CHICAGO – It has been 44 years since March 30 of 1976, when the Israeli Defense Forces and police killed six Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. About a hundred others were injured, with hundreds more being arrested. They were all participating in a general strike and march to protest Israel’s expropriation of thousands of dunams of land from the Galilee. Known as Land Day, the 30th of March commemorates the historic demonstration and Palestinians’ herculean struggle to take back the land which Zionist forces stole from them.

Over the past seven decades since the Nakba of 1948, when Israel forcibly displaced more than 700,000 indigenous Palestinians from their land,

Palestinian resistance has found varied expression in art: through political posters, paintings, and other media. Since the 1990’s, several contemporary Palestinian artists have turned from conventional artmaking practices towards the land as a source of material, not just subject matter. Though not belonging to a coherent art movement, these artists use the materials of occupied land in order to reclaim agency over it and to resist the settler-colonialist structures which continue to exploit it. Ranging from the very mud of the ground to the olives it produces and the limestone that is dug from its belly, these materials both embody Palestinian culture are charged with violent histories of conflict, evoking the material realities of life under occupation.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this aesthetic strategy is the work of Sliman Mansour, whose acrylic paintings on wood are caked in mud. During the first Intifadah of 1987 to 1993, Palestinian artists belonging to the New Visions collective, including Mansour, Tayseer Barakat, Vera Tamari and Nabil Anani, began boycotting Israeli art supplies and turned towards natural materials like mud, wood, natural dyes, and leather to make their work. Through their use of earthly materials, they embodied the concept of Sumud: steadfastness in the face of Israeli oppression. 

Mansour, Sliman. Absent Presence. 2018. Mud and acrylic on wood. 145 × 110 cm and Absent Presence II. 2019. Mud and acrylic on wood. 145 × 110 cm. Zawyeh Gallery. Ramallah, Dubai.

In several of Mansour’s portrait works, such as Absent Presence and Absent Presence II, the composition is split into a region rendered in acrylic paint and another which is completely covered in mud. The Palestinian peasant woman in the former is a typical symbol of steadfastness in contemporary Palestinian painting; standing tall, she protectively embraces two children, one of whom is completely submerged in the mud. The artist’s use of mud further embodies this sumud and constitutes an aesthetic and material reclamation of land that has been occupied and stolen. 

While in acrylic the figures are more defined and detailed, with an -admittedly muted- color scheme, the monochrome mud only reveals the contours of their silhouettes. It gives the overall impression of the cracked earth encroaching upon and swallowing the figures -effectively burying them. Though morbid in this aspect, the pieces reify the poignant relationship between Palestinians, traditionally an agricultural society, and their land as a source of all life and livelihood. The engulfment can be seen less as burial and more as an act of sowing, tacit in which is the idea that, like seeds, Palestinian liberation is dormant in the dessicated, colonized land, and can one day bloom again. 

These works in particular call to mind a line of poetry by Mahmoud Darwish: “In her absence I created her image: out of the earthly the hidden heavenly commences.” 

Bishara, Rana. Olivetus. Year unknown. Olives and nails. Dimensions variable image via thisweekinpalestine.com

Besides using the literal earth, some artists have utilized its products. The iconography of the olive tree figures majorly in the visual history of Palestinian resistance, as The Palestine Poster Project Archives can attest. However, numerous contemporary artists have harnessed the aesthetic capacities of the olive beyond representation. Installation artist Rana Bishara’s Olivetus, for instance, features an olive painfully punctured by needles: a gruesome metaphor for the Israeli regime’s systemic violence against Palestinian land and culture.

Rabah, Khalil. Grafting.1995. Olive trees, embroidery threads. The Palestinian Museum of Natural History And Humankind.

Khalil Rabah, on the other hand, works on a larger scale than individual olives. For the 1995 exhibition Dialogues of Peace, hosted by the UN, the artist replanted olive trees which had been uprooted from his hometown of Ramallah into the Ariana Park in Geneva, Switzerland. Patches of different colored soil at the base of the trees betray the fact of their exile, while the multicolored thread obsessively winding around their boughs functions to pay homage to traditional fellahi embroidery, signal the trees as alien from their surroundings, and by resembling bandages wrapping around a wound, speak to the painful experience of displacement. The double meaning of the title, both a shoot inserted into a larger plant as well as a surgical transplant, anthropomorphises and hybridizes the trees, rendering their painful migration as a human experience.   

Years later, the piece was reincarnated in Member, Dismember, Remember, at Darat Al Funun in Amman. The 2018 exhibition was organized by the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind, an ongoing and itenerant artistic and curatorial project founded by Rabah in 2003. Straddling fiction and reality, it seeks to upset the institutional authority and legitimacy of museums and their capacity to generate meaning. Among its projects was raising a legal case for the naturalization of the aforementioned trees in Geneva twelve years following their 1995 installation, since that is the amount of time which is a prerequisite to acquiring citizenship. 

Rabah, Khalil. Incubation. 1995. Barbed wire, tin bowl, olive oil, embroidery threads. Dimensions variable, 1st image courtesy of the artist’s instagram account, 2nd from Sharjah Biannale exhibition Palestine after Palestine.

That same year of 1995, Rabah debuted Incubation at the French Cultural Centre of East Jerusalem. Rather than olive trees, however, the artist employs olive oil, a medium with similar socio-cultural resonance to the plant from which derives, but with vastly different material qualities. The title of the piece likely refers to the way thirty six spools of embroidery thread are incubated in a tin bowl of the golden elixir. Emblematic of native textile practices, the reels sit unwound, their potential untapped, like fossils of cultural heritage encased in ember. Outside the tin bowl, dozens of much larger and more menacing spools of gold-painted barbed wire are arranged in rows reminiscent of the thread reels. The installation sets up a striking dichotomy between the thread and the wire: small against large; organic against synthetic; colorful against monochromatic; comforting against violent; and, ultimately, oppressed against oppressor. Although not of the land, the occupation has undeniably integrated barbed wire into the Palestinian landscape, in the form the excessive barriers and checkpoints which hinder movement.

Rabah, Khalil. Untitled. 1995. Cube container of glass, olive oil, branches, wicks, Issa Freiji, from book “Palestinian Art” by Gannit Ankori courtesy of Rabah, 2006.

Also in 1995, Rabah exhibited an untitled work at South Korea’s Gwangju Biennale which combines olive oil with olive branches, in which the latter are immersed in cubic vats of the former, on whose surface a few gleaming candles float. Similar to Incubation, Untitled provokes numerous tensions. The strict geometry and apolitical minimalism of the cubes conflicts with the precarious fluidity and loaded symbolism of the olive oil. The branches jutting out from the surface of the oil further destabilize the formal purity of the cubes, while the floating candles electrify the suspense latent in them while illuminating the work with memorial and even mystical connotations. 

Soumi, Nasser. Nablous, Jabal El Nar. 1996-97. Nabulsi soap, olive oil, wood. 380 x 380 cm, courtesy of the artist.

Only a year later, Nasser Soumi deployed the same square motif as well as the materials of olive oil and candle wicks in his interactive, sculptural installation: Nablous, Jabal El Nar. The title pays tribute to the eponymous city, nicknamed Jabal El Nar, or Mountain of Fire, for its history of political activism and nationalistic activity. In it, viewers are invited to scale a wooden platform in order to peer into a square, well-like structure which holds various candles filled with olive oil. However, rather than wax, the candles themselves are made of Nabulsi soap, an olive oil-based soap renowned in the Arab World. 

In recent decades, the centuries-old production of Nabulsi soap in the West Bank has continued even in the face of Israeli military occupation as well as natural disasters. Since the late 19th Century, the 40 soap factories in the Old City of Nablus have been reduced to a mere two, and physical and economic obstacles imposed by the Israeli regime, such as checkpoints and steep transportation costs, constantly work to deter the industry. Despite this, Nabulsi soap continues to be popular in Nablus and the West Bank, as well as abroad in countries like Jordan and Kuwait. The soap is hence not only a staple of Palestinian cultural heritage, but as pioneering artist Mona Hatoum describes, “a symbol of Palestinian resistance”.

Hatoum, Mona. Nablus Soap. 1996. Nabulsi soap, nails. 7.5 x 8.5 x 3 cm.

In 1996, Hatoum was invited to be exhibited at the Anadiel Gallery in East Jerusalem. While walking through the local market, she chanced upon the Nabulsi soap which she had grown up with. Two works resulted from the encounter. In what may be a precursor to Bishara’s Olivetus, Hatoum’s Nablus Soap offers viewers several bars of the detergent that are riddled with nails, rendering them completely unusable and imbuing them with a sinister and aggressive air. In her essay, “The States of Being in Mona Hatoum’s Artwork,” written for a showing of the artist’s work at Darat Al Funun in 2008, Salwa Mikdadi writes: “Hatoum manipulates the intrinsic qualities of materials, often appropriated from the local culture, to subvert an object’s familiar function within the space and site of the exhibition”. While weaponizing Nabulsi soap seems to introduce an element of danger to the Palestinian household, already jeopordized by Israeli expansionism, it can also be seen to deny Zionist settlers access to Palestinian domesticity and land, represented by the soap. 

Hatoum, Mona. Present Tense. 1996. Nabulsi soap, glass beads. 4.5 x 241 x 299 cm. Tate. London.

In the artist’s floor installation, Present Tense, 2,400 bars of the soap are laid out in a grid whose geometrical structure is interrupted by organic forms demarcated by little, red glass beads. Like inflamed wounds, they outline the disjointed territories promised to Palestinians by the 1993 Oslo Accords: piecemeal pockets of land punctuated by policed checkpoints. Implied by the solubility of the soap is the hope that these coercive, “ridiculous borders” may one day wash away. Akin to Rabah’s Untitled work, Present Tense destabilizes its own minimalist language in two ways: by using the meandering shapes of the map to contrast the rigid, rational grid of soap bars; and by choosing a material which is infused with socio-political significance to disrupt the aesthetic purity of the grid. Concerningly, the cartographic tensions and unfulfilled agreements inherent in Present Tense are reaggravated in light of Trump’s 2020 “Deal of the Century” -less a deal and more a one-sided plan encouraging the Israeli occupation.

Manna, Jumana. Menace of Origins. 2014. Limestone, wood, mortar. Dimensions variable Courtesy of the artist’s website.

Though less common both as an icon and a medium than the olive, limestone is another historically significant material of contemporary Palestinian art. Having been used as a building material since ancient times, the stone covers the facades of many buildings in cities like Jerusalem -a result of early British colonialism. More urgently, the tens of thousands of homes razes by the IDF since the Nakba were made of limestone, as are the Zionist settlements which are built in their place. These cycles of demolition, displacement, and reconstruction are perpetuated by Israel’s colonization of the natural material which constitutes the urban fabric of the land it is occupying. Filmaker Jumana Manna’s Menace of Origins constructs a series of limestone stoops and ruins that often act as sites of congregation for Palestinian youths. Her installation weighs the ingenuine threat and scapegoat of Palestinian thug culture against the far more structurally violent archeological practices of Israeli colonialism.  

With every passing Land Day, Palestinian artists living under occupation and in diaspora continue to innovate new modes of aesthetic and cultural resistance. Looking beyond the figurative and the abstract, these artists work to create a poetry of materials –a dirge for martyrs, a love poem for the motherland, and a protest chant against the occupation.

Read more from Jad Dahshan.
Image courtesy indicated in captions.


Jad Dahshan
Jad Dahshan

I am an art history student from Amman studying at the University of Chicago, with a special interest in materiality, theory, and contemporary art, especially of the Arab World. I write for the Chicago Maroon and UChicago Arts Blog and perform as an aerialist with the Le Vorris & Vox Circus. Occasionally I illustrate at @sad_with_a_j on Instagram.

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