Palestinian-American artist Manal Deeb on her memories of Palestine, painting portraits and the United Nations

From There

To Manal, Palestine is her mother’s homemade bread, the smell of trees after the rain and sitting with her siblings, chatting about school. Artist Manal left Ramallah, Palestine in 1986, in her last year of high school, to study fine art in the States. Reflecting on her memories of Palestine, she explains they focus on the warmth of everyday life there, rather than the unrest.

“There were problems, fighting and all kinds of not good and unfair pictures,” Manal tells me, “but I totally put them on the side, talking about what I really miss from home, what I’m left thinking about home.”

Physically, a lot has changed in Palestine in the years since she left. She tells me about her grandfather’s house, which was still there when she left in 1986, but doesn’t exist any more. “Some of my childhood is gone. I wrote about how hard it is for the trees in front of the house to comprehend that the house is not there any more.”

Despite this, in Manal’s mind her homeland hasn’t changed. “Home is how I left it when I was 17 or 18 years old,” she says. “I keep thinking home is still the same inside my head, the way I want it to be. But of course, it’s totally different than what it used to be.” Her memories are formulated by what is inside her, or her feelings towards Palestine, rather than the conflict. “It’s like trying to make that perfect picture of living in a beautiful land, home, love and all these things.”

It is these pleasant recollections of home that inspire her work and art becomes a comfort and escape. “Knowing that home is not exactly how I think of it, I went and I thought maybe I can create home in my artwork, I can create that comfort, that place where I can escape. So I call my artwork home.”

“I thought my artwork is going to take me back to home and to people whom I love with a strong message to the whole world, that being a Palestinian, with what’s going on in the world, with all the messages about Arabs and Muslims, and Palestinians, it doesn’t mean that I can’t positively portray my identity and cultural roots.”

Manal tells me that she has an “uncontrollable urge to paint portraits,” driven by a desire to capture the human spirit; parts of which she insists cannot be reached through any other medium. Using self-portrait, she explains, she is always searching for who she is at that particular time in her life, her place in the world, an existential journey in exile.

She describes one particular self-portrait, ‘From there’, which she is fond of. “In this particular painting my face shows only my smile and there are words written on there which say, ‘I’m from there’, which is from Palestine. My features are fading away, being away from home and in exile, yet I have this smile, that I think that I’m in peace and I think that I’m content and satisfied with where I am in the universe with my artwork, with my feelings towards hope for my homeland.”

Manal goes on to explain how she struggled for years to find her place and identity in the world, living so far away from home. Art is a channel through which to articulate these feelings. “All of a sudden I feel that expressing myself in finding the shelter through my artwork, communicating my message, gave me the assurance and the smile on my face.”

On many of her paintings, words from the Qur’an feature, a reference to her ability to provoke imagination, and another clue to her own identity. “Using it in my artwork, it’s the energy and what it does reading Qur’an or being raised in an Islamic environment, what it does to me reflected in my artwork; it’s how I can pour my feelings in a serene way.”

Another characteristic that features in her work is white paint. “I put on the white paint so that I can peel paper back from the painting, and then I pick and choose where I want to show the artwork from under the paint, so it’s like peeking through. It’s like something that’s hidden but it’s there, it’s so strong. An eye, or someone smiling from under the white paint.” Perhaps this is symbolic of the hazy recollections of memory.

Though Manal has her own experiences and ideas, which “melt together” to create her work, she doesn’t expect viewers to take away a monolithic message from her art. “It’s up to you and the painting; is it going to provoke feelings of happiness and sadness? That’s something I have no control over. The artwork can represent anything and can reflect a human situation, or the female struggle, for example. I don’t mean anything when I do my artwork other than just showing my feelings or as a Palestinian artist just giving my spirit there in my work.”

This inevitably means some people could read negatively into the work and see it as linked to political issues. A selection of Manal’s pieces are currently part of an exhibition at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Running from the 29th November to the 11th February, the show coincided with the day that Palestine was upgraded to non-member observer status.

Twelve days later, an article published on news website Breitbart compared a number of Manal’s paintings from the show with a logo on the cover of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech that, according to the journalist Anne Bayefsky, “artfully depict all of Israel as Palestine” and “continues to promote a one state solution, Palestine, without Israel.”

Manal admits that she was shocked by some of the articles in response to her work from an Israeli perspective, the way they interpreted symbols in her work, of how they believed she was depicting Palestine.

“It depends on the viewer again, what they want to see out of it, their experience in life and background will reflect what they see in my artwork'” she explains. “To me, having the headpiece of a Palestinian woman in one of my artworks would show how proud I am about being Palestinian, even how proud I am of the female Palestinians, in general, how strong they are, how my Mum is, it’s all intertwined. For someone who is against Palestinians, to look at that piece they may say ‘well I see that it’s very harsh and it’s very upsetting to me’. It’s just what you get out of that artwork.”

Despite Manal’s work not having a transparent message, I ask her if she thinks art can change or affect the situation in Palestine. “I believe it’s the best kind of language to get people all over the world to know what Palestine is and who the Palestinians are” she tells me. “War and killing and fighting nowadays is just terrible so I think why not use art, to show the world the truth about Palestinian and Arab words, with an emphasis on harmony and serenity, rather than violence and harshness.”

Before she goes, Manal recites a quote from American artist Audrey Flack. ‘If a man dies before he dies he doesn’t die when he dies. Through artwork artists can revive their artwork to die on time.’ “I think even for people looking at my work, even when I’m gone or other Palestinian artists, even when they are gone, it’s the images that stay, the identity and spirit in every artist that stays in the world and that’s really great and a big message to keep going and make our existence last.”

Originally published in Middle East Monitor

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Art, Interviews, Palestine and Israel