‘The painting was not just a means to beautifying one’s life, albeit essential in such a harsh and agonizing environment, but it was an expression of hope, an embodiment of the Palestinian wound, a mirror reflecting the Palestinians yearning for salvation and return.’
(The artist quoted in I. Shammout, Art in Palestine, Kuwait 1989, p. 11).
Ismail Shammout has long been recognised as one of Palestine’s leading modernist painters, whose prominent style employs familiar symbols of Palestinian traditions and culture that have contributed to constructing a visual narrative of Palestinian nationalism continuing to influence today’s generation of Palestinian, as well as Middle Eastern, artists.
A son of a merchant, Shammout was born in 1930 in Lydda, where at aged only eighteen his family were forced out of their home along with 25,000 residents during the assault on their village by the Israeli and Jewish soldiers in 1948. Fleeing to safety, a long and desolate march on foot allowed them to settle in the refugee camps of Khan Younis in Gaza and the experience of dispossession and flight as a young man was to leave a lasting impression on the artist. Following the Nakba of the Palestinian people, his work was renowned for embodying the experience of turmoil, loss, fear and the uncertainty of the future. His paintings sought to capture a moment to portray the unfolding of the people’s story of dispossession and so adopted the practice of utilising symbolic references borrowed from verbal imagery exemplified within his visual representations or through his poetic titles, in turn illustrating the sense of determination to regain the lost homeland.
Fortunate to train with artist Daoud Zalatimo who was important source of inspiration to him, Shammout was inspired by teacher’s work to develop a figurative style through which to communicate the dramatic events he had lived through, implementing the use of allegorical symbolism as a means to capture the unfolding of the Palestinian’s saga whilst simultaneously rallying support for the national struggle. In 1950 Shammout left Gaza for Cairo to pursue his dream of studying art, where he enrolled at The College of Fine Arts and where he was to meet his future wife, the artist Tamam Al Akhal. The turmoil of 1948 halted the work numerous Palestinian organisations and institutions, and with it the early formations of modern art in Palestine, numerous works were lost and destroyed. Hence for Shammout there was no opportunity to pursue education in visual arts at his time. In fact many Palestinian artists, in future decades who wanted to study visual art, were either self-taught or studied in countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Soviet Union, Europe and further afield. Shammout returned to Khan Younis in 1953 where he held his first exhibition, which was attended by tens of people. However, his artistic role was shaped by the political scene of Cairo, surrounded by anti-colonial sentiments lead by the Arab Nationalists, these ideologies proved to be a catalyst for Shammout’s role in the construction of a Palestinian national identity. He later held his second exhibition in Cairo in 1954 which was inaugurated by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, from the success of the exhibition he was able to continue to pursue his studies at The Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, Italy. After joining the PLO in 1965 he became the Director of Arts and National Culture in the organisation, his active work in the community of artists continued as he was elected Secretary General of the Union of Palestinian artists and later union of Arab artists. Notably he published one of the first English language publications on Palestinian art entitled Art in Palestine. He lived in Beirut up until 1983, home to hundreds of Palestinians in diaspora, followed by Kuwait, which he left in 1992 following the Gulf War, finally settling in Amman, Jordan in 1994.
His life was thus marked by continuous exodus, of Palestinian communities, as result of wars in his departure from Palestine, Beirut, and Kuwait respectively.
Shammout’s hallmark was in his visual articulation of the experience of the Nakba, the representation of history of Palestinian struggle and the dream of the future; these were cornerstone themes of his paintings which he worked upon throughout his career placing his work to some extent in the realm of history painting of the Palestinian experience.
Painting figurative images in homage to the continuous struggle of his people, his works were deeply popular. Large works were reproduced and circulated on posters, book covers, calendars and so forth, in the same manner that was afforded to his artistic counterparts at the time, in an effort to spread the nationalist sentiment that was prevalent in his oeuvre. Given the Israeli imposed sanctions on the freedom of movement and expression, this mass production of paintings served to unite a people in spirit. Often emotionally charged, Shammout was able to capture the sorrow, anguish and hopes of the of Palestinians through a repertoire of iconic and animated figures such as the elderly father figure, young vulnerable children, youthful Palestinian women in traditional village costumes, village life and Fedayeen who carried the dream of the people for freedom and return. With the rise of the Palestinian national resistance movement he moved beyond the more solemn visual representations of the plight of the Palestinian people by depicting optimistic images of heroic fighters, dancing women in national dress and Arcadian representations of the liberated homeland and thus his works became more political in nature.
Throughout his career he continued to evolve and develop these themes, revisiting and elaborating upon them through which he developed a distinct visual style and vocabulary of symbols to narrate the experiences of the Palestinians. This vocabulary became shared by other painters and writers, and was part of the articulation of Palestinian national and cultural identity in a time in which Palestinians struggled for recognition of their rights and national aspirations. His work alongside that of others was pivotal articulating the history and identity of the people.
Christie’s is honoured to be offering, directly from the artist’s Estate, perhaps the most important and seminal work of his artistic career, Odyssey of a People from 1980. An impressive 6 metres long it is an expression of the artist and native country’s dramatic experience. The result of a relentless dedicated effort of over four months of daily work, this spectacular canvas, driven by emotion and passion is strikingly articulated. His wife, Tamam Al-Akhal who was instrumental in the development of Shammout’s career, recalls his sense of restlessness and urgency of his need to encapsulate in a single painting the history and experience of the Palestinian people. The painting can be seen as an important forerunner to The Exodus and Odyssey series, while at the same encapsulating recurrent themes and visual representations of figurative images in homage to the continuous struggle of his people present in smaller previous work such as Newly Weds at the Border (1962), Until Dawn (1963), My Children (1968) and We Shall Return (1954).
Never before has anything of this depth, quality of artistic mastery and clear depiction of the artist’s own dreams, hopes and burdens with such emotional intensity been offered before at auction and is a homage to the legacy that Ismail Shammout has imparted not only onto the Palestinian artistic visual lexicon, but to the development of Arab Art as we have come to know it. Sharing with the world both his own sorrow and that of the Palestinian people, Odyssey of a People manages to simultaneously captivate, shock and emotionally grasp those who view it.
Completed in 1980, this phenomenal painting was first exhibited in 1981 in Dar Al-Karama in Beirut, later travelling to Damascus at the Union of Arab Artists, Malaysia, Kuwait and the Jordan National Museum. The painting later travelled to Palestine for exhibition at the request of Sakher Habash, at Dar al Karama Gallery in Ramallah, where it was exhibited in 1996. Fear for the safety of the painting during the siege on Presidential compound and Palestinian political leadership in 2002 led Habash to quickly remove the work from the gallery, hiding it in his home, where his wife folded it and kept it in a pillowcase for fear of it being appropriated by Israel authorities. It remained hidden there for several years until the family were finally able to find a safe passage for the work to be returned to Amman to the artist’s home. In an effort to continue to promote the artist’s hopes and dreams for his native land as he originally intended for his painting to, Christie’s thus hopes to shed light on the artist’s remarkable skill and importance in the placement of Palestinian art history.
Reading, as in the Arabic language, from right to left, in several almost separate sections, this monumental painting tells of the historical events that have unfolded within Palestinian history, from the Nakba, the subsequent wars of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the establishment of the PLO, the continued sense of despair amongst the Palestinian people that is juxtaposed against a sense of hope and unity under the symbol of the Palestinian flag and Fedayeen, all the way to a dreamlike expression of liberation, hope and faith of a peace and freedom. It was Shammout’s intention to map out the odyssey of his own people, a dream of returning home that was sadly never to be realised.
In the furthest right hand corner the aggressor is depicted as a gigantic barbarian with flaring hair; vicious and inhuman he appears as a mammoth war machine, with canons, machine guns and oil pipes – a reference to the European, American and British assault on oil and consequent establishment of the Israeli state. Painted in dark and foreboding colours, his jarring presence is offset by the blazing red and angry sun in the background, burning against the gloomy blues of the ominous sky exemplifying this state of attack. Meanwhile the unarmed and defenceless Palestinians consisting of men and women and children of villages protect themselves with outstretched arms, pushing back as much as they can. Amongst the masses, the face of Abd Al-Qadir Al-Husayni, one of the most prominent leaders of the Palestinian rebellion in the 1930’s stands out as does the figure prominent in We Shall Return, paying homage to the road to exile, the armed struggle that Shammout experienced first-hand.
Moving across the composition, a monumental mother figure appears, embracing and protecting children in her arms as she looks out towards the viewer in despair. Especially during the 1980s, Palestine was often represented as the motherland, a motherly figure in literature and art. Embodying the homeland, she held the attributes of the protector and nurturer of the people. This was a recurring motif in Shammout’s paintings; he often portrayed a mother protecting and caring for children or standing within the Palestinian landscape. In fact, following the establishment of the PLO and his association with the group, Shammout’s works took on a decidedly more female oriented role. Gone were the figures of the helpless refugees, instead young men and women, particularly a female protagonist traditionally dressed, filled his mise-en-scène.
In Odyssey of a People the exodus from Palestine and the loss of the land is symbolised through children who are cloaked only in the Palestinian flag to protect their modesty. Vulnerable and scared of the unknown, they cling onto the only element of hope that remains of solace to them; the promise of a renewed Palestine. To their left, the background is a filled landscape of tents, in reference to the thousands of refugees who were forced to flee their homes. Behind them, a figure who has dared to speak out peers out behind the bars of a jail cell, watching on as the tumultuous scene unfolds. The people huddle in fear, clutching each other as blood red sky looms above and people wonder into the unknown. Although the image conveys a tragic mood Shammout did not intend for his masterpiece to be entirely full of gloom. Simultaneously he inserts symbolic references that imply inner strength and determination; in the centre one sees a cactus tree, a symbol of the Palestinian people’s resoluteness and endurance despite oppression, killing and imprisonment. The young Palestinians’ insatiable appetite for learning and education despite their plight is represented by the determined children studying by gaslight.
As if to evoke a sense of hope for the new generation, Shammout counters this positivity with a reminder of reality through different forms of aggression and oppression imposed on the people; families are forced to be separated from each other and are foreshadowed by group of threatening soldiers cloaked in black and blue overtones that approach the scene. These motifs were repeatedly used in a number of Shammout’s oeuvre, especially in his later seminal masterpiece of 19 murals entitled The Exodus and the Odyssey, which along with his wife Tamam Al-Akhal (Ismail produced 11 and Tamam 8), took four years to complete.
Juxtaposed against a group of blindfolded political prisoners dressed in white – the colour of innocence – Shammout breaks this palpable tension with the face of a Feda’i (Palestinian Freedom fighter). Occupying a central position in the painting, he represents a shift in mood of the painting. His face, as large as the aggressor illustrated on the far right, is wrapped in the famous black and white Keffiyeh, that emanates a light as if a beacon of hope, a symbol of the cause. His tanned face and red eyes represent the countless days and nights he had spent in vigilant and selfless sacrifice to protect and bring dignity and freedom back to his people. Directly below the Feda’i, an eerie prediction of what was to become the First Intifada, that erupted in 1987 (7 years after the work’s completion).
It is not the first, nor indeed the last time that Shammout would venerate the Fedayeen in his compositions. Many of his political posters, designed during his station with the PLO would implement this icon as a symbol of hope and resistance. Much like his artist counterparts who propagated this iconography, this political symbolism was intended to promote and champion a nationalist sentiment amongst the diaspora. In Odyssey of a People, this hero is looking away from his aggressor towards a brighter future on the far left. It is thus at this point that the composition shifts into a positive and celebratory sense of romanticism.
A row of Fedayeen march forward in proud unison towards a brighter future; a reference to the formation of the PLO. At this point, Shammout’s colour palette morphs from a distinctive gradient of dark blues and fiery reds into powerful browns and greens then pastel pinks and greens. It is as though spring is in the air, flowers are in bloom and white doves fill the skies while children and women dance in merriment, in the same jovial spirit Shammout would later instil in Al Farah (sold at Christie’s Dubai, October 2015, price realised; US$185,000). In the midst of this jubilation, the artist inserts an image of his own father Abdul Qader Shammout who, turned out towards the viewer appears to be telling the story himself of the Palestinian people and their aspirations.
The last and final section of the painting is one of aspirational hope. Shammout’s lines become less pronounced, in a hazy cloud of light pinks and greens this dreamy scene of a field of beautiful flowers insinuates the hope for a better future, one that is to be filled and captured onto the canvas in due time. It speaks of the artist and fellow Palestinian’s hope to return to their homeland, which in the 1980s remained promising.
Such history painting is of particular importance - for it provides perspective of untold histories and experiences - it enables voices, memories and aspirations to take form. Shammout transforms his painful reality into a potent symbolic representation of the struggle which is particularly significant for Palestinians whose people who scattered across the world and continue to live under occupation in Palestine. Many experiences of refugees throughout history have been lost, often passed down by individuals or oral traditions, hence the importance of such monumental painting as a testimony to the Palestinian experience, conveying direct and unequivocal message that were easily deciphered by their designated audiences. It is important to consider that under occupation and in exile Palestinians have not had the public spaces and locations to have a painting of this scale and size in the public domain.
Nations with enduring stability have luxury to be able to display and represent their historical experience of the people through public works and monuments of this nature, which has been absent for the Palestinians, adding further significance to the resonance of Odyssey of a People, which with details exquisitely rendered captures an epoch of the Palestinian experience and the dream of the future.
(In collaboration with Tina Sherwell)