Capturing the spirit of the people
K.S. - 22/02/2012
Palestinian artist Tayseer Barakat looks at his own work and feels a sense of vindication. When he launched his exhibition called Dust, Dialogue, Iron in Ramallah two and a half years ago, he juxtaposed narratives of oppressors and oppressed from all over the globe. Little did he know that the kind of “spirit of the people” he claimed to have captured in that body of works would find itself manifested in reality across Arab nations.
“As a person and as an artist, I feel I have a message for everyone,” the Gaza-born artist says at the Al Mahatta Gallery in central Ramallah, where his exhibition was hosted.
Born in the Jabalia Refugee Camp in 1959, Barakat uses his sensitivity as a Palestinian refugee denied his homeland to connect to the diverse realities of people suffering around the world.
“As Palestinians we suffer a lot and we face a lot of problems, but there is also a lot of suffering everywhere,” he says. “As an artist I feel I shouldn’t be talking only about us, I have to talk about the same issue everywhere – there’s a lot of suffering everywhere and I feel it deeply inside.”
Barakat’s works mainly on burnt and tinted wood and paper are accompanied by personal accounts and verses in which he assumes different identities, beyond his immediate Gazan roots, from a tortured Iraqi crying out from his prison cell in Abu Ghraib, to the plight of a Bedouin on the fringe of Haifa. His images using burned materials suggest the damage and cataclysm of Al Nakba – the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948.
“It’s very important not only for Palestinians but for artists everywhere to show the spirit of the people... I’m one of them, so I can understand what’s going on through this electricity between me and the people around me,” he says. “Through art I can show what people are feeling.”
Nowadays living in Ramallah, Barakat runs the Ziryab Cafe, an art space that doubles as a salon for the artists and intellectuals of the West Bank, with walls lined with either his work or that of other artists.
As the popular Palestinian magazine This Week in Palestine once put it: “No one comes to Ziryab for the food. Its sandwiches - hamburgers, turkey and cheese and chicken breast - are dully slapped inside white bread rolls. Its humus and fries are tasty, but notable so against few other choices. But Ziryab is one of the few local cafes that always draw a crowd. Every night, Ramallah's more leftist crowd trudges up the steps to the second floor open gallery space to be warmed by its fire and friendly company.”
Gaza, of course, features prominently in his works. During the war on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, he could not sleep at night as he tried to keep a constant link with his friends and family in the besieged strip.
“My friends, my family and all the people in Gaza – I felt with them in their suffering, but I also felt so helpless. I couldn’t sleep most of the nights, talking to them over the phone all the time... I didn’t want to cut the line,” he says.
Al Mahatta Gallery itself is a statement about the Palestinians’ right to exist. Opened in 2008 by seven young Palestinian artists in what was once a parking space, Al Mahatta – meaning The Station – has been turned into a space in which Palestinians can connect to the world, through art.
“This place is very important for us,” says one of the founders, Rafat Asad. “There are no such places in Palestine. It’s the only place that is exclusively an art gallery. It’s a place where we can bring the world from outside, in the midst of the occupation. It’s hard for us even to travel between Palestinian towns, but here we can bring artists together and keep connected with foreign artists. Having this place means remaining alive.”
The gallery today includes exhibition halls that host local and international artists, providing full residency and studio facilities to produce art works on site. The founding artists pay rent from their own pockets and get by through donations and sponsorships. Their mission includes taking art out in the streets through installations and public events.
The young artists look up at Tayseer for his pioneering work in the 1970s, when he started the modernist Palestinian art movement called New Vision at a time when the Palestinians were struggling to assert their existence.
“In the early 70s, Palestinians were struggling for their existence,” says Hafez Omar, another young artist and founder of Al Mahatta. “It wasn’t clear to the world that the Palestinians existed, so art was essential towards that end. Now we are more expressing our humanitarian identity, showing that Palestinian art has something to contribute to civilization, and that we deserve and desire to live.”
But the realities of the occupation remain pervasive in Palestinian art.
“The occupation is always in our art; it’s inevitable,” Asad says. “Not even our landscapes can escape the reality of the occupation.”
Barakat is hopeful that the Palestinian identity will be one day recognized and acknowledged.
“Maybe more blood needs to be shed, with the ensuing suffering, but we will reach that point,” he says. “There is no civilisation without art, and here in Palestine this is very important. This is a small-big country. It’s small, but it’s also big – a lot of philosophies and religions came out from this little area... it’s an area that has always been bubbling with culture, heritage and ideas, so we have to expect something strong from this area because it’s very rich.”