Exclusive Interview: 7 Masters of Palestinian Art
Hungarian photographer and cameraman Daniel Zoltan Mezei describes the making of a documentary about Palestinian artist, their life and the message of their work.
What was the initiative for this exceptional project?
The project of documenting work of Palestinian masters started in summer 2016 in Hungary, where they painted in studios. I visited Israel and then Palestine in the middle of November to visit their birthplaces or their homes. First I went to Haifa, then to Ramallah, which is a Palestine city, and different cities and villages in Israel where the acclaimed artists live. They are all close to 70 – 75 years old. Behind the project is a Palestine man, with a Hungarian mother; his father is also a painter. Amir A. Abdi is a professor living in Hungary that enabled the project. He was born in Israel while his mother is Hungarian. He is also the author of a popular radio show Caravan at the alternative radio station. He lives in Hungary for over 20 years but visits his homeland every year; they left Haifa in a small boat in 1948, when Israel was formed. Their migration is a human story, the same that is going on now with refugees. I am coming from Catholic – Jewish family and for me, it is interesting that some families escape to the Holy Land, while some run from the Holy Land. His father’s art is rooted in the trauma of escape from Palestine. After a few years, they could return and visit their hometown Haifa because someone lived in their house. Otherwise, the Palestinian houses are empty and the owners are not permitted to return and cannot obtain the Israeli documents. Haifa is now full of empty houses belonging to another era since Palestinians are not allowed by the Israeli state to repair them. Therefore these buildings will eventually collapse. That is also the reason why we did interviews with the Palestinian artists by the houses that are still standing in the Arabic neighborhood. Maybe this film will be the last to preserve these historic images that are otherwise kept in the paintings of those Palestinian artists.
The focus of this documentary is Palestinian art that is underrepresented in the art world due to the evident preference of West based artists?
For Palestinian artists, it is especially not easy to get an exhibition, since their papers and traveling permits can be unobtainable. It is also very difficult for them to get invited to an art exhibition. Some of them need a special permission to go to Israel, or they must first travel to another Arabic county to board a plane, even if the closest international airport is just 20 km from their home. Therefore having an exhibition of Palestine art is really not easy. Some of them even can from Gaza to Ramallah to bury their dead parents. Gaza is now one big ghetto.
I observed the paintings of 7 Palestine masters, they remind me of the biblical scenes. We embrace and admire European art that depicts the same land, but the art of local artist of that land is unknown to us.
On the subject of Bible, one younger Palestine artist did a tragicomical painting. The Holy family, Joseph, and Maria and a child are traveling with a donkey, but they cannot enter Jerusalem. The holy city of is now really behind a concrete wall.
Olive trees are notably present in the paintings. Is olive oil the main resource of living in Palestine?
As we know most of the olive oil we can buy is from Spain, Greece or Morocco. Israel is selling olive oil, but not from Palestine, where they do not have a permit to sell and produce olive oil. In Ramallah in hotels, you get butter that is past use date, because that is what they get from Israel. Such things are a part of everyday life in Ramallah. They cannot make business. I spent quite some time Ramallah and the feeling that inhabitants cannot leave the city is palpably tense. Even for a visitor, it becomes very depressing; the life in such circumstances is certainly not easy.
Can we connect such oppression to racism?
Sure. But I do not want to promote fear or any particular side of the conflict. My aim is to show art. One of the Palestine artists had a father who joined the Israeli Army when he was a child. So he used art to communicate about his identity as a Palestinian in his personal story. There are many different stories; each is complex and individual. Art is a way of showing that we are all human. We need to step out of the fear. People on every side have their own tradition.
Is there any hope in this current situation? What are the visions of artists?
For me art has a transcending quality, beauty itself is a form of high vibration. Art is more than just mirroring the world around us. It gives hope and it helps. Media does not paint a true existence of Palestinian people. The main aspect of the news is just fighting and conflict, art has another dimension. I personally do not want to speak about politics, art helps that we go beyond the question of survival. Homeland is also something inside of us and artists can inspire others to seek it. The essence of all meaningful art is the same since it touches people no matter from where they are.
Could you share some stories from the making of the documentary?
All the artists have a special personal history. I thought the story of Sliman Mansour is interesting because he was recognized as an artist already when he was 14 years old, now he is over 70. His drawing from childhood was chosen by the United Nations for the collection of paintings from children around the World. He painted the Three Kings coming to Bethlehem. Today Mansour is one of the most famous painters in Palestine, he was born in Jerusalem and he is a Catholic. I was visiting Jerusalem during the making of the film and it was something special.
It must be difficult, to document Palestine art today, did you have any problems?
It was not easy even to enter Israel, but since I was in a kibbutz in my youth - Israel keeps a record, I was allowed to enter. When I was leaving Israel they checked every piece of my recording equipment, total search, I even recorded it.
Cover photo: ASAD AZI