In 1974, Moroccan cultural journal Intégral published a special edition on the first Arab biennial of visual arts, which had just taken place in Baghdad. The two documents translated here come from this special edition, and both of them deal with the Palestinian presence at the landmark exhibition. Moroccan artist Mohamad Chebaa and Italian-Moroccan art historian Toni Maraini each consider Palestine an ideal arena for the development of decolonial “combat art,” but express disappointment with its pavilion's emphasis on folk idioms over images of armed struggle. The introduction to these documents situates them in relation to Moroccan and Palestinian discourses surrounding heritage and colonialism, arguing that the Palestinian context erodes the distinction between “folk” and “combat” art in ways foreign to the Casablanca-based intellectuals.

There were 23 artists, of which 4 were women, with a total of 57 works. Their participation was substantial. All of the artists showed strong figurative tendencies, though with great stylistic differences. Given the specific role that art can play as a means of historical documentation, whistle-blowing, and immediate information in a battle that is tangible at every level of experience, this could be explained as a choice.1 It was nevertheless difficult to know this, no text having been provided. As part of a search for a material alternative to the problems of idiomatic language and artistic intelligibility, an explanatory text would have opened a historic debate.

One might say that the works themselves are a document. This is very true. But it remains to explain to the visitor to what extent, or from what perspective, “naive” landscapes and “folkloric” scenes can be considered combat art. Without full knowledge of the issue and given the particularity of the subject, it could be risky for the viewer to assess for herself. We think in any case that it would have been helpful to clarify this and other questions raised by this art (such as the need for agricultural landscapes, or popular scenes in relation to communal values) by way of posters, for example, or through even more striking and revelatory means. Without [such clarifications], one might very well believe that this choice was a result of the selection process rather than an ideological statement.

There was, on one hand, a tendency toward “serene realism,” toward a poetic rendering of the visual; [Ibrahim] Ghannam's “naive,” crystalline landscapes, Jumana Hussayni's hieratic statuettes and her dreamscapes, Laila al-Shawa's meticulous, almost embroidered paintings, and the print-like scenes of Tamam al-Akhal Shammout's fine, well-balanced little paintings.

On the other hand, a tormented realism. The two most representative artists were [Ismail] Shammout and [Mustafa] al Hallaj, whose approaches are fairly different. They are both relatively well known. There was also the sober, reserved expressionism of [Samir] Salama, a young artist of restrained, critical realism that is modest and to-the-point. His style contrasts with the descriptive painting of Ismail Shammout. The style of the latter has experienced a very sharp turn over the course of his career. He began in 1953 with what I would call a somber academicism: a certain Mannerism of suffering, which evolved around 1969 toward a more personal painting, more luminous and direct, with broken lines and curved planes à la Cézanne. His colors change with his compositions. His painting evokes a heroic image of the Palestinian people and focuses on “iconic” gestures, which is to say on dignified, deliberately composed scenes and characters whose classicality is accentuated by the steadiness and fixity of their expressions.

M. al Hallaj's painting was sharply critiqued at the Biennial. Because this controversial art seems to merit more than a sensationalist, scandalized critique, we'd like to say something about it. Firstly, from a purely technical point of view, we note that M. al Hallaj (creator of drawings, woodblock prints, watercolors, etchings, etc.) is a true draftsman. Perhaps his paintings (exhibited at the biennial) are not quite on par with his drawings (which he showed us separately), but he is nevertheless truly an excellent draftsman, who, to a certain extent, knew how to turn away from the deadlock of bourgeois academicism by creating his own canon (code) of images and meanings. In our opinion, therefore, one should not—even in rejecting themes that are too obscure and surrealist, at worst even blasphemous and sick—forget his undeniable skills in his own techniques. Further, to turn to his imaginary language, it should be noted that he expresses the real through allegories of a surreal type. These allegories can be critiqued for being too obscure, too pessimistic, too erotic, and too intellectualized; in short, too incomprehensible for the correct assessment of his people's struggle, even if this struggle is, in one way or another, his singular, obsessive theme. Since this theme is inextricably interwoven with elements of his own psyche, the resulting vision is too tormented, obscene, and grotesque to be educational and explanatory.

It is above all the image of the Woman that lends itself to controversy, though Hallaj insists she is an Allegory. She is the Land, a field of piled corpses, a Land that is simultaneously loved and hated because it is far away, possessed, trod over by other feet—those of lustful Imperialists—and coveted by naked men, animals, the elderly, foreigners. This estrangement is felt as rage and treason. Sometimes a siren, sometimes a prostitute, the Woman is suspected of grotesque couplings. From here springs Hallaj's misogynistic double entendre. However, in certain works, it is clear that this Land is attuned to the glorious combatant who appears on the horizon, and with the Rooster (symbol of awakening). Animals (the mare, the bird, the wolfhound, the jackal, etc.) appear often in his drawings.

Actors in an imaginary theater, these character-entities (the combatant, the imperialist, the infant, the mare, the negative/positive woman, the artist himself, etc.) wander a scene that is at once hope and despair. Too difficult to decipher, too alienated from its people, this symbolism possibly possesses—beyond its highly individualized pathological hallucinations—elements that carry collective value. The masses do not lack imagination; it must not be forgotten that, historically, the people were the first to have produced complex, symbolic arts as well as literary allegories. Thus, perhaps in time, if the people recognize the symbols that concern them (because, ultimately, they are the best judges), Hallaj's art may become less estranged from them, as was the case for Goya's later prints or Bosch's paintings and their respective peoples.

Thus we have the numerous artistic and cultural problems raised by the participation of Palestinian artists. It remains to be seen, in any case, what forms of combat art they and their people wish to adopt.

First published in French as part of “Baghdad 1974: Première biennale arabe des arts plastiques: Un compte-rendu,” Intégral: Revue de création plastique et littéraire, no. 9, “Spécial biennale arabe de Baghdad” (December 1974): 3-28.



All emphasis in original unless otherwise noted.