Image: Women's March 1 and 3 by Mohammed Alhaj

From Palestine With Art: An exhibition at the P21 Gallery

When I entered the P21 Gallery in Central London to see ‘From Palestine With Art’ (which is running till the 2nd of March), I knew immediately that what I was signing up for would be the strings of my heart breaking bit by bit, and that this wasn’t going to be an easy viewing. There were even times when I had to hold myself together when viewing the wide array of artwork and pictures on display.

As I entered the first room, I sat down on a bench in the middle of the room to prepare my camera. There was a projector in front of me and there was a video playing as the backdrop for this floor. It included Palestinians talking about the 2014 Gaza War and their stories. Amongst the speakers in the video was Al-Jazeera journalist, Wael Al-Dahdouh, who lost his wife, son (who was following in his father’s footsteps of becoming a journalist), daughter and grandson following Israeli airstrikes on October 13th.  As I walked around the sound in the room intensified. I was flicking between looking at the art and back at the projector, both telling stories of pain and suffering.

Wael Al-Dahdouh speaking on the 2014 Gaza war

The first piece of artwork was a keffiyeh (a traditional Palestinian scarf) wrapped in barbed wire alongside traditional Palestinian Thobes (dresses), and it was named ‘All That Remains’ by Ibrahim Alazza. I felt hopeless knowing that it represents current circumstances. Many Palestinians in Gaza right now go without food or water, nor a home to return to that is underneath the rubble left by IDF strikes. All that remains of their possessions is the clothes on their back and the Keffiyeh that embodies their identity which is intrinsically drawn to the land. The choice of barbed wire was particularly harrowing and again illustrated the barbaric treatment of the Palestinians. When we think of barbed wires, we imagine animals being trapped, yet in this instance, it is the people who have lived there for centuries, many are stuck behind such barbaric use of instruments of division. 

‘All That Remains’ by Ibrahim Alazza

The next part of my journey on this exhibition that struck me was the theme of either faceless or concealed people. This was shown in the painting ‘Steps’ by Susan Bushnaq, whereby the two women in the picture almost look soulless, the two bronze busts by Sana Farah Bishara; ‘Emotion’ which was of a woman hunched into her arms crying, and ‘Woman In All Her Moods’, whereby this woman is leaning back sat down. Looking at these pieces gave me the feeling that if you do not see the faces, you are not forced to confront the idea of their oppression and that it is somehow easier to digest.

This work from Susan and Sana brought to mind one of my favourite films The Prince Of Egypt. In this excellent adaptation of the Biblical story, there is a scene in which Aaron (Moses’ brother) confronts Moses after the latter’s return to Egypt about his ignorance towards Hebrew slavery. To which Moses responds ‘I did not see because I did not wish to see.’ Moses here acknowledges his past wrongs for not looking into the faces and acknowledging the suffering they had been tormented with at the hands of even him. 

Left Image: ‘Steps’ by Susan Bushnaq

Right Image: ‘Emotion’ and ‘Woman In All Her Moods’ by Sana Farah Bishara

This was then contrasted with images and sketches of Palestinians’ faces as I walked along the room and eventually downstairs, which I thought was effectively placed by the curator Faisal Saleh. For people to open their eyes and see the truth, you need only to look into the faces of the people. People can tell you a thousand different things through their expressions and eyes. I saw hurt, bravery, seriousness, charisma and much more in these displays. 

The most strenuous view was that of a series of sketches labelled ‘Children Of War’ by Janan Abdu. Most of the children in the picture cannot take the psychological abuse, whereas the girl in the bottom right of the picture seems almost numb to war. This is so chilling to think that a child could become used to a war. Think back to your childhood and imagine how your life may have been in these shoes, it is certainly an inconceivable thought for many of us. If you were still in denial of Palestinian suffering when entering a gallery such as this, I would highly doubt that one could look into the faces of these children and plausibly not react or empathise with them. 

Another stand out for me was an elderly woman pictured, labelled as ‘Woman Carries The Weight Of Our Past And Our Future’ By Nadia Irshaid Gilbert. There is so much for the elderly to teach us and of their life experiences, but unfortunately many of the elderly who lived there now have been scarred by past events, and have to see the generations that followed go through what they did. In that image the lady seems stranded, not able to build up the strength to fight as she clasps her hands together, but yet feels it is her duty as she looks towards the distance. Similarly as with children, the elderly should also be protected and not be burdened with such heinous actions levelled at them like war, which makes the image very tough to look at.

Left Image: ‘Woman Carries The Weight Of Our Past And Our Future’ By Nadia Irshaid Gilbert

Right Image: ‘Children Of War’ by Janan Abdu

Left Image: ‘Face Of Resistance’ By Hanan Awad              

Right Image:   ‘Palestinian Portraits’ By Jacqueline Bejani

 ‘Samira’ By Rania Matar

On the lower-level floor like the beginning of the exhibition there was a screen but this time it was an illustration and timeline of the Nakba. It counts each village destroyed and as it does the sound of a bomb is heard from the screen. Its uneasiness surrounded the room and even made me feel anxious. This was its intended target to make us try and understand even an inch of what it’s like to hear bombs overhead aimed close by. 

Screen detailing events of Nakba

A common misconception about Palestinians is that they aren’t native to the land, but rather a result of an ‘Arabisation’ that has made it what it is today. This is an incoherent view. The long scroll below called ‘Siege’ by Samira Badran shows utter chaos with an explosion in the background and all that’s left are the legs/body parts of a human. But in this unique artwork, the legs are made from buckets that have collected Olive Oil bottles and pottery. These objects made me think of how it dispelled such disinformation.

‘Siege’ by Samira Badran

If you trace the root history back of Palestinians, they were linked to a people called the Pelesets (who were people of the sea) that eventually settled in what became known as the Philistines (West of Jerusalem and off the coast of the Mediterranean Sea) mixing with the native Canaanites ingratiating themselves in the land. DNA results of Palestinians today will prove that they share a majority Canaanite blood. The Pelesets brought pottery with them which started to appear in the land of Canaan in at least the 12th century BC. Current-day Palestinians most certainly have a claim to the land considering their roots have lied there for countless generations. Thus, I thought the use of pottery while subtle and intelligent from Samira was perhaps emblematic of the above fact I have shared. The scroll itself shows us that despite the bombings Israel cannot kill the artefacts that are encapsulated in time. Speaking of encapsulating something, I said to a friend on holiday once that when you touch a land, a piece of yourself will remain forever no matter how small. At the end of the exhibition, there was a cupboard filled with Palestinian pictures attached to it. Whether people accept it or not, Palestinian memory is ingrained within the land, its impact etched onto the fabric of the society just like the images attached to the cupboard. The structures of buildings and the ground have felt the people who have lived there for generations, and the people’s souls and stories will remain! 

Cupboard with attached images of Palestinian memories 

Left Image: Palestine Railways by unnamed artist                                   

Right Image: Arab Women’s Union Of Ramallah by unnamed artist                        

Another misconception that came to my mind whilst walking around the bottom floor of the gallery, seeing the green lands of Palestine, was a viewpoint coming from the mouth of Benjamin Netanyahu that Palestine was a ‘barren wasteland’ before the Nakba in 1948. I was also reminded of essentially echoed views by right-wing political commentator Ben Shapiro, who said in a 2010 tweet that ‘Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb.’ It is an ironic statement, as if you look at the three paintings below you can see the extensive furtiveness of the land and how Palestinians cared for it: growing olive oil trees and beautiful, colourful plants. In ‘Summer Without A Sun’ by Taqi Sabateen, it emphasises that the IDF have been involved in the destruction of the land and bombing it, contrary to Shapiro’s comments. This light of beautiful and colourful land has been replaced by the light of fire and explosions.

Left image: ‘Spring In Lifta Village’ By Sobhiya Hasan Qais

Middle image: ‘Spring Without Horizon’ By Taqi Sabateen

Right image: ‘In Pursuit Of Utopia’ By Nabil Anani

‘Summer Without A Sun’ By Taqi Sabateen

The last piece of artwork I would like to speak about is one called ‘Immigration’ by Mohammad Alhaj. I found the painting profound, particularly through its multifaceted interpretation; is it representative of Palestinians being forced to go to sea from ports like Haifa during the Nakba, or is it about Palestinians arriving in different countries as a diaspora? It could also represent a journey timeline, with some people further back in the painting to the ones at the front. I’m not sure of the exact meaning but it was certainly one of the stand-out pieces for me in the gallery.

‘Immigration’ by Mohammad Alhaj

In conversation with Faisal Saleh, curator of the exhibition

I can certainly say I will be visiting the P21 gallery again in the future! The lady at the front desk was very friendly and it was nice chatting to her. She told me that this particular gallery hosts exhibitions all year around for Middle Eastern & North African art, so keep your eyes peeled for more to come from them. She told me they will have another exhibition with more Palestinian artwork opening around the middle of March so if you cannot make it to ‘From Palestine With Art’ definitely try and go to the next one! 

I was also able to contact the curator of the exhibition, Faisal Saleh, who is the founder of Palestine Museum US. Having grown up in Palestine to a family that had to flee their village and a backdrop of the 1967 war and its impact, these exhibitions are no doubt of vital importance to him.

I shared my perceptions of the artwork with Faisal and asked him what his intentions were in this wonderful exhibition. He started by reflecting on my thoughts saying “Different people will see different things and have different thoughts. And that is a sign of good art.” He then responded to the question of intentions saying:

“Our mission as a museum is to tell the Palestinian story to a global audience through the arts. And we feel this exhibit goes a long way in getting our story across to new audiences. We are exploring the availability of additional venues in the UK and Ireland to hold this exhibit in.”

He continued by talking about some of the inspirations of the exhibition itself:

“We blend the art of painted portraits depicting renowned art (Samia Halaby) and literature (Susan Abulhawa, Mahmoud Darwish) personalities with the visual storytelling of photography featuring everyday people, all in an effort to illuminate the rich cultural tapestry and historical narratives of Palestinians. Through this unique combination, we strive to showcase not only the well-documented figures who have made significant contributions to Palestinian art and literature but also the diverse and vibrant communities that form the backbone of Palestinian society. Each brushstroke and captured moment serves as a tribute to the resilience, creativity, and heritage of the Palestinian people, offering a multifaceted perspective that transcends time and connects past with present.”

I can only thank the wonderful people at the P21 gallery and Faisal for putting on such an excellent display and of course, the incredibly talented artists. The exhibition touched me deeply and it is a must-visit!

Editor’s note: If you plan to visit this exhibition, it is free and runs until the 2nd of March. The P21 Gallery hosts workshops as well as real and virtual exhibitions. You can learn more about the P21 Gallery through this link.

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