Mohammed Joha (Detail)

until December 28th


  1. I share your enthusiasm for this show. The bright colours of a warm climate sparkled in the gallery, which was a tonic on a damp December London evening. And as soon as I saw these energetic paintings I understood the rather cryptic title of the exhibition: 'Despite' the day to day indignities and injustices in Palestinian life, vitality and hope can survive, clearly.

  2. So nice to see a different way of writing about Palestinian artists. Hopefully prompted by a slightly different kind of perspective in the curatorial work itself! Mostly thanks to Aser... that was his emphasis. And thanks for highlighting the fact that artists like Nabil & Tayseer are in there. They are getting forgotten in a lot of the “contemporary” and “youth” buzz...

  3. Excellent review, and included photos of works I don't recall seeing, so thanks for that.