Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1150, 29 May - 5 June 2013
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1150, 29 May - 5 June 2013

Ahram Weekly

Old masters and masters of war

An exhibition by the internationally famous Gazan artist Mohammed Al-Hawaajri is drawing attention to the suffering of the Palestinian people, writes Vacy Vlazna in Gaza

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Israeli military occupation of Palestine is not only an external experience of ubiquitous soldiers, guns, tear gas, tanks, F16s, Apache helicopters, warships, checkpoints, and prisons. It is also a virulent pathogen that infects and debilitates the psyches and bodies of its living hosts — the men, women and children of Palestine, contaminating every precious instant of their lives from their first breath to death.

The omnipresence of the Israeli aggression is strikingly conveyed in the internationally acclaimed Gazan artist Mohammed Al-Hawaajri’s new exhibition, “Guernica — Gaza 2010-2013”, featuring 28 extraordinary artworks in which he presents the Israeli reign of terror by invading the artistic vision of certain Old Masters.

I was sent images of Al-Hawaajri’s paintings via Facebook, and his creativity astonished me. I am neither an art connoisseur nor a critic, but I’d like to share, from an activist perspective, how the incomparable juxtaposition of the Old Masters and the Israeli masters of war can expand our awareness of Gaza’s own Guernica and its own suffering.

Picasso’s painting “Guernica” has become a universal anti-war symbol. On 26 April 1937, the allies of the Spanish fascist leader general Franco, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, sent the Luftwaffe and Aviazione Legionaria to bomb the Basque town of Guernica on market day. The bombing has often been considered to be one of the first raids in the history of modern military aviation on a defenceless civilian population. For the Luftwaffe, renowned for its terror bombings, the Spanish Civil War, according to German reichmarshal Hermann Göring, was ideal to “test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect”.

Israel’s terror bombings of Gaza, also testing opportunities for Israel’s armaments industry, today mirror Göring’s callous military intentions.

In his work, Al-Hawaajri juxtaposes Picasso’s “Guernica” with a black-and-white photograph of a young Palestinian attempting to fix power lines. The destruction, agony and chaos of Gaza and Guernica are adroitly connected by power lines that run from Picasso’s work to Gaza’s electricity poles, targeted and damaged by Israeli airstrikes. The destruction of these utilities is integral to Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, impacting on poverty, the economy, unemployment and heartbreak. In January, for example, a house caught fire from a candle during a blackout, and the family, Hazem Dahier, 32, his wife Samar, 30, and their four small children, four-month-old Qamar, Farah, three, Nabil, five, and Mahmoud, six, all burned to death.

It seems to me that Al-Hawaajri draws Palestine’s martyrs into the revolutionary struggle for liberty with his image of Israeli soldiers coming in for the kill of the dying Marat in the shell of a gutted Gazan home. The painter of “The Death of Marat”, Jacques-Louis David, was a political colleague of the assassinated Marat, a French revolutionary leader, physician, journalist and politician. Marat was murdered at home in his bath, a reminder that no Palestinian home is safe from Israeli state terrorism.

Extrajudicial assassination is a long-standing Israeli military policy. Up to the second Intifada, Israel assassinated about 27 Palestinians, including the beloved writer Ghassan Kanafani. However, since September 2000 the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has accounted for 348 extrajudicial execution operations that have killed 754 Palestinian martyrs, including 70 children.

A letter in Marat’s dying hand named his assassin and added a plea, which, translated into English, says, “because I am unhappy, I have a right to your help.” This right to be helped is crucial in the context of besieged Gaza and in view of the international community’s utter lack of benevolence in its collaboration with Israel’s impunity to commit war crimes in Gaza.

This unconscionable indifference is also evoked in Al-Hawaajri’s irony-laden image of Whistler’s “Mother” coolly observing a massive Israeli tank crushing the rubble of a Gazan home, with helicopters (made in the US) like vultures flying overhead. The presence of this famous American painting, an iconic image of motherhood and family values, prompts condemnation of the US government’s support for Israeli brutality and condemnation of the American public, which sits at home watching its tax dollars destroy Gazan life without taking action to help protect Gazan families. These include the 10 members of the Al-Dalu family who died during the intensive eight-day assault in November 2012 that added to the tragic death toll and to the 51,433 people who were rendered homeless in Operation Cast Lead.

Irony is also conveyed in the painting that blends Chagall’s “Russian Wedding” with a Palestinian wedding procession blocked by an Israeli soldier, in contrast to the soldier in Chagall’s original painting who is heralding the procession by playing a fiddle.

Chagall repeatedly celebrated the love of home, marriage and his happy existence with his wife, Bella. Marriage is a foundation of society, but even on this sacred ground Israel intrudes with its law that renders residents of Gaza and the West Bank ineligible for Israeli citizenship or a residency permit through marriage. As a result, it has separated over 130,000 Palestinian couples in which one spouse holds Israeli papers. All appeals made to the Israeli Supreme Court to repeal the law have been rejected.

The three Chagall paintings featured in the exhibition are set in his beloved village of Vitebsk in Belarus, where he could return whenever he wanted. For that matter, as a Jew Chagall could also choose Israel as his home, unlike the desperate Palestinian refugees to whom Israel denies their legal right of return.

In two paintings, Al-Hawaajri superimposes Chagall’s couple in “The Promenade” and “Over the Town” into the apartheid landscape of the Annexation Wall. The exhilaration of love that frees lovers to transcend earthly limitations, in this instance the imposing wall, only applies to Israeli Jews, and it certainly does not apply to the Palestinians. In fact, the illegal wall benefits only Israel and separates and divides the Palestinians. According to the United Nations, it is difficult to overstate the humanitarian impact of this barrier. This route inside the West Bank severs communities, people’s access to services, livelihoods and religious and cultural amenities.

Ingeniously, Al-Hawaajri blends Jean-François Millet’s rendering of peasant life with the inescapable presence of the occupation in the exhibition. The Annexation Wall encroaches on the fields of Millet’s “The Shepherdess”, “The Angelus” and “The Gleaners”, reminding us of Israel’s stranglehold on Palestinian agriculture by the confiscation of land for buffer zones, the extension of the Annexation Wall, as well as the siege on Gaza that purposely creates shortages of seeds, fertiliser, and farming equipment. As a result, according to the FAO, “roughly two-thirds of Gaza’s 1.5 million people are deemed food insecure.”

Millet didn’t paint idyllic scenes: his paintings were honest portrayals of hard peasant labour, hence the exhausted peasant couple in his “Noonday Rest” enjoying a well-earned sleep. Al-Hawaajri alters this quiet scene with the arrival of a unit of Israeli soldiers and a tank, calling to mind the dangers farmers face daily. This month, volunteers are accompanying farmers from Khuzaa village south of Gaza to protect them from military patrols that shoot randomly while they are harvesting their wheat. Harvest seasons throughout Palestine are especially dangerous for farmers.

For me, “Noonday Rest” also evokes a psychological loss of safety and security. Sleep is a basic necessity for human survival and health, and therefore the right to rest is included in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Inevitably, Israel systematically violates the Palestinian right to rest by ramping up a state of anxiety and fear with night-time raids and violent home invasions. Arrests of children and adults occur mainly at night when the whole family is suddenly awakened, their home invaded by armed soldiers shouting and ransacking the family’s possessions, then kidnapping the frightened target and leaving the family distraught and their lives devastated.

I recall how, in January 2012, soldiers crashed into one house in the middle of the night, murdering 66-year-old Omar Al-Qawasmi as he slept in his bed. It was a case of mistaken identity. One soldier was discharged without charge, and the other soldier was exonerated. Such impunity heightens Palestinian vulnerability and insecurity.

To intensify the sleep deprivation, mental exhaustion and stress that Palestinians suffer, Israel regularly and mercilessly bludgeons Gazans with a series of sonic booms, mainly at night, that sound like massive explosions and that can cause miscarriages and heart attacks, as well as trauma, loss of hearing, breathing difficulties and bed-wetting in children.

I see Al-Hawaajri’s transformation of Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” as a dark indictment of Israel and a haunting memorial of the massacre of Palestine’s innocents and innocence. The ultimate human tragedy is the suffering and death of a child, and the ultimate depravation of any society is cold-blooded heedlessness for the lives of children. In this regard, Israel’s depravity is sub-human. Since September 2000, more than 1,396 Palestinian children have been murdered by the Israeli state, including 1,030 children in the Gaza Strip alone. The injured children triple this number.

The Catalonian coast is replaced in the painting by that of Gaza, which seems to watch over the Gazan baby, little Hanen Tafish, who sleeps forever in her illuminated shroud. Dali’s melting clocks usually symbolise time slowing down in a dream state, but here, in the context of Gaza’s nightmare, time appears to be weeping in a dissolution of grief, and this immortal memory and grief — of parents, of families, of Gaza — also blankets the dead baby. One is painfully reminded of the hundreds of images that emerged during Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Cloud of the beautiful Gazan children slaughtered by Israel.

I believe the soul of Gaza is embedded in Al-Hawaajri’s exhibition and in his genius. This collection of Al-Hawaajri’s art is not for decoration: it is the art of strong love and of the responsibility to seek justice for an abandoned people, that of Palestine.

The writer is coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters.

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