Colours of conflict

Palestinian artist Laila Shawa takes on issues of personal loss, displacement, exile and identity in her work. GIRIDHAR KHASNIS writes.


“The only thing that gives me sanity is my work,” says Palestinian artist Laila Shawa who was born in Gaza in 1940, eight years before Israel declared its statehood. Known for her forceful paintings, photographs, silk screen prints and installations, which often underscore the Palestinian cause in the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the London-based artist believes that ideally, “art should be a dialogue between civilisations.”

In the time of discord

Born to wealthy and politically influential parents, Shawa was trained in art in Cairo (1957-58) and Rome (1958-64). She also attended summer courses conducted by Oskar Kokoshka, where the Austrian artist and poet strove to inculcate humanist ideals in the aftermath of the spiritual devastation and barbarity of World War II. After working in refugee camps for United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) during 1965-67, Shawa went on to help design and build the Rashad Shawa Cultural Centre, Gaza named after her father who was the city’s Palestinian mayor for 11 years. 

Taking up residence in London in 1987, she began a series of work critiquing the purdah (veil), a striking symbol of female seclusion. It was inspired by her reading of how the veil came into existence in Gaza in the first place. Shawa says that Palestinian women played an exceptional role during the first Intifada. During the uprising (December 1987 to November 1991) against the Israeli occupation, they not only stood up to Israeli soldiers but also defended their children and husbands. Intifada was eventually crushed by the Israelis. 

“What happened later was interesting. The women had become so powerful that it set in a paradoxical situation. The men felt emasculated and they wanted to regain control and impose their power. This also coincided with resurgence in religious ideology. Earlier, the women would cover their heads with beautiful, colourful embroidered scarves, but now they were forced to wear long black dresses and head cover… Hence the veiling of women, at least in Gaza — but I am sure the same applies to the rest of the Islamic World, although the reason may vary.” 

Shawa’s striking work, ‘An Endangered Species’, comprised three series of paintings — ‘Women and the Veil’, ‘Hands of Fatima’ and ‘Women and Magic’. It was a forceful response on how women were subdued in her country. It was also a critique of the Palestinian women themselves, and “their complicity in reducing their status to an invisible state, while at the same time yearning silently for the freedom Western women seem to enjoy.” The paintings showed veiled women in situations of tensions, frictions, paradoxes and contradictions. They were also laced with satire and biting wit. “Irony in my work is very much part of my personality. I always look for the absurd, and try to cover it up with humour.” I blame women for accepting the domination of men.

The sight of a veil disturbs Shawa to this day. She refuses to believe that it has anything to do with the teachings of Islam; for her, it is more of a sociopolitical phenomenon designed to control and subdue women. “Twenty to 30 years ago in Cairo you wouldn’t have seen a veiled woman anywhere. Today 90 per cent of the women are wearing veils in Gaza, the same in Lebanon and in Syria — what happened?” 

Beauty & harshness

Over the years, Shawa’s artistic output has spanned many themes and mediums. Her uncompromising documentation of events in the Middle East, a critic observes, “tell the stories that need to be told”. Her work is known to be artistically committed and politically involved. Her use of bold colours and illustrative designs highlight elements of structural violence, political turmoil, complex power plays, deeper pains and steadfast resistance. Her works are known to bring to life both the beauty and bleakness of Palestinian life in Gaza. Her pioneering work utilising photography as an integral part of art production is hailed for leaving a lasting legacy on contemporary Palestinian art.

Shawa’s important works include: ‘Crucifixion 2000: In the Name of God’, a controversial installation shown at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; ‘Clash’ a sculptural piece on 9/11 attack; ‘Gaza III’ series (2009) on the invasion of Gaza by Israel resulting in the high death toll among children; and ‘The Other Side of Paradise’, a visual amalgamation of kitsch and glamour, colourful pop art, Persian miniature paintings and mannequins festooned with plumes and jewels. In ‘The Impossible Dream’, Shawa depicted a group of women holding ice cream cones in front of their veiled faces; while ‘Sarab’ (2008), a 29-piece collection expropriated Islamic geometric design from its historical context.  

In ‘The Walls of Gaza’, the political realities of her country were exposed. The series was inspired by the highly-charged graffiti writing on the walls, the only medium available to Palestinians to communicate with each other because the Israeli occupiers banned any form of media in Gaza, such as newspapers, radio, or television; “Graffitists were shot on sight; each night, the walls were whitewashed; yet the messages kept appearing,” she recalls. 

‘Children of War, Children of Peace’ was yet another poignant series on a traumatised young generation, while ‘Trapped: A Female Suicide Bomber’, dealt with the subversive subject of the women martyrs. 

Among her provocative works were ‘Stealth Cross-Metamorphoses,’ (2000) showing a giant black crucifix with rocket-launchers dangling from the arms; and her video work Gaza Fashion Week, (2010) in which a woman clad in a jilbab (a loose-fit coat) and headscarf is forced to strip in an open-air cage at a military checkpoint by the commands of an Israeli soldier.  

Breaking barriers

Over the decades, Shawa’s hard-hitting pieces have brought her international recognition. “Shawa was one of the first Arab artists to successfully break through barriers in the West,” says Dr Venetia Porter, curator for the Oriental Department of the British Museum. “Good art should really shake people up,” says another observer. “When I first saw Laila’s work, it jumped straight out at me.”

On her part, Shawa sees herself doing things that she cannot simply avoid. “I’ve studied art, yet I constantly question the validity of what I do. It’s not a profession; it’s a compulsion.” She prefers not to be associated with gender or religion, but insists “anything to help alter the perception of Muslim women is good.”

On the Israeli-Palestine conflict, she admits it is a complicated issue. While intensely critical of Israel and its barbaric tactics, she believes that in order to achieve peace, Palestinians also need to change the way they have dealt with the issues of resistance and negotiations. 

“We need a much more enlightened leadership that is not controlled by the West.” She also thinks that the new generation must read history from a proper perspective. “The problem with the Palestinian issue is that it is discussed from the middle of the story, while ignoring totally the origins of the conflict. Most people don’t know the real history of what happened in Palestine. History is written by the victors and the truth is distorted. The information is there for those who care to find it.”

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