|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 March 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
photos: Randa Shaath
Rhetorical brush strokes
Epic processions, engaging parables and unlikely triumphs
Profile by Youssef Rakha
Brief as it may be, an encounter with Ismail Shammout -- the leading pioneer of the Palestinian plastic arts scene, among other, similarly compounded epithets -- offers a rare insight into "the Palestinian problem" and its infinitely varied nuances.
This one begins with the sight of Shammout in the Horizon I Gallery, Mahmoud Khalil Museum, all alone among his and his wife Tamam Al-Akhal's enormous paintings. Al- Sira wal-Masira, or Epic Procession, an enormously hyped up exhibition, the latest Ministry of Culture fare, has been going on for nearly a week now. Although it has received an immense amount of press and proven very popular, at 5.30 in the evening there is not a single viewer in sight. (At some level, it is worth noting, the hype is well justified; for the contents of this exhibition, both artists will tell you with remarkable confidence, are destined for the Palestinian Memory Museum, to be built in East Jerusalem, the capital of the state of Palestine.) Shammout is very palpably solitary; and the sight of him -- he is more unassuming and less sociable than I was led to believe -- is at once familiar and evocative.
A paradoxical sense of melancholy, a kind of vindicated bitterness, envelops his gestures as he explores the computerised display of his paintings to one side of the entrance. He is civil enough when he shakes my hand, but there is a nonchalance about him, a despair, almost, that seems to have a lot to do with the solitude and melancholy. This initial impression is confirmed when I realise I am obliged to wait for a few minutes while he finishes with the computer, during which time the sheer size of the paintings strikes me once again. And while we file back out, with him, seemingly reluctantly, leading the way -- this, incidentally, is when I notice his plodding gait and the immeasurably laboured heaviness with which he proceeds -- I catch myself contemplating how in-your- face the political import of the paintings is, how blatantly obvious their "message;" and I wonder if it is possible to be a self-aware Palestinian, to be a painter and to be less explicit, more experimental all at the same time.
Even a cursory look at Shammout's CV will explain some of these impressions. Born in 1930 in the town of Al-Lid, "midway between Jerusalem and Jaffa," the events of 1948 drove him abruptly, at an early age, to the refugee camp of Khan Younes on the Gaza Strip. "Towards the end of the summer of 1950," he recalls, "I endeavoured and managed to come to Cairo -- straight from Khan Younes, with only a few pounds in my pocket..." Shammout studied at the College of Fine Arts, Cairo University, until 1956, staging the "first ever fully Palestinian exhibition of paintings in Gaza" in 1953 and exhibiting for the first time alongside his then favourite colleague Al-Akhal, in Cairo, in 1954 -- an event, he points out proudly, that was supported and inaugurated by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser himself. In 1959 he married Al-Akhal (with whom he would share his exhibition space on every subsequent occasion) in Beirut, after a two-year, educationally slanted stint in Rome. There is a gap in the chronology, after which we are told that Shammout became the first secretary-general of the Palestinian Artists' Union in 1969, and the first secretary- general of the Arab Artists' Union in 1971. He now lives with Al-Akhal in Amman, Jordan. They have exhibited widely in almost every Arab capital and beyond. Shammout has received, among many honours, the Revolution Shield for Arts and Letters, the Jerusalem Medal and the Palestine Award for the Arts.
'Our lives are immersed in politics, whether we like it or not. Nor do we eschew political hope. I live in politics, I paint politics. And it is through my brush and my paints, regardless of activism or institutions, that I struggle'
Having decided to conduct the conversation outside the gallery, we file on, plodding indecisively around the grounds until we reach the gate. "There seems to be nowhere to sit apart from the floor," Shammout declaims impatiently. And when I tell him that, personally, I wouldn't have a problem with it, he retorts sharply, "Well, I do!" And, in an effort to ameliorate the effect, I see him smile for the first time. Wry, reassuring, completely unapologetic: Shammout's smile is the first of many such gestures of good will. On the way to the lobby of the nearest hotel, where he decides we should go and where, as I subsequently learn, he is to meet a friend at six, he begins, in the same laboured, melancholy way, to make conversation -- although even then it is mostly in response to my questions.
"Isn't this better?" He plops himself down, visibly aching. "One is getting old, Youssef," he confides wearily. "We can start now, please go ahead." But as soon as he sees my packet of cigarettes: "And let's not have cigarettes, either. My lungs are tired enough." He places the tips of five fingers on his chest: "I can barely breathe..."
Shammout's "attachment to drawing and colours" began so early he can no longer remember with certainty. "I was a child in Al-Lid," he explains. "And I had a teacher who sensed my talent and paid special attention to me. A Palestinian teacher..." This was in the 1930s and 1940s, as Shammout parenthetically supplies (recalling, implicitly, The Spring That Was, a painting that depicts the simple, happy lives led by Palestinians prior to 1948), and his voice, his expression reach an unprecedented crescendo of bitterness. "I painted in water colours, in oils," he quickly moves on. "I painted the beautiful Palestinian scenes with which the town was surrounded. I also painted some of the characters who were there and who had a direct connection with Palestine: Amin Al-Husseini, the martyr Abdel- Qader Al-Husseini and some others..." It is not until this point that I fully register the character of Shammout's tone, a tone he will keep up until the end of the conversation. As rhetorically "committed" as it is sincere, it makes for disappointingly restrictive discourse. Unpredictably it recalls Al- Sira wal-Masira far more than it does the sight of the artist by the display -- solitary, melancholy, bitter. It is the voice of a PA official at the podium.
"Then," he enunciates with emotion, "there was the Nakba of 1948. I lived through it in excruciating detail, every part of me experienced the Nakba as fully as possible," he insists. "I became a refugee in one of the camps..." This seems to have been the greatest rift in his, and Al-Akhal's, life: in The Rift and Uprooting, respectively, Shammout and Al-Akhal depict the defeat of 1948 and the establishment of the state of Israel in graphically symbolic mode. In Jaffa, Al-Akhal and her people were pushed out to sea; a great, catastrophic wave leads them out of their homes. In Al-Lid, where Shammout's more psychologically penetrating vision was formed, a bride stands at the edge of a great abyss where the land was split in two; on the other side, tortured Palestinians hang and squat, half-naked, in chains. At this time, Shammout recalls, his family were destitute. "During the period of dispossession," he points out, "we were in great need of a loaf of bread, the price of which," he adds after the appropriate pause, "my father did not possess." For a year, Shammout abandoned his education and worked in Gaza to help with the family's finances. "You want to know what I did?" In his aspect there is neither pride nor shame, only that curiously vindicated bitterness. "I sold halawa, I was a halawa peddler. The lengths and breadths of Gaza I crossed in full, on foot, selling halawa." Shammout adjusts his position on the couch.
A year later, refugee schools opened up; he worked as a teacher without pay, and for a few months he would teach at the school in the morning and sell halawa by night. "After that we were paid -- enough for bread. And during that time, by virtue of going to the school, the piece of paper and the pen became available. Once again I started drawing. And in simple drawings I recorded our lives as Palestinians who had become refugees. Eventually materials became available too, people who had oil paints or canvas would give them to me. And I began to execute coloured paintings. Most often I would paint by the light of the kerosene lamp, at night, so that I would confuse yellow with white and blue with green: I wasn't able to see my work clearly until the morning, and during the day I would be too busy with the school or selling halawa to spend any time on painting. And yet" -- the crescendo Shammout's voice reaches this time is of vindication rather than bitterness -- "I began to exhibit my paintings at the school. Some of our foreign visitors saw them, liked them and bought them. I sold many paintings for very little money, but these sums meant a lot to me at the time..." It was savings from such sales that provided the few pounds with which he came to Cairo.
Feeling the need for "serious study," Shammout was relieved when he was finally accepted at the College of Fine Arts, in Zamalek. "I began to search for work that would secure my daily bread. I worked at a billboard workshop," the one owned by the late artist Hassan Gassour; life went on and ahead. Of his college years, Shammout recalls that his teachers, "the pioneers of Egyptian painting like Ahmed Sabri, Youssef Kamel, Hosni El- Bannani and Hussein Bikar, among others," and his peers (he mentions Bahgat Osman, Saleh Reda, George Bahgory, Inji Aflatoun and Omar El-Nagdi) were surprised to see the live Egyptian models they were working on metamorphose, on his canvas, into Palestinian women. "But when they understood my conditions, they encouraged me to keep going in this vein." In 1953 he had enough paintings for a large exhibition, but not enough confidence to stage one in Cairo. On the last of many visits to Gaza, he apprehended the possibility of "something that had not yet been done: an exhibition of paintings depicting Palestinian life by a Palestinian artist to take place in Gaza." And on the next visit he was duly accompanied by his work.
The event took place in the summer of 1953, and the response was such it illuminates Shammout's face even now. "I saw, clearly for the first time, the extent to which art is capable of affecting the psyche. People would be standing before the paintings, staring at them, and suddenly they would burst out crying as they discovered how another Palestinian human being had managed to express their pain and hope, emphasise their identity and picture their lives. It was then that I made my historic decision" -- still no irony -- "that art would be my road, and the human side of the Palestinian issue my subject."
Shammout returned to Cairo "full of self- confidence" and intent on holding an exhibition there, but before the necessary arrangements were made he had met a fellow Palestinian art student, a refugee who had come to Cairo from Jaffa by way of Beirut, where her family resided. "We made each other's acquaintance and it was soon decided that she would participate with a few of her paintings in my exhibition." This latter event, inaugurated by Nasser on 21 July 1954, took place in the Officers' Club in Zamalek; and again its success and popularity was remarkable: "It was covered in the papers and on the radio -- there was no television yet -- throughout the Arab world, and the paintings made their way to Palestinian refugees everywhere in the form of reproductions published in magazines and newspapers."
Since their marriage, Shammout and Al-Akhal have consolidated their reputation and established a comfortable life together. Among various other jobs, Shammout worked as the director of the arts and heritage department of the PLO from 1965 to 1990, after which he resigned to devote himself to art. He is eager to point out that he and Al-Akhal have never stopped producing art since the 1950s, when their joint career took off.
"We have three children and six grandchildren," he smiles, "and we've exhibited -- always together, yes -- in Europe, America and Asia as well as the Arab world. Our stock of work is fairly good by now, and our work is sold as soon as it is finished."
In 1997, Shammout recounts, the couple visited Palestine for the first time since they had left, touring the various parts of the country including Al-Lid and Jaffa. "This visit had a tremendous effect on the two of us; we relived the events of 1948 and their repercussions." Suddenly something of the solitary, melancholy artist returns to Shammout's aspect as he pats the shoulder of his friend, who arrived some 10 minutes ago and graciously accepted Shammout's apology for delaying their meeting while we finish. "We returned to Amman with the notion of producing something monumental and comprehensive, in which to summarise our experience through the last five decades." The project, which took "four years of constant toil," yielded Al-Sira wal- Masira. "These paintings are not for sale; they are our gift to the Palestinian people. The Welfare Association, which funded the exhibition's journeys over the last year and with which we concluded the deal, has a budget of over $10 million to establish a museum; and these paintings will be the kernel of the plastic arts department."
By the time he gets up, holding his friend by the shoulder and motioning me towards the cafeteria "for a cup of coffee," Shammout has shed the persona of the PA official completely; his plodding gait, the weary heaviness that besets his movement has returned. And once again he looks exactly as when I first saw him, alone among his works.
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