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The Beauty of Opression

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As the old expression goes, pictures can tell a thousand words, and it’s true. The use of art is one of the most expressive forms of communication known to mankind, beginning with depictions of stories on caves walls and continuing to the most time treasured pieces from Van Gogh and  Monet. Art is always changing, always evolving yet never absent. The single most inspiring thing about art to me is that you can stand 50 different people in front of one piece of work and they will be moved to feel 50 different things. Art can be completely subjective or completely objective, it’s all within the story that the artist wants you to know. Art work in Palestine is one of the most expressive, yet one of the least recognized forms worldwide. In a previous article I discussed the use of graffiti and music as modes of expressing resistance to the occupation but I opted to not explore the realms of the more traditional arts such as sculpture and painting.

BeautyOne of the first people I had the pleasure of meeting and befriending in Palestine is a sculptor. As a person he is, as are many Palestinians, politically engaged and actively resisting the occupation; his art is a form of expression within that. I failed to comprehend the extent of it until I stood in his workshop trying very hard not to touch anything lest I break it as those close to me know I have a tendency to do. This innovative individual will attempt to work with any material, including shrapnel fragments, pieces of exploded landmines, bullet cases and remnants of local resistance techniques. My heart froze the day he announced he had been collecting exploded bombs in an area yet to be deemed as safe, yet he casually dismissed my (very British) concerns for his safety by cheerfully pointing out that the last thing Israel expected their landmines to be used for was a giant sculpture. He has a point. Let’s face it, there is a wonderful sense of mockery towards the Israeli Defence League that they are wandering around enforcing the rigmaroles of the occupation in their bullet proof vests and helmets with ludicrously large guns whilst my friend wanders around landmine sites collecting debris without a single scratch. My favorite part about the situation is that my friend has the talent and unbelievable skill to turn such ugly and oppressive materials into works of wonder. It is possible some of you in the UK may have seen some of the new garden and small holder growing techniques with empty gas canisters being used as pots to hold small plants and seedlings across the West Bank? It is the same principle. Israel thinks they have the power whilst Palestinians on the ground quietly laugh and use the material for far more helpful things.

Time and time again Palestinians demonstrate their resilience, tinged with a dark humor, in the way they respond to the occupation. The above example is simply one of many. There is a community of artists here in Palestine and they are slowly gaining international recognition for their work. As they should, their work makes some of the pieces in the Tate Modern look like sandpit play in comparison. They have an edge which cannot be replicated by anyone else and which transpires in art; they have passion mixed with anger, courage mixed with frustration and an overwhelming essence of the value of life. You can only begin to imagine the beauty that hands guided by those feelings can create. More to the point the dark humour behind the whole exercise can not fail to make those who are pro-Palestinian chuckle. Who would have thought the IDF were cheerfully providing a constant stream of new materials with which to work with, essentially footing the bill for the rest of world to have beautiful artwork? I’m fairly confident that that hasn’t been factored into their annual defence budget.

Everyone feels different emotions when they gaze upon a piece of work for the first time. My friend recently showed me a piece he is in the process of finishing and for my part here are a few of the emotions that went through me: awe, respect, pain, recognition, wonder and anger. Awe for the beauty that he was showing me and the talent in his hands, respect for the feelings that run through him whilst he moulds these shapes, pain for the struggle, recognition for the power and passion he holds within him, wonder at the ability of one person to make something so beautiful and anger against Israel for inflicting the occupation to begin with. I am going to coin a new saying for artwork within Palestine: ‘Emotions guide the hands which empower us’.