This Palestinian Artist Dares to Celebrate Female Arab Sexuality, Despite Boycott Calls

Defying her rigid patriarchal upbringing, Hanan Abu-Hussein addresses oppression and violence against women in the Arab society

Hanan Abu-Hussein. 'first female Palestinian artist in Israel who has consistently and effectively celebrated female sexuality in Arab society'
Tomer Appelbaum

When Hanan Abu-Hussein's father came to the opening of her debut exhibition, he left the museum after a few minutes, pale, stern and silent. He refused to speak to his daughter and waited in the car for the rest of the family.

“It was the first time I had showed a work about the oppression of women and the murder of women in Arab society,” recalls Abu-Hussein. “It was hard to see that reaction from my father, but today I say that everything I have been through in my life is food for thought. I take everything that was hurled at me and use it in my art, after processing and thorough examination. It’s hard when it happens, but when someone throws an obscenity I don’t know at me, I say now: ‘Wow, what a great curse! That could be the name of the exhibition!’”

Hanan Abu-Hussein, 46, was born in the Israeli Arab city of Umm al-Fahm and lives today in Beit Safafa, a Palestinian village in southern Jerusalem. Active in the local art world since the late 1990s, she creates installations and video art, and has received many awards. Her work is currently on display in a solo exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, called “Meitzavim” (“Installations”), which runs until November.

Her art is created from an existential place of need, urgency, necessity – a need to shout out what has been silenced and imprisoned for a long time. Her works are penetrating, painful and critical.

Artist Hanan Abu-Hussein inside one of her installations. Grew up in a home that she describes as 'patriarchal, traditional, conservative and educated.'
Tomer Appelbaum

“It’s possible that because of what I experienced, my art is a punch in the stomach to the viewer, it’s strong and unsettling,” she admits. “It’s not art that is necessarily beautiful or aesthetic, it isn’t commercial, isn’t necessarily suitable for hanging up in the house, it’s not an object for completing home decoration. It comes from deep inside. I was shouting out already in the first works of art I created.”

It’s hard not to notice her daring and her artistic courage to test boundaries and protest against the suppression of sexuality. Since 2001 Abu-Hussein has been creating works that reference the female genitalia: for example, she created a symbolic series of 10 reliefs using mixed techniques and incorporating ceramics, pantyhose – and her own real (head and pubic) hair. Her protest installation “Vagina” (2003) was inspired by a Muslim ritual in which a woman’s virginity is tested, and consists of a collection of stockings hanging from the ceiling with a ceramic egg inside each one.

“My grandmother was thought to have supernatural powers,” the artist explains, “and among other things she conducted virginity-test ceremonies with a hard-boiled egg. She would try to put it in the girl’s vagina and that’s how they supposedly knew whether or not she was a virgin.”

The installation created an uproar, the imam of Jaffa called to boycott the work and relatives flooded her home to exert pressure on her mother. “There was a big scandal,” she recalls. “There’s no Jewish colleague in the field of art that I know who has experienced anything similar – where the imam boycotts and incites, and men assemble in her mother’s home asking for an explanation and want to understand: ‘What is this – this vagina?” she adds, laughing.

“Bukjia” (The Bundle), 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

“Abu-Hussein is the first female Palestinian artist in Israel who has consistently and effectively celebrated female sexuality in Arab society and insisted throughout her work on focusing on exposing the social oppression of women in the context of her gender and sexuality. She has dealt with the issue in an open and direct manner in a pioneering way, for which she has been the target of much criticism from her community” – thus wrote Aida Nasrallah, a writer and artist who teaches at Beit Berl Teachers Training College and specializes in multidisciplinary art, in an article about Abu-Hussein’s artistic language.

Abu-Hussein agrees with this description. “I was among the first female artists in Arab society who, already 20 years ago, addressed the subject of female sexuality and its suppression, without being afraid to identify as a feminist or to suffer blows from within Arab society, at home and even from Arab feminist women’s organizations, which is the most depressing thing,” she says.

In her third year at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, in 1998, Abu-Hussein created an installation that was later exhibited at the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art (having been awarded a Sharett Fund scholarship from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation). She made use of balatot - the terrazzo floor tiles so popular in the Middle East and Mediterranean region.

“For some of my installations,” Abu-Hussein explains, “I use construction materials, such as concrete and cement. These allude, on the one hand, to the Arab construction workers who have been building this country, and on the other hand to the West Bank wall that cuts the land. The wall separates the two peoples, but still it allows one to see what lies on the other side.” At the Ramat Gan show, Abu-Hussein hung floor tiles on the wall, writing on them, in Arabic, “I she woman whore female honor,” in a manner that intentionally deconstructed the rules of syntax.

“Installations” covers a number of different spaces in the Eretz Israel Museum, sending visitors on a sort of journey. In the show, the artist alludes to themes of identity and locality, the domestic realm, the out-of-doors, the private space, family and community. The lobby of the main exhibition hall (the Rothschild lobby) features video works that describe and document the artist at work. One of them, “My Mother Blanket #2, 2019,” consists of two bedsheets, hung on a wall. They are items from the kind of dowry a bride in Arab society must bring as a payment to the groom’s family, also often seen as part of the inheritance she receives from her parents at the time of the wedding.

Abu-Hussein: “Since 2003 I have been showing an evolving work consisting of items from a dowry. I take sheets and blankets that were meant for my dowry and combine them with dried flowers or razor blades. This time I embroidered items of my mother’s clothing using black thread. The significance is that I erase my mother’s embroidery and embroider it anew – in my own way. I don’t embroider as she does, I don’t follow her path, I don’t step into her clothes or her shoes, yet on the other hand the connection between us is strong.”

“Samandra” (Pile of Mattresses), 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

She takes a deep breath before adding, her voice soft: “Today I admire and love my mother, and she is the biggest fan of my art. When she helps me with work, let’s say with crocheting, she already knows to ask: ‘Will you put me in the credits?’” Abu-Hussein bursts out laughing. When she becomes serious again, she discloses, with heartbreaking candor: “But when I was little I didn’t want to be like her. I saw my mother as a woman who had internalized the oppression of Arab society at home and beyond. I saw the oppression of women and even experienced it, but I think I rebelled against it from a young age.”

The artist’s own body is seen in the highly charged video works screened at the museum entrance, which she says reference the relationship with her late father, “the status of women in Arab society, relations between men and women in a broad perspective and issues regarding the historical relationship of Jews and Palestinian Arabs.”

The texts accompanying the works are in Arabic and English, with no Hebrew translation.

“I think it’s time that Jews learned Arabic,” says Abu-Hussein, with a proud smile. “It was a conscious choice, to make the Arabic names present specifically at the Eretz Israel Museum.”

The video work “Mashkhara” (“Mourning”) was created in 2017, four months after her father died. In it the artist is seen sitting on the floor wearing a white djellaba that belonged to her father. Next to her is a pile of charcoal, a hint at her place of birth, Umm al-Fahm, which for generations was known for its charcoal production. With the charcoal she gradually blackens her face, her body and the pure-white djellaba.

“This work represents a process of mourning,” she says. “In it I am mourning myself. My difficult relationship with my father. I’m also mourning the death of the connection with Umm al-Fahm, which I left and which I’m no longer a part of.”

In the video work “Agina” (“Dough”) Abu-Hussein is once again wearing her father’s white djellaba, which in this context is reminiscent of a shroud. She is rolling out dough on the floor, trying to wrap her body in it and to cover herself with it like a blanket – but unsuccessfully. “This is a work which, on the personal level, speaks about my connection with my father,” she says, tears welling up in her eyes.

“The connection was weak, the dough doesn’t protect my body, it doesn’t cover me. I struggle and try to fight for the connection but am unable to keep it. On the political level I am illustrating that it’s impossible to erase Palestinian history. It has a place, too. It’s written one way on the Palestinian side and in a different way on the Israeli side, and we have to learn to accept it.”

Abu-Hussein's installation 'In Between the Destruction of the Father.'
Tomer Appelbaum

Her video work “Subi al-Zeit” (“Spilling Oil”), where she pours oil on her body, “expresses a process of healing,” she notes. “It’s an attempt to heal the wounds in the personal-familial-political sense.”

‘My real rebellion’

Abu-Hussein grew up in a home that she describes as “patriarchal, traditional, conservative and educated.” Her father was an educator and assistant principal, and also owned an insurance agency. Her mother was his student and married him at the age of 16, when he was 27. “My father was charismatic but a difficult person, conservative and rigid,” says their daughter. “We had a feeling that he never left his strictness behind and ran a school at home as well, treating us like his students.”

Abu-Hussein is an only daughter after four sons. Her family is educated and well-to-do. Throughout the interview she speaks with courage and heartrending honesty about the physical, verbal and emotional violence she suffered from an early age at the hands of her brothers and members of her extended family.

The sense of loneliness and disconnectedness she experienced from early childhood is reflected in the installation “Family,” which was exhibited in 1999 as part of her final project at Bezalel. The installation includes four, one-meter-high tree trunks, which are carved and stand together, symbolizing her united brothers. Next to them are two flattened wooden reliefs, at floor level, which symbolize her parents, who had little influence; at a distance from them she placed another tree trunk, which symbolized her and her isolation and distance from family tradition.

She relates that she began drawing at a very early age: “Part of the experience of a girl in Umm al-Fahm is that you can’t go outside to play. We lived in a new neighborhood and I had nobody to play with. I was introverted and indoors all the time. So from an early age I found refuge in drawing. My brothers – except for one who was very supportive and who died eight years ago – would mock me and disdainfully call me Jumana El Husseini, after the famous Palestinian artist.”

Abu Hussein describes how she was insulted because of her weight and dark skin, and speaks of the oppression and strict discipline she experienced, mainly on the part of two of her brothers and her father, who turned a blind eye.

“At a young age I already wanted to erase my gender identity and I began to behave like a boy,” she says. “I learned to walk like a boy. I wanted to be like the men because I saw them as the strong ones, the rulers. As an adolescent I began to erase every sign of femininity. I cut my hair short and when my breasts grew, I used masking tape to keep them from showing and wore baggy shirts. When I look at pictures of me from that period, I’m shocked at the erasure of identity.”

From Abu-Hussein's exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv.
Tomer Appelbaum

After high school she applied secretly to study art at Emek Yezreel College, defying her family’s opposition; she ended up financing her studies there herself, with a scholarship and part-time job. She studied for three years with sculptor Dalia Meiri and served as her assistant. At 21, Abu-Hussein applied to Bezalel. This time too her family was opposed and her brothers mocked her, saying that she wouldn’t be accepted, she would fail and drop out, and had no chance of ever being an artist.

“My real rebellion began on the day I applied to study there,” recalls Abu-Hussein, who was undeterred and became one of the first female Arab students at the prestigious academy. “From the moment I left to study in Jerusalem, I knew that I wouldn’t return to Umm al-Fahm, that I had to stay away.” After completing her bachelor’s degree, she continued to study in the department of ceramics and glass design at Bezalel while also pursuing a master’s degree in modern art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Although my father paid for my brothers’ studies, he refused to pay for mine,” she says. “My brothers convinced him that it would be better for me to work as a secretary in the family business. That was a macho, aggressive and humiliating attempt at domination in order to break me. It was a type of economic boycott against me for the path I chose. Here and there, my father paid for some of my studies, but mostly I got scholarships and worked.

“During my art studies and my exposure to Arab and Western feminist thinkers, I started to fall in love again with my body, my skin color and myself. If until then I hid my body and was ashamed of it, through feminism I learned that I don’t want to suppress my body, but to accept it. From that place I started during my studies to create works in which I used my body. Art gave me a voice and taught me to love my gender, to connect to my feminine side and not to repress and erase it.”

Among her sources of inspiration, she mentions ground-breaking feminists Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler, as well as writers including Egyptian Nawal El Saadawi, Kuwait’s Laila al-Othman and Algeria’s Ahlam Mosteghanemi,

Stop the murder of women

On September 10, Abu-Hussein will receive the Baki Dekel award for outstanding female artist from the Association of Women’s Art and Gender Research in Israel, which is affiliated with Tel Aviv University. The award includes a cash prize of 15,000 shekels ($4,260) and a one-woman show at Artspace Tel Aviv.

Tomer Appelbaum

An entire body of Abu-Hussein’s work features sharp devices that can cause injury, like razor blades, knives and axes, which for her symbolize the potential of the female body being stabbed and violated. For example, in the 2015 installation “Sharaf” (“Honor”), she displayed about 300 knives that she created from tin coated with cement, hanging from the ceiling, to illustrate the threat felt by a woman who experiences violence.

“My knife series originated with a protest against the murder of Arab women,” she says. “We have to eliminate the concept of ‘murder on behalf of the family honor.’ Women are murdered because men feel that their body is their property. The murder of women in Arab society is gender-related murder that can stem from an argument about inheritance, a divorce or the oppression and disciplining of women.”

Along with creating her own oeuvre, Abu-Hussein has been working for the past 18 years as an art teacher at a school in Isawiyah, in East Jerusalem, and for the past 19 years as an instructor at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and a teacher of sculpture at the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers College in Tel Aviv.

“It’s impossible to make a living solely from creating art,” she admits. “All my life I’ve held down at least four jobs at the same time, in order to have ‘air’ for my creative work.”

As to her current show at the Eretz Israel Museum, she says, “it is spread over additional spaces and invites the visitors to move around within the museum. The museum’s garden itself is near the ruins of the Palestinian village of Sheikh Munis. Every place where I create is politically sensitive. I prefer to enter this space and to work and create in it in my own way, rather than boycott it.”

For the show, she created an installation called “Bukjia (The Bundle), 2019” – a reference to the bundles refugees take during their flight from home. From the ceiling bundles of white fabric hang down like shrouds; hidden inside them are about 3,000 dried-out pita.

“I have a multiple identity: On the one hand my roots are those of a Palestinian Arab woman, and on the other hand I act within the Israeli art scene. I stand between two worlds, and find it important to make this duality present in my art,” says Abu-Hussein, who describes herself as “an outsider and alien on all fronts.” “I refer to what unifies the two cultures: The state of refugeehood is identified with Palestinian identity and with Israeli identity. Each culture appropriates a certain identity for itself, without seeing that the other culture has a similar history. There’s no need to erase the culture of the other – you must acknowledge it.”