Since the early 1970s, renowned Palestinian artist Suleiman Mansour has been a champion and pioneer of the Palestinian artistic movement that has continuously pushed against the challenges and burdens that the Palestinian community has faced. Christie's is honoured to be offering one of the most iconic artistic symbols of the Palestinian struggle and Arab resistance art from the artist's oeuvre Jamal Al Mahamel II (The Camel/Carrier of Hardships II) from 2005, a second version of the painting from 1973 which is thought to have been destroyed
Inviting the viewer to feel the burden and struggle of the heavy weight of Palestinian history, the painting signifies a bleak future that has become something to fear rather than long for amongst the Palestinian community. In Jamal Al Mahamel II, Mansour depicts a traditionally dressed Palestinian elderly man, recalling the human carriers that were a prevalent feature of Jerusalem life, who wanders in a non-descript open blue space carrying upon his back the city of Jerusalem. His wide shoulders emulate Canaanite sculptural models as Mansour clearly seeks to allude to the continuity between the historical past and the Arab national present. The old man's age symbolises the struggle that has gone on too long with no end in sight, it appears too much to carry and he appears weighed down from carrying it for a long time, yet he is determined to carry on as his fists hold tightly onto the characteristically Palestinian flat rope. To this end, the city on his back, which is clearly Jerusalem, thus represents the idea of the lost homeland that Palestinians continue to 'carry' with them, particularly following the annexation of Eastern Jerusalem following the 1967 War. Within the almond shaped city upon his back we catch a glimpse of the famous gold Dome of the Rock in the centre, the shrine that Muslims believe from which the Prophet (PBUH) ascended to heaven as well as dotted additions of Christian motifs that express the multi-religious diversity. It is as if the almond shape represents the eye of the Palestinian people with the symbolic edifice in the centre as the pupil - there is in fact a famous Arabic saying that the pupil of the eye is the human's most important possession.
When Mansour painted the first version of this composition in 1973, Palestine had already been occupied for seven years - Jerusalem came to be known as the beacon and symbol of hope for the Palestinian cause. The painting quickly came to symbolise the 'burden of the struggle, the heavy weight of history' (N. Abufarha, The Making of a Human Bomb: An Ethnography of Palestinian Resistance, London 2009, p. 89). Compelled to spread the message of his painting into the everyday lives of people, Mansour reproduced the work on a poster in 1975 and Jamal Al Mahamel quickly became a transnational phenomenon at the intersection of art, resistance and regional identity. In fact, this painting became so popular in Palestine that almost every house had a copy. It was reproduced in all forms; framed as a painting, on items for the house, postcards etc. and Palestinians as well as Arabs related to it at all levels across generations. Hanging in the homes and refugee tents across Palestine, the painting's symbolism stored in the collective Palestinian psyche. With the city of Jerusalem itself emerging as the second star within the composition, its symbolism became universally meaningful for all Arabs and was also to be found in the cafés and taxi cabs of Cairo, Baghdad and many more. Equally, the old man became a character that was affectionately recognisable as a father or grandfather, the heritage elements of the costume and his style adding an element of pride and nationalism that resonated with all.
When the painting became famous following the reproduction of the poster, it was acquired by a Libyan general that later gifted it to Muammar Al Gaddafi. In 1986, the painting was believed to have been destroyed in the US bombing of Tripoli, the iconic painting lost in physicality, but not in spirit and heart. In 2005, having learned of the first version's fate and in an effort to highlight the deep-rooted sense of conflict and burden the Palestinians still carry, Suleiman Mansour created Jamal Al Mahamel II (The Camel/Carrier of Hardships II). Unlike the first version which was 100 x 70cm., Mansour made the second version larger and more imposing at 152 x 99cm. Brighter and more vibrant in colour, as a symbolic way to highlight that the fight for their liberation still shines bright, Mansour also made minor changes to the details of the work. Porters in Jerusalem had often stopped him to point out that unlike the round rope he had painted in the original, which can cause a load to slip and fall, they use a flat rope, which gives more grip. Hearing this, Jamal Al Mahamel II (The Camel/Carrier of Hardships II) thus depicts the porter with a flat rope. Mansour also made the crosses on the Old City's skyline more visible to show the diversity of the city that is holy to Muslims, Christians and Jews.
It is clear upon closer inspection of the work that Mansour's influences lie deep in the Russian Socialist art of the time. Equally statuesque in their portrayal of the central figures worthy of their cause, these visual tools, such as the Socialist non-descript background and the championed main figure often of the working class become evident in Jamal Al Mahamel, although Mansour has adopted these techniques to create a distinct style of his own. There are simultaneously very strong underlying references to the Socialist paintings and murals of Mexican artist Diego Rivera, who used a similar iconography to express the burden carried by the working class in a capitalist world. Mansour often speaks of Rivera and the Mexican Muralist's impact on his work.
Although Jamal Al Mahamel was meant to represent the finest level of Palestinian fine art, much like Soviet Art and Mexican Murals, it transcended the barrier of fine art into popular culture, an unprecedented example that has to some extent yet to be paralleled. Even today, a plethora of direct visual references to the work flood mainstream media, compelling many contemporary artists and cartoonists to reference the work as a way to express their frustration with the heavy economic, social and political burdens of the time, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring.
It is interesting to note that the famous Palestinian poet, Emile Habibi, gave the painting its title. The camel in classical Arabic signifies patience and the animal itself is known to be a hard worker that can persevere as well as carry a heavy load in harsh conditions. As such, Mansour's painting evokes the worries and inescapable burden of being Palestinian with a heavy history that is hard to shed in a harsh present and difficult to navigate in an unknown and undefined future. However much like the perseverance of the old man, Mansour imparts upon his fellow compatriots to be patient and persists in carrying the heart of their country and hope in their hearts and on their shoulders.
A true collector's piece, Jamal Al Mahamel II (The Camel/Carrier of Hardships II) is unparalleled in its symbolic and historical importance in both artistic and Palestinian/Middle Eastern history.