Sliman Mansour and Palestinian art on the battlefield

Sliman Mansour and Palestinian art on the battlefield

Artist born in Birzeit a year before Nakba was present at the 2002 São Paulo Biennial and won a UNESCO prize

Born 76 years ago in one of the few remaining Christian Palestinian cities, located in the center of the West Bank, Sliman Mansour is a prominent Palestinian artist and a standout among his contemporary peers. He began drawing at a young age and, later, a German tutor at a boarding school in Belém noticed his talent, encouraging the young man to delve deeper into painting and enter his works in art competitions.

Known as “the artist of the Intifada”, Mansour was in Brazil in 2002, when he participated in the 25th edition of the São Paulo Biennale, and was one of the winners of the Unesco-Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture, in 2019. The visual artist, author , sculptor and cartoonist also received the Cairo Biennale awards in 1998 and the Palestinian Prize for Visual Arts in 1998.

Mansour uses the brush and artistic practice as a resource for the revolutionary transformation of Palestine. In his works, he carries the flag of a colonized people, resistant and involved in a military occupation without truce or rules. His art is permeated by this reality, emphasizing the beauty and richness of colors and creating a concept of working with clay using Palestinian earth and with the product he began to sculpt and paint.

The artist began using this raw material in 1987, during the First Intifada. The choice of the peculiar material came from the need to rescue female ancestry, who used clay utensils at home. The use of Palestinian clay allowed him to capture the essence of Palestinian roots, contrasting with the fragmentation of the political and geographic landscape - echoed in the cracks that form in the mud as it dries. Other natural materials are used, such as coffee and hay.

Thus, he uses art as part of resistance. The brush is his weapon and establishes the relationship between people and land, between history and culture in his artistic work. Mansour aims to tell the living Palestinian story, while creating art from the events. His works show an artist who clings to a desire for life and self-determination for his country, and cities that are true open-air prisons, similar to Warsaw ghettos. Thinking about every detail of the artistic experience instead of drawing the earth, he decided to draw with the earth. In exhibitions, people feel your work – they feel the Palestinian heritage, by touch, smell, with their senses.
Read the full Opera Mundi interview with Sliman Mansour:

Opera Mundi: how is his art linked to the liberation process of the Palestinian people?

Sliman Mansour: the main challenge of Palestinian art arises from the persistent denial of the existence of the Palestinian people by Israel and a large part of the Western world, which makes the expression of Palestinian identity a fundamental issue. Given the abstract nature of identity, the search for visual symbols has become imperative, drawing inspiration from diverse sources. Ancient regional art, Islamic art with a focus on calligraphy, and folk art including costume, embroidery, traditional architecture, and village life have contributed to the rich tapestry of Palestinian artistic expression.

The landscape, with symbolic elements, such as orange trees that signify the land occupied in 1948 and olive trees that represent the 1967 occupation, played a fundamental role. International art addressing liberation has also provided valuable inspiration, contributing to the development of Palestinian identity and raising awareness for liberation from Israeli occupation. Despite global recognition after the Oslo Accords, recognition falls short of what is expected of Palestinians as full human beings, deserving of liberation and a dignified life. The current role, as perceived, involves challenging this attitude through various forms of art and culture, encompassing literature, film, theater, music and more.

Could you tell us a little about the artistic situation in Gaza and the rest of Palestine?

In the West Bank, there is a modest art market that plays a dual role, not only serving local artists but also offering a connection to artists from Gaza. The region has three galleries in Ramallah and Bethlehem. Furthermore, the artistic scene is enriched by the presence of an Art Museum at Birzeit University and an important institution, the Palestine Museum, also located in Birzeit. The Mahmoud Darwish Museum in Ramallah further contributes to the culture of the West Bank.

Meanwhile, in Gaza, a vibrant artistic movement has thrived, with diverse artists actively involved in the creative process. Art collectives collaborate, exhibiting their work, often at their respective headquarters. Unfortunately, the artistic community in Gaza suffered a setback with the bombing of the Ce

"Village" Arts and Crafts Center a few years ago. Despite the challenges, contemporary tools such as photography, video, montage and performance have become an integral part of the work of many artists in the region.

Finding ways to circumvent censorship is something Palestinian artists have long been familiar with. How did watermelon become a symbol of Palestinian identity and resistance?

During the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s, Israeli authorities demonstrated greater sensitivity toward artworks that addressed identity and occupation, resulting in the confiscation of several works by Palestinian artists. These artists often employed symbols to convey subtle messages, and soldiers often failed to understand their meaning. One notable episode involves an exhibition in 1980 at the then-exclusive Gallery 79: after the opening, soldiers violently emptied the gallery, locked its doors and took the keys. A month later, the gallery's director, Issam Bader, and two artists, including the exhibitor, were summoned by an official who, in a surreal discussion about "good art", suggested painting flowers and nude figures similar to those of the old masters. Interestingly, two orders were issued: works of art could not be displayed in the occupied territories without authorization from military censorship, and painting in red, green, black and white was prohibited. When asked about a flower painted in those colors, the officer's angry response highlighted the absurdity of the restrictions. The keys were returned, but upon reopening the gallery, three paintings were mysteriously missing. This incident prompted the artist to brief reporters, Palestinian artists, and international allies, including progressive Israeli artists. In 1998, Khaled Hourani pioneered the use of watermelon as a symbolic replacement for the Palestinian flag.

What is his message for the next generation of Palestinian artists?

I emphasize the importance of a sense of belonging and a focus on society as the main audience. Although individual art can reach European or North American galleries, it runs the risk of distancing artists from their people, the artist cannot forget his people.

What moved me about Palestinian visual arts is that artists portray their painting traditions as inspired by the ancient past and oral traditions and cultural narratives linked to life in Palestine. As a visual artist and a Palestinian, how do you see the impact of the arts on the current conflict?

Art, as an international language, serves as a powerful and peaceful means of conveying the Palestinian narrative to the world, shedding light on their struggles and ongoing occupation.