UReCA: The NCHC Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity
The Wings of Hope
Painting is not made to decorate apartments. It is an instrument for offensive and defensive war against the enemy.
Artistic expression has been an indisputable measure for protesting. Particularly during times of war, artists have openly communicated their thoughts and ideas, which no one else dared to disseminate. They have been the voice of the people through periods of political turbulence and oppression. During the second half of the 20th century, Arab artists became more conscious of the social and political situation of their countries. Hence, they transformed their awareness into art to fight against the constant tragedies occurring in the Arab world. Dia al-Azzawi (Baghdad, 1939), one of Iraq’s most distinguished artists and a pioneer of modern art, has notably stood out for raising his voice through his artworks (1). His artreflects the destruction that his country witnessed after Saddam Hussein (1979-2003) (2) came to power, which then led to the Iran-Iraq War. The conflict started as a play for regional supremacy. Hussein wanted power over the disputed territory of the Shatt al-Arab (where the Tigris and the Euphrates come together), and the province of Khuzestan, a region rich in oil. Therefore, on September 22, 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. However, the counterattacks of Iran in 1982 turned this fight into a lengthy eight-year conflict (1980-1988) (3). Historically speaking, Iraqi art has alwaysbeen influenced by war and socio-political issues. Thus, this moment in history thoroughly impacted the painter, during which he was exiled to London. The inspiration to develop his style originated when he studied archeology at the College of Arts in Baghdad. His classes on ancient Iraq fueled his fascination with Mesopotamia and the Sumerian civilization(4).
Hence, he works with European principles but uses motifs from his heritage. He incorporates traditional elements of Arabic calligraphy, scenes from Iraq’s history, and Babylonian symbols (5). A good example of his work is Red Sky with Birds (1981), an oil on canvas painting that embraces al-Azzawi’s contemporaneous style. The art piece is currently at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar.
Another highly renowned Middle-Eastern artist is Silman Mansour (1947, Birzeit). Similar to Azzawi, he utilizes symbolic imagery inspired by Arab tradition. He is regarded as a cultural leader in Palestine because his paintings promote the Palestinian heritage while reflecting the struggle of the country during the occupation of Israel (6). The 20th century was characterized by a series of wars in the Middle East between Israel and many Arab countries. After the victory of Israel in the Six-Day War (1967), the friction shifted into a more specific Israeli-Palestinian conflict which led to an even greater acquirement of Palestinian territory by the Israelis: the Gaza strip and the West Bank (7). The upheaval had a huge impact on the artistic contemporary style. Particularly, after the Israeli Declaration of Independence (1948), known as the Nakba (“Catastrophe”) for the Palestinians, nationalistic subjects took over the arts, with the intention of expressing the Palestinian identity, which Israel refused to recognize.
Therefore, because of the occupation, Palestinian artists had the duty of raising awareness and contributing to their country as best as they could by encouraging the resurgence of the Palestinian culture (8). This ushered in the creation of the “Liberation Art of Palestine,” related to the traditions of cubism, constructivism, and the Mexican muralist movement (9). Thus, like many painters, Silman Mansour has devoted himself to strengthening people’s connection to their heritage. He studied Fine Arts at the Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem, and since the 1970s, he has contributed to the development of a visual iconography of the Palestinian narrative through his work (10). One of them is Perseverance and Hope (1976), an oil on canvas painting located at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, Qatar.
Arab contemporary artworks radiate meaning by themselves as they have the purpose of transmitting a strong political statement. Silman Mansour and Dia al-Azzawi have been involved in this artistic activism that highlights the pride of their identity while confronting the violence of the wars and conflicts in the Middle East. The harmonious mixture of shape, space, and movement in their paintings is the outcome of the painters’ successful revival of their cultural heritage, with the intention of denouncing injustice.
Al-Azzawi’s colorful oil painting combines traditional Arab motifs, such as calligraphy, with a European contemporaneous style, inspired by the Cubist painter Pablo Picasso. The fragmentation of objects and the mixture of contrasting colors create an abstract chaotic space, which gives a sense of heaviness to the composition. The two-dimensional design is separated into two areas by multiple vertical lines in the middle of the canvas. On the left side of the artwork, brightly colored birds fly downwards. In this section, the artist used an intense red pigment, which draws the viewer’s attention. On the right side, contorted figures and Arabic calligraphy fill the black background. Overall, the art piece embodies the violence and tragedy during a period that was characterized by tremendous upheaval.
Mansour’s oil painting is characteristic of its period. It represents a Palestinian village, with three figures in the foreground, whose hands are tied. The characters are gazing upwards in a hopeful manner to the dove above them, signifying the possibility of peace after the struggle. The painting enhances the Palestinian identity, with the traditional pattern from the embroidery. Behind the main figures, the villagers are depicted with their eyes or mouths covered, symbolizing the oppression and injustice during a time of invasion. In the background, military cannons are actively engaged in an act of violence, representing the true reality of the occupation. The scene gives an overall sense of chaos and noise while, at the same time, presenting the perseverance of the people, whose hope is still not lost.
Through the shapes of the artworks, symbolic imagery can be constructed, providing the compositions with a deep meaning that is meant to be transmitted to the viewer. Thus, this element is key for defining the value of an art piece. In both paintings, the most important shape is the figure of the bird. The artists have given the flying animals the most significance but in different manners. In Mansour’s work, a predominant triangular shape is formed by three elongated figures in the foreground. The tip of the triangle is created by the wings of a dove: the international symbol of peace. Even though its size is small compared to the other figures, it is tremendously essential as it symbolizes hope and freedom; hence, it is the focal point. This allegory is represented with a very soft, blurry and curvilinear outline. The shade is light and almost luminous, like a spirit. The bright emblem demonstrates Mansour’s optimistic view of the turbulent situation. Conversely, the abstracted birds in Azzawi’s artwork are fragmented shapes with a very thick outline. They are more robust, geometric and colorful. These shapes are the biggest and most detailed figures in the composition and the only ones that can be recognized, hence their prominence. In fact, birds have been a common subject in his art. He has depicted many times the famous “bird of the east” in his paintings (11). The prophecy comes from a verse in the Bible that foretells the coming of a savior from the east, in the form an eagle (12). Interestingly, in Red Sky With Birds, the lower bird looks like an eagle with its white head and yellow beak. This might suggest that the artist represented the bird mentioned in the Bible, who came from the east, the right side of the painting. This may illustrate a slight feeling of hope within the chaotic environment created by the painter. Indeed, the shapes surrounding the winged animals give a sense of chaos. They are characterized by a series of diagonal, horizontal, and vertical lines. The disordered lines intersect each other and can only be differentiated by the contrasting colors, where geometric figures like triangles, rhombus, and rectangles can be detected. However, every individual shape is complex in its interpretation. As a result, the painting is more than the sum of its parts. Its entirety emits the true meaning. The painting itself radiates chaos and provokes a strong reaction in the viewer. It shows the horrors and atrocities caused by conflict; thus, it is a protest against its injustice. On the contrary, Mansour’s art piece is more stable in its entity.
Indeed, on the foreground, the triangular shape, created by three figures gazing at the dove hovering above them, is the most stable in painting. It reflects the strength of the characters, whose hope and faith are solid, as they stand firmly while they stare at their possible future. The shapes in this artwork are more visible and recognizable, as they are very naturalistic compared to the abstraction of Azzawi. Mansour carefully designed every shape according to its position and importance. Especially in the frontal area, he molded the figures to articulate the depth and texture of the folds. He detailed each decoration of the brightly colored embroidery, as it is a symbol of the Palestinian culture that is being revived. The woman who wears the traditional beautiful dress is centralized in the triangle, enhancing her significance in the art piece. In fact, most of Mansour’s paintings depict the Palestinian woman as an emblem of the homeland and the revolution (13). However, the overall presence of the three individuals within the triangular shape portrays the base of society. The grown man on the left embodies the culture while wearing the traditional scarf and headdress.The young man on the right plays an important role as he represents the future generations. These are not merely portraits of the Palestinian people, but they are a personification of their identity. Together, they symbolize the face of the country and the people’s strong unity during a period of struggle. With this extremely symbolic depiction, Mansour is trying to affirm the existence of the Palestinian identity that was not recognized by the West at the time. Unfortunately, behind this beautiful and hopeful scene appears the truth of the occupation. On the left side of the painting, many workers are carrying what seems to be a very heavy cylinder on their backs, which might signify the struggle that they were enduring. In the middle, two figures have their mouths and eyes covered by Israeli soldiers. This represents the oppression during the invasion of Israel when people did not have the freedom to express themselves and were not even allowed to see the truth of their situation. These shapes capture the suffering and injustice occurring in Palestine in the 20th century. Thus, the artist took the responsibility to illustrate a tragic reality as an act of activism against violence. Similar to Mansour, Azzawi has incorporated imagery from his heritage. On the right side of the composition, abstracted Arabic letters colored in black are situated in the center of this colorful mixture. The calligraphy overlaps the contorted shapes that are depicted in the area, which truly highlights the importance of the Arabic language, as being the most prominent element that represents Islamic heritage. Among the flying birds, more Arabic letters can be seen in the middle section, also pigmented in black. Even though the words may be hard to decipher, their mere presence is very symbolic and demonstrates the artist’s fascination and pride of his linguistic heritage. Indeed, with these shapes, a new Iraqi identity is being brought to life through the artist’s close connection to his culture. Both artists have utilized the element of shape for the purpose of creating a composition that could be based on their cultural identity while raising their voice against the cruelty of these political situations.
The two Arab contemporary artists have taken an honorable responsibility to fight for fairness in the Middle East. Through their artworks, they convey their political message to the spectators. To achieve that, they have utilized the primordial element of space in these paintings. The organization of space can truly depict the environment that the painters intended to create, and the character of the composition can be understood by the viewer.
Mansour’s work has an overall sense of organization. The artist divided the space into different planes. There is a certain illusion of depth, as it is articulated with the use of atmospheric perspective. On the foreground, the seemingly colossal figures have been meticulously detailed. This might hold a deeper meaning. Mansour has brought forward what is most valuable to him, which is the depiction of heroic Palestinians, who have been through horrible tragedies but still have an endured hope. The painter is promoting the Palestinian character as being perseverant and optimistic, even during times of upheaval. Therefore, when the spectators look at the art piece, they might feel inspiration and respect for these heroic characters. Conversely, the artist represented the people in the background in a less detailed manner: smaller, blurrier and with the same orangey and brownish shade. Thus, the painter replicated the natural phenomenon of looking from the distance. In the background, the reality of the conflict is shown. The country is being destroyed by the Israeli army with their military weapons, such as cannons that are pointing toward the buildings. Regardless of the tragic depiction, this specific scene is not the one that Mansour is trying to highlight. On the contrary, it plays a secondary role in his work.
This suggests that, even though he is denouncing the injustice of the occupation, he is putting forward the prominence of his cultural identity, and the courageous qualities of Palestinians, which are personified by the three individuals in the front. Contrary to Mansour, Azzawi was inspired by Picasso’s Cubism. He made a two-dimensional design lying flat on the surface of the canvas. Indeed, all figures are placed in the same plane, representing an empty space without depth, while at the same time, giving a sense of crowdedness with a mixture of color and disordered forms. In his artwork, Azzawi divided the space into two sections, not by a planar recession, but by a line cutting into the middle of the canvas. The lack of depth results in the figures being in the foreground, where the intersection of shapes and the overlapping colors provoke a certain impact on the viewer. Moreover, on the right section of the painting, the artist chose a red color for the sky. This suggests that he might have actually depicted the natural phenomenon of the sky turning red during the sunrise, which often means that a storm is on its way. Thus, the red background may indicate the turmoil of Iraq during the war. Nevertheless, the overall objective of the artist was not to describe visual reality, but to represent a ruptured vision of the world, captured by the flat, crowded and disorganized surface, which may convey chaos. Azzawi’s pessimistic environment contrasts with Perseverance and Hope, which has a more optimistic point of view, communicating that peace may come after the turbulence. To summarize, the element of space has been employed by the painters with the intention of enhancing the cruciality of their artworks’ essence. The Iraqi painting heightens the chaos of the war while condemning its horror. The Palestinian composition also has the same agenda but essentially prioritizes the revival of Palestine’s identity, that becomes stronger during times of upheaval.
These paintings hold a political significance that truly produces a strong statement with the exquisite combination of the tragedy of conflicts with the Arab heritage. The purpose of every artist is to have their voice be heard, and have the meaning of their art spread to the public. For this reason, they use the principle of movement, in this case, a mixture of shape and space, intending to keep the eyes of the viewers engaged in the composition. Accordingly, movement is the most vital principle of these artworks. When the spectator looks at the right area of Azzawi’s painting, the compressed shapes seem to have many vertical lines that conduct the eye in an up-down motion, helping the viewer to examine the shapes that are presented. The movement of the viewer’s eyes is directed by contrasting shapes, lines, and colors. However, the fragmentation of these shapes leads, in a horizontal motion, back to the center line and then to the left section. The background of this area is pigmented with a bright red, which is a crucial factor that draws the public’s attention. Flying in the red sky, are three birds, whose position is arranged in a specific manner that allows them to create a circle, provoking the eyes to move in a circular motion, without them ever leaving the painting. The birds’ beaks are used as arrows, guiding the eye through this part, which is the area of emphasis. The central dove points downward to the lower bird, which is aiming upward at the third one. This last figure is positioned in the upper part of the composition, while its vertical orange lines lead to the square-like enclosure. This focal point is the most colored section of the artwork, and it is the one that attracts the most to the spectators, since it holds recognizable forms and hence, a significance within them. The provoked movement of the gaze encourages the viewer to engage in an analysis of the art piece while trying to decipher its meaning. Through this act, the public might understand the pessimism that is produced with the union of the chaotic space and the broken shapes. By utilizing this principle, the artist can denounce the injustice that the country has witnessed through the development of Iraqi culture. In opposition to the unbreakable circular cycle created by Azzawi’s birds, Mansour’s painting guides the gaze of the eyes in a different manner. The frontal triangular shape is the focal point of the composition, and it is where the viewer’s eyes rest the longer, as it holds a deep significance. When the spectators look at the canvas, their eyes immediately shift to where the figures are gazing. These are psychological lines, which are essential to direct the eye to one of the most significant symbols of the art piece, the dove. Then, while looking at the bird, the eyes move to the violent background and can recognize a country being invaded while understanding the unfairness that is caused by this atrocious situation. The vertical shapes formed by the buildings in the background also point toward the dove, whose flight seems to be following the straight line of the horizon. The dove evokes a sense of movement, as the spectator’s eyes also move along with its flight. This action gives the illusion of a possible escape from this oppressive moment that the characters are living, signifying the persevering hope of the people. The provoked movement controls the viewers’ eyes, as it captures their attention and keeps them engaged on the focal point. The attraction to the area of emphasis suggests that the artist has given more importance to the figures that form the triangular shape because, even though he is making a political statement against the occupation, he has taken the role of bringing to life the worldwide rejected Palestinian identity. The principle of movement draws the attention of the public and leads them to participate in the interpretation of the meaning of the composition. At that specific moment, the artists have fulfilled their purpose— to highlight the vitality of their cultural identity and traditions, while actively protesting against the enemy who tried to destroy the same Arab heritage that is being artistically revived.
Azzawi and Mansour have artistically engaged in political activism that consists of righteously fighting against the horrors that both of their countries witnessed throughout the 20th century. The artists were the voice of the people who endured terrible oppression during a period in which censorship was at its peak. They have also been the main actors of the revival of the Arab heritage. Dia Al-Azzawi has developed a new Iraqi identity, characterized by abstracted Arabic calligraphy and ancient symbolism, while Silman Mansour dedicated his career in promoting the Palestinian cultural identity, which was at risk of disappearing. They successfully achieved that through their captivating artworks, such as Red Sky with Birds and Perseverance and Hope. These paintings converge in their agenda, as they purposely denounce the injustice that the Middle-Eastern people went through during the Iran-Iraq war and the occupation of Palestine by Israel. Azzawi’s composition emits the denunciation of the war by creating a chaotic and pessimistic environment. This sense of chaos is generated by a flat colorful surface in which the fragmentation of the contrasting shapes, such as the birds, provokes the movement of the eyes in a circular motion. Equally important is the incorporation of Arabic letters to the painting; they cannot be deciphered, but their mere presence demonstrates the eternal love of the artist for his heritage. Mansour has also portrayed the horrors of the conflict by depicting the suffering caused by the oppression of the people, and the violent attacks of the Israeli army. However, his representation conveys an optimistic message that is personified by the stable triangular shape, consisting of heroic Palestinian characters, who are hopefully gazing at a dove. The figure of the white bird symbolizes the possible freedom, and the strong hope of the Palestinians, including the painter. At the same time, the detailed emblematic figures of the foreground play an important role in strengthening the identity, which brings stability in times of struggle. Even though Azzawi and Mansour fight for the same cause, these two paintings contrast in their style and represent the diverging visions of a conflicted world, in the eyes of the artists who created them.