'When I heard that there is a possibility to find a solution for the Palestinian cause, when I saw the conference that took place in Washington, at the White House and I saw the world gathering and the hands shaking, I felt the first happiness carrying the Palestinian flag.'
(The artist quoted, translated from Arabic, www.ismail-shammout.com)
'Palestinian artists may live in different places today, but they all meet through their art as individual voices in a chorus, which resounds with the different modes growing out of the Palestinian experienceTogether their work gives body to an art of resistance that never ceases to inspire hope.'
(K. Boullata, Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present, London 2009, p. 36).
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.
Shaped by his own tragic history which includes tales of a forced exodus of both himself and his family from Lydda in 1948 and relocation to the Gaza refugee camp of Khan Younis, Shammout eventually moved to neighbouring Egypt and then Rome to study art. Upon his return to Gaza three years later, he established himself as a distinguished painter and activist. Eventually settling in Beirut with his wife, the artist Tamam Al Akhal, Shammout joined the Palestine Liberation Organization as the Director of Arts and National Culture in 1965, while also holding the positions of Secretary General of the Union of Palestinian Artists and Secretary General of the Union of Arab Artists. Additionally, he established Art in Palestine, one of the first English-language publications on Palestinian art. After the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1981, Shammout then relocated to Kuwait, where he was once again forced to leave in the wake of the Gulf War. He finally settled in Amman until his untimely death.
His forced nomadic lifestyle was reflected in his works where he would express the entirety of his emotions - he only returned once to his hometown having discovered the geopolitical changes in place, a revelation which changed him forever. As a result, his paintings, particularly of the 1960s up until the 1980s incorporated heart wrenching portrayals of Palestinian women, refugees and children amidst scenes of conflict. Heavily influenced by the Social Realist paintings of the Mexican Muralists such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, these paintings integrated local folklore and history becoming vital to Palestinian visual culture, conveying a tragic mood, while simultaneousy implying inner strength and determination.
With this in mind, along with fellow artists at the time Suleiman Mansour and Ibrahim Ghannam, restricted by the inability to portray any sense of rebellion, three dominant themes emerged in mainstream Palestinian art; the road to exile, the armed struggle and lastly the nostalgic images of the lost homeland that played a significant role in the construction of a Palestinian national identity.
This auction season, Christie's is honoured to be offering the seminal work Al Farah (Joy) by the late Master painted in the poignant year 1993, that provides a significant and important change in the artist's outlook and portrayal of the Palestinian struggle. Unlike his other paintings that conveyed the hard predicament of the displaced refugee and of a lost homeland, this fantastic and impressive work turns towards a semblence of high hope and joy with a sense of jubilation that cannot help but radiate and emanate from the canvas.
Marking the pivotal moment in 1993 when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat signed a Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, commonly referred to as the Oslo Accord, at the White House, the Oslo Accords marked the first time that the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) formally recognised one another and publicly committed to negotiate a solution to their decades-long conflict based on territorial compromise.
Al Farah captures the celebrations by the Palestinians in the streets of Gaza and Jericho - the most affected areas, reflecting the thousands of people who stood in the street dancing the traditional dance called the dabke, waving palm fronds, scattering sweets on the street, applauding and cheering with an enthusiasm that was usually unseen in the grim warrens of Gaza, where the rigours of poverty and the military rule had taken a toll.
Welcoming the new promise of peace, Shammout's optimism spills onto the canvas stylistically by blending Pointillism, Impressionism, Social Realism and Romanticism into a composition that reflects the joy in the hope that the refugeee Palestinians will now be able to return to their homeland and a sense of joy in what he believed was the solution to all problems. His figures, each with their arms raised to the heavens infer a sense of divine intervention. The canvas, overflowing with Palestinian flags is Shammout's symbolic reference of change as since 1948 it was prohibited to portray or even carry the Palestinian flag, forcing many of the artists to use cultural codes such as traditional embroidery to hint to a sense of identity. In the present work these signs of rebellion and now freedom flutter on the breath of hoped-for peace draping each of the figures as they wear their traditional clothing. Shammout uses the flag to become a poignant and defiant symbol signalling change and power to the Palestinians.
The viewer's eye is immediately drawn to the female protagonist in the centre of the composition. This woman, which was in fact a repeated motif in Shammout's later works of the 1990s, clearly becomes the symbol of Palestine. She has a regal profile and is of incomparable beauty. She smiles as she seems to absorb the hopes and fears of the people, her two arms outstretched as a young boy climbs towards her as if to drape her with a large Palestinian flag. Representing the youth and next generation, his young face shows a slight sense of worry that reflects a sense of trepidation. Keeping in mind many years of conflict and the sentiment of displacement, Shammout is optimistic, but somehow keeps an element that reminds the viewer of the possibility, albeit subtle, of the downfall of having such high hopes. In this sense, knowing what has happened since the Oslo Accords of 1993, the viewer becomes eerily aware of the fact that the artist's hopes and aspirations have not been fully materialised, but the artist's hopeful message renders this fantastic work more poignant than ever.