Exclusive Interview: 7 Masters of Palestinian Art
Hungarian photographer and cameraman Daniel Zoltan Mezei describes the making of a documentary about Palestinian artists, their life and the message of their work.
What was the initiative for this exceptional project?
The project of documenting the work of Palestinian masters started in summer 2016 in Hungary, where they painted in art studios. I visited Israel and then Palestine in the middle of November to visit their birthplaces or their homes. I was in Haifa, Ramallah and other cities and villages in Israel where the acclaimed artists live. They are between 70 and 75 years old. The project leader is Amir A. Abdi, a Palestinian born in Israel, though his mother is Hungarian; his father is also a painter. He is a professor by profession and lives in Hungary. He is also the creator of the popular radio show Caravan at the alternative radio station. He has been living in Hungary for over 20 years, but still visits his homeland every year; they left Haifa for Europe in a small boat in 1948, when Israel was formed. Their migration is a human story, the same that is going on now with all the refugees. I come from a Catholic – Jewish family, and for me it is interesting how some families wish to come to the Holy Land, while some wish to escape it. His father’s art is rooted in the trauma of escape from Palestine. A few years after their migration they could return and visit their hometown Haifa; they only managed this because someone lived in their house. If the Palestinian houses are left empty, their owners can not obtain the required Israeli documents and are so not permitted to return or renovate them. Because of this, Haifa is now full of empty dilapidated houses belonging to another era. Eventually the settlement will be one large ruin. That is also the reason why we did the interviews with the artists in front of the still standing houses in the Arabic neighbourhoods. Maybe this film will be the last to preserve these historic images, that are otherwise shown in the paintings of the artists.
The focus of this documentary is Palestinian art that is underrepresented in the art world. How do you feel the West views this art?
It can be especially hard for Palestinian artists to have an exhibition, since their papers and travelling permits may be unobtainable. It is also very difficult for them to get invited to an exhibit. Some of them need a special permission to get to Israel, or they must first travel to another Arabic county to board a plane, even if the closest international airport is right next to their home. Therefore having an exhibition of Palestine art is really hard. Some of them even cant get from Gaza to Ramallah to bury their parents. Gaza is now one big ghetto.
Some of the paintings of the 7 Palestine masters subtly remind me of biblical scenes. And some are quite obvious. One younger artist did a tragicomic painting. Joseph and Mary are trying to get to Jerusalem but they cannot enter because of the wall; he holy city is now really behind a concrete wall.
We embrace and admire European art that depicts their land, but the art of the locals is unknown to us.
Olive trees are notably present in the paintings. Does olive oil have high economic value in Palestine?
As we know, most of the olive oil we can buy is from Spain, Greece or Morocco. Israel sells olive oil, but not from Palestine, where the locals are not allowed to produce and sell olive oil. In Ramallah hotels, you get butter that is past its expiry date, because that is what they get from Israel. Such things are a part of everyday life. And business suffers. I spent quite some time in 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 hard.
Can we connect such oppression to racism?
Sure. But I do not want to promote fear or any particular side in 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. And there are many such stories; each complex and individual. Art is a way of showing that we are all human. People on every side have their own tradition.
Is there any hope in this current situation? What are the visions of these artists?
For me art has a transcending quality. Beauty itself is a form of high and positive vibrations. Art is more than just mirroring the world around us. It gives hope and it helps. The western media do not paint a truthful picture of the 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, and art helps us go beyond the question of survival. Our homeland is also a part of us and artists can inspire others to seek it. The essence of all meaningful art is the same, since it touches all 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 already recognised as an artist at the age of 14. Now he is over 70. One of his childhood drawings was chosen by the United Nations for a 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 visited Jerusalem during the making of the film and it was something special.
It must be difficult, to document Palestinian art. Did you have any problems?
It was difficult just 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. A complete search. I even recorded it.
Cover photo: ASAD AZI