THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Kamal Boullata, Thawra / Tharwa (Revolution / Wealth), 1978.
Kamal Boullata, Nun Insan, 1975.
Kamal Boullata, The Angel’s Pool, 1997, (Surrat al-Ard series), Khalid Shoman Collection.
By Nathan Worcester
At the height of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests this summer, the movement might have seemed invincible: despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, thousands packed the streets in demonstrations that were, at least 93% of the time, peaceful.
In some circles, however, BLM’s attitude toward Israel had become a sticking point.
“No wonder Jewish groups are wary of BLM,” wrote the Australian Jewish News in July, noting BLM’s ties to the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Others observed that BLM’s 2016 platform had described Israel as an apartheid state committing genocide against the Palestinian people.
Things change fast these days. On August 28, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency analyzed a 10-page summary of BLM’s new platform, noting that it did not mention Israel or Palestine. Earlier that same day, more than 620 Jewish groups had affirmed their support for BLM in a full-page advertisement published by the New York Times.
Even after this apparent rapprochement, the debate over BLM, Israel, and Palestine has continued on Twitter and other social media platforms. Unlike most other “national conversations,” which are increasingly indistinguishable from monologues, it really is a debate; Western liberals, particularly in the United States, have always found it hard to pick a side.
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There Where You Are Not, a comprehensive new collection of writings from the late Palestinian artist and activist Kamal Boullata, is an instructive complement to the current Zeitgeist. Exiled from his native Jerusalem in 1967, Boullata spent the remainder of his career producing and advocating Palestinian and Arabic visual culture, mostly while ensconced in various capital cities of the West.
Boullata is a fluid and poetic writer—so much so that his own intellectual assumptions and ambitions might pass unnoticed. Fortunately for us, in the book’s Introduction, editor Finbarr Barry Flood explains how Boullata’s project was informed first by mid-twentieth century Pan-Arab Nationalism and later by a deliberate emphasis on a “pervasive Semitic sensibility” linking Arabic and Jewish aesthetics. Invoking Gayatri Spivak’s notion of “strategic essentialism,” Flood observes that “there is… a performative dimension to the affirmation of such identities that subordinates the risk of essentialism to the strategic value of a politics of solidarity.” 1
How does this play out?
Boullata, who was buried in the Cemetery of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, deemphasizes his Christian origins and thoroughly Westernized value system in the interest of building and maintaining an Arabic and, more specifically, a Palestinian identity. This highlights an inconvenient pair of truths: both the Israeli and the Palestinian were forged in the crucible of 20th century politics.
In analyzing the work of ‘Asim Abu Shaqra (“The Artist’s Eye and the Cactus Tree”), Boullata contrasts the Palestinian/Israeli Arab’s icon-like treatment of desert cactus (sabra) with the Israeli image of the prickly, persevering sabra—that is, a Jew born in Israel. Boullata seems to think that nature, unlike politics, sides with the Palestinian. Thus, where Israeli Jewish or Orientalist European artists merely analyze the landscape as outsiders, a Palestinian artist (in this later essay, the printmaker Abu Shakra) is privileged to an “intuitive reading of an inhabited place, intimately recognized by the specificity of its place-name.” 2
Viewed in hindsight, some of Boullata’s rhetoric makes the failure of successive decades of peace negotiations more explicable. Writing in 1971, he envisions the children of Palestine growing up to be “warrior-artist[s].” 3 This registers as a dark prophecy of the suicide bomber, whose acts hold a terrible aesthetic power.
Boullata managed to construct many convenient identities; considered in and of themselves, they are illustrative of the political realities that shaped his thinking. Thus, while objecting to Western imperialism, he indulges in an irredentist yearning for Al-Andalus—the Islamic civilization that flourished in southern Iberia for centuries during the Middle Ages.4 He argues with some justification that this long-gone high-water mark of Arabic culture was good for the Muslim and the Jew alike. Elsewhere, when critiquing the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, he takes pains to note that “it was the German in the settler poet” that appropriated Jerusalem for the Occident.5 Boullata’s later emphasis on commonalities across Semitic culture, while not without merit, seems to grow in part out of a similar set of considerations. There is an unspoken promise: peace and even unity are possible, but only at the expense of Euro-American cultural hegemony.
Yet for all Boullata’s seeming discomfort with the West, his particular brand of D.C.-based Third Worldism would be unimaginable absent Western examples and expectations. This comes across particularly strongly in his treatment of sex and gender, where he wears his feminism on his sleeve. Discussing a large-scale children’s book project, he explains that he did not deign to comment on a proposed story’s “sexist subject of associating girls and dolls.” 6 Indeed, one of Boullata’s few straightforward criticisms of Arabic culture comes in the course of his profane, hallucinatory “A Sex-Pol Manifesto” (1974): “My parents forgave me when I hit my sister. And the teacher hit me when I, a mere direct object to him, failed to start with the pronoun ‘he’ when conjugating a verb.” 7
Boullata’s constructed identities are also revealing in what they leave out. Thus, while Arabic civilization is a constantly recurring theme, Persia and contemporary Iran are largely absent.
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Only language rivals politics as a central theme in Boullata’s work. On Boullata’s analysis, Orthodox Christian icons are not painted, but rather written;8 again and again, Palestinian artists ranging from Hani Zurob to Zulfa al-Sa’di are said to have been inspired by the Arabic tradition of poetry. Indeed entire sections of the book (e.g., “Calligraphy and Abstraction,” “Language and the Visual,” and “Poetry: The Last Frontier”) are given over to Boullata’s endless, repetitive, and thought-provoking meditations on the linkages between visual art and spoken or written expression.
Boullata’s obsession with language is both political and aesthetic; indeed, he seems to have felt that the development of an authentically Arabic abstract art necessitated the development of an authentically Arabic visual language. Some of Boullata’s finest works, such as his Bilqis series of paintings from 2013, feel like the culmination of decades of this reflection.
Kamal Boullata, Bilqis 1, 2014.
At times, political concerns appear to have predominated. Boullata repeatedly evokes Rousseau in his discussion of Arabic poetry, asserting that it is the “embodiment of the collective will, with the living body of the poet as the medium.” 9 In a lengthy essay presenting the raqsh (arabesque) as its own language “whose roots are firmly embedded in the same soil from which the Arabic language drew its structure,” Boullata foregrounds the specialness of Arabic language and culture.10 Though this aim is not obviously political at first glance, it stands out as such against the backdrop of recent history. The diasporic Palestinian is still a Palestinian, with a distinctive language, distinctive culture forms, and, distinctive modes of thought—all qualities that can only augment the consideration due to a Palestinian as a claimant to justice.
Like any great political artist, Boullata understood the importance of language, including outright sloganeering, to the meaning and effectiveness of a cause. Witness the very different reactions to “Black Lives Matter,” “Blues Lives Matter,” and “All Lives Matter.”
A few hundred signatures add weight to an endorsement; a lightly edited platform brings BLM closer to gaining the whole world, nearer to losing its supposedly radical soul.
Nathan Worcester is the managing editor of the New Art Examiner. Heckle him on Twitter @theworcesterest or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He lives in Chicago.
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