Feminism, Nakba and Tears: This Young Palestinian Artist's Works Are Hard to Look Away From

Womanhood and national identity politics are at the heart of the drawings of artist Samah Shihadi, now on display at her solo Tel Aviv Museum exhibition

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Samah Shihadi at Tel Aviv Museum. 'I was raised on the memory of the expulsion in 1948'
Samah Shihadi at Tel Aviv Museum. 'I was raised on the memory of the expulsion in 1948'Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Vered Lee
Vered Lee
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

A mysterious, mythological and enchanted-looking mulberry tree, planted in a barrel, is at the heart of artist Samah Shihadi’s lyrical and heart-rending work “Mother and Daughter.” As I kept gazing at the large, melancholy drawing, I realized that my eyes were welling up with tears.

“I hear from people that this piece brings them to tears,” Shihadi nods in understanding, when I share my feelings with her. “This is also the work that is most dear to me. My family believes that my grandmother’s soul is in that tree.”

This charcoal-on-paper drawing alludes to the enduring nature of the Palestinian people, which continues to grow and flourish despite being removed from its land. It also alludes to the works of the late Palestinian artist Asim Abu-Shakra, from Umm al-Fahm, who frequently painted a sabra sprouting from a planter, as a symbol of detachment, nomadism and uprootedness. Shihadi’s work also references three generations of women in her family: The bond between the artist’s grandmother and her mother, by means of the tree, and the bond between her mother and Shihadi herself, who is absent from the work but present in the role of observer from a distance, who draws and captures the longing and yearnings.

Samah Shihadi, next to 'Between Life and Death', a homage to Georgia O'Keefe.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

“My grandmother planted the tree in the barrel in the place where her house was and it grew to a tremendous size,” says Shihadi. “Ever since her death, that has been the place my family gathers to remember her, to pray and to eat the fruit of the tree. Once when I went with them, I noticed my mother, who was in traditional Palestinian garb, gazing at the tree, praying and placing her hand on its branches to draw strength from it. I quickly took a picture, knowing that I would transform the photograph into a drawing in my studio.”

Shihadi, 32, is part of the young generation of Palestinian-Israeli women artists who are active on the local art scene. In 2018, she won the prestigious Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realist Art, which brought her a $10,000 grant and a solo exhibition – “Spellbound,” currently on at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The show includes 25 works by Shihadi, eight of which are new and were created specifically for this exhibition, which runs through October 21. “It is such a tremendous thrill for me to have a show at the Tel Aviv Museum,” she says.

Shihadi was born in the village of Sha’ab in the Galilee – “a small Muslim village with about 7,000 people.” Before 1948, her family lived in the village of Mi’ar in the Western Galilee, east of Acre; the village was destroyed and its residents were expelled.

“At the heart of her artistic pronouncement are memory and gender and national identity politics in the Israeli society and the traditional Palestinian society, as experienced by a Palestinian woman in Israel,” writes exhibition curator Emanuela Calò in an introduction in the show’s catalog. “[Shihadi] creates practices of remembrance to counter the amnesia regarding the Nakba, and dialogue between the personal and the public.”

Many of Shihadi’s works relate to the Nakba (or “catastrophe,” when over 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled during the 1947-49 war) and to Palestinian refugee-hood. One example of this is her charcoal drawing “Landscape” (2019), depicting darkened and bleak-looking sabras. The bushes symbolize the Nakba, the boundaries of ruined Palestinian villages, the clinging to the land, as well as fortitude and the capacity to survive.

'Mother and Daughter,' a piece that 'brings many to tears.'Credit: Elad Sarig

Her very moving work “Our Home” presents her parents from a distance, sitting in the heart of a landscape on plastic chairs placed on a flat surface symbolizing their home, which was wiped out. They appear paralyzed with pain, surrounded by an abandoned forest, an uprooted tree lying next to them. The drawing encapsulates a feeling of quiet, of time being frozen, and melancholy.

In the 2018 drawing “Shade of the Past,” Shihadi’s father is sitting beside some rubble, slightly bent over and with his back to the viewer, his gaze focused on the landscape of the village from which he was expelled. A Jewish family now wanders on his land indifferently. In “Picnic,” also from 2018, a carpet is spread out on the ground with pots and plates on it, with the ruins of a village in the background.

Another work shows a refugee’s belongings wrapped up in a keffiyeh lying on a table. Above it a framed picture of za’atar (wild hyssop), the harvesting of which was banned for years because it was on the list of protected plants. A very similar drawing by Shihadi, called “A Bundle From Home,” was bought by a Palestinian family living in Dubai. It depicts the same scene, except that instead of za’atar, it shows the house in Tiberias where the family had lived prior to 1948.

“I was raised on the memory of the expulsion in 1948,” Shihadi explains. “This memory is very much alive in my family. I still live it very strongly today.”

In what way?

“Every year on the Nakba [May 15, Israel’s Independence Day] my whole family goes to the village from which it was expelled. It’s like a ritual where we meet, eat together, sing and remember. All this time they’ve been telling us stories about how it was before, but even now I keep discovering new stories I never knew about. For example, my mother will suddenly recall something that happened and tell us about it for the first time. We are also raising the next generation to remember: Even my little nephews know the Arabic names of the villages and places from which the family was expelled – not their current Hebrew names. There is a tension that’s been with us from a young age, between the past and the future, between memory and the attempt to remember and not forget.”

Samah Shihadi's solo exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Samah Shihadi's solo exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Landscape painting is becoming less common among contemporary Jewish artists, and many Jewish artists stay away from political art. By contrast, Palestinian artists often depict landscapes – and take a political stance.

“I had to do it,” says Shihadi, after quietly pondering the question of why she creates political works. “I felt that I just had to do something with this and not ignore it. I must admit that when I started creating art it was hard for me to deal with the political aspect and I didn’t really want to. I used to think that I wouldn’t get into it, that I wouldn’t want to deal with political subjects at all. I left that part aside for many years, but about three years ago, I had a reawakening. I felt that I had to return to this subject and do something with it. It really scared me to touch it. It takes real courage to grapple with this subject and to present it. I was very afraid of how these works would be received and if the exhibition would draw an audience.”

How does your family feel about you making the village landscapes and your personal and the collective Palestinian story such a presence in your work?

“They are very happy. They see it as documentation of their village and their history.”

Pencils as ‘best friends’

“Shihadi is a very gifted artist. Her drawing is so extraordinary that it becomes like a painting with endless shades between light and shadow,” Haaretz art critic Uzi Tzur wrote about the exhibition in Tel Aviv, last month: “…from dazzling light to the sharpness of the shadow that derives from it, along with a certain amount of European richness and softness. This is drawing that is blazing with vitality, with inner ruminations. The political aspects are implied and do not impose themselves on the viewer. For a viewer unaware of the hidden political heft, the work seems like a naturalist landscape on the classic subject of man in the landscape.”

Samah Shihadi. 'I wasn’t exposed at all to museums or galleries. I didn’t know about painters or art.' Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

The artist usually uses pencil on paper and only in the last few years has begun to use charcoal. “I started drawing with pencils when I was very young, and I’ve stayed faithful to them. They were always with me growing up and became my best friends.”

Her figurative-realist, black-and-white drawings are based on her own photographs – incredibly precise, with a tremendous richness and intimacy,with layer upon layer of pencil and charcoal gradually forging an image that is frozen in time.

Shihadi: “Sometimes I think of an idea, construct a situation, stage it and photograph it. Other times I photograph something that happens spontaneously. The next stage is that I sit and draw in the studio, based on the photos.”

Shihadi is one of six children. Her mother is a housewife; her father worked in a factory and later, doing renovations. Of her early years, she says, “I remember my teacher would hang my drawings on the wall. She always complimented me. She told me I was talented and made me feel special. My parents also noticed when I was young that I had a talent for drawing. I wasn’t exposed at all to museums or galleries. I didn’t know about painters or art. I think my talent comes from my mother. From the time I was small, I remember her drawing, similar to what I am doing today, and also embroidering.”

'Shade of the Past,' 2018.Credit: Elad Sarig
'Picnic'Credit: Elad Sarig

The artist left her home in Sha’ab when she enrolled in Oranim – School of Education of the Kibbutz Movement, outside Haifa, to study art and art education. She earned her bachelor’s degree with distinction in 2012 and went on to do a master’s degree in art at the University of Haifa. She has lived in that northern city ever since: Her studio is located in the Pyramid – a center for contemporary art in the Wadi Salib neighborhood.

“I never dreamt or believed that I could be an artist,” Shihadi says suddenly. “The expectation of my family and society was that I would study art, return to the village, work as a teacher, get married and have kids. That’s what I was taught to think at home and in the society in which I grew up – that I couldn’t be more than an art teacher. When I finished my studies, I spent a year teaching at an elementary school in Shfaram [an Arab village in the Galilee]. I was in a bad way that whole year. I stopped drawing. Eventually I realized that I couldn’t teach and that I had to work as an artist.”

You were never encouraged to become an artist?

“No, that kind of aspiration is foreign to our society. There is no education of that kind; there are no figures of women artists to look up to. But it’s deeper than that: The whole parents’ generation isn’t aiming for their children to have such dreams and aspirations. There was no basis for my parents to think that I could succeed as an artist. Not that they didn’t want me to be one. They just didn’t know it was even possible. The most one could dream about was teaching art to schoolchildren. They were only concerned that I’d be able to make a decent living.”

Samah Shihadi. 'Sometimes I think of an idea, construct a situation, stage it and photograph it.' Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
'Tug for War,' 2018.Credit: Elad Sarig

In the 2017 work “Two Women in One (Self-Portrait with a Book),” Shihadi has created an homage to one of her favorite artists, Frida Kahlo: She is dressed like Kahlo, in a men’s suit, sporting closely cropped hair. Instead of the book in Kahlo’s painting, Shihadi depicts a book by Egyptian feminist author Nawal El Saadawi, someone who is also a major inspiration for her.

“In this work, I’m talking about my desire to be independent,” says Shihadi, with a smile. “This work came about when my sister remarked that because of my success as an artist, my parents don’t need to worry about me anymore – that now I’m seen as one of the men in the family.”

Indeed, Shihadi’s star is ascendant, and she now makes a living exclusively from her art. Since 2012, she has had successful exhibitions in Israel and abroad, both group and solo shows. Her works can be found in collections in Lebanon, Bethlehem, Kuwait, Dubai and Tel Aviv. In 2018, she had an exhibition in Dubai entitled “Hungry for Home,” comprised of 18 drawings on the subject of traditional Palestinian food.

'Mother and Rooster,' 2019.Credit: Elad Sarig

In an interview with Palestinian journalist and culture researcher Rania Tabari Idliby, who lives in Dubai, Shihadi said: “I remember the smell of the bread rising all over the house and the whole family gathering at the table, eating manakish [a traditional baked delicacy] and fresh vegetables as our laughter rose to fill the space with joy. This memory wanders in my imagination every time I walk by bakeries in Haifa.”

‘Neither here nor there’

A critical feminist message about the status of women in Arab society is reflected in many of her works. The Tel Aviv Museum show includes her 2014 series “Paper Cups,” in which she created 12 cups, symbolizing the age when a Muslim girl enters maturity. The cups, simulating women’s genitals, are pierced by numerous pins, alluding to the imperative for the adolescent girl to protect her virginity; on the bottom of the cups are various depictions of the artist’s own face.

Untitled, 2015, by Samah Shihadi.Credit: Elad Sarig

Shihadi: “I refer to Arab society in my work but it is also universal. “In my society, women hardly have a voice and are treated like objects. In my works, I bring up subjects that relate to women in situations of strength, of weakness, of sadness, of rebellion. As a woman, it’s important for me to raise these subjects in order to spur a new way of thinking. It pleases me that many young women are influenced by my work. They tell me that I give them inspiration and strength and help them see a possibility for change.”

In 2015, she had her first solo show, “Wanted,” at the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery, curated by Farid Abu Shakra, who called her work “poetry in shades of gray.” The series shown there is also included in “Spellbound,” and in one work, her sister appears in a drawing that resembles a mug shot or “wanted” poster.

“I drew her face from every direction while she was wearing a hijab, and her body is missing,” Shahidi says. “This is a critical statement about a woman’s role in Arab society. The woman is ‘wanted’ for marriage to a man, even if that’s not her choice. She is destined to serve the man all the time and she cannot say no. It’s as if she is in prison; she is supposed to obey to the point of surrendering. Therefore, she disappears. Another dimension of this is that Israeli society views her as suspect and foreign.”

In a work called “Tug For War” (2016), she is grasping and pulling on a rope: “This is the tension that is constantly there, whereby I am chained to society’s rules. There’s the desire to be free of the fetters and to pull myself forward, but also a desire to remain connected to society and to preserve the tradition I was raised in.”

'Wanted,' 2014.Credit: Elad Sarig

In a series entitled “Disappearance,” especially created for the Tel Aviv show, a dancer is depicted in three poses, gradually fading away and then vanishing: “In my work I return again and again to the subject of disappearance and to duplicated images of my feminine form. It’s an expression of my search for identity, and the conflict I feel when I don’t really find myself anywhere,” she says. “It’s the well-known conflict for Palestinian residents of Israel: You’re neither here nor there. Lately I’ve been feeling like it’s suffocating me. I don’t feel like I belong to any place and I’m still searching for home and not finding it.”

One of Shihadi’s favorite works in the exhibition is “Between Life and Death” (2019), an homage to Georgia O’Keefe. Shihadi drew a self-portrait in which she is dressed in a white cloth that simultaneously evokes a shroud, a wedding dress and the robe of a goddess. She has adopted the motif of a cow’s skull that is common in O’Keefe’s oeuvre, holding it in the area of the womb.

“This is a criticism of patriarchal society in which a woman’s destiny is only to be a mother, and if a woman does not fulfill this destiny, she doesn’t count for anything. Her husband can marry another woman or divorce her,” she explains.

Where do you find yourself in terms of these roles and societal expectations?

“My family is dying to marry me off,” she laughs. “But I’m far from all that. I feel like I’m not ready for that yet. I don’t yet feel that I want to bring a child into this world. It doesn’t seem like the kind of place to raise children. Women who remain single, divorce and feminism – all these are things that are gradually happening today in Arab society. Women are starting to do what is right for them and to pursue their dreams, but while there is this progress, there is also the murder of women and violence against women.

“Still, I do see change happening: It is very slow but it is growing. You hear criticism about the murder of women, people are starting to speak out against this violence and there is disapproval of it. Now when we hear that a woman has been murdered, we don’t keep quiet. We go out to protest, there is discussion about it on social media and people speak out against it in the media. When I see that, I feel hope that attitudes about this are changing.”

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