“I create cynical pieces to criticise Palestinian political reality,” says Palestinian artist and painter Monther Jawabreh. “And to mock all the romantic images we’ve carried for so long.” Discussing the cynicism at the heart of his artwork, he adds with exasperation, “there is no state, and thus no self-protection — so how are you not supposed to be cynical about that?”
Based on his most recent show, What Is Known at Villa des Arts in Casablanca, Morocco, there is no doubt that Jawabreh’s work engages with entrenched Palestinian nationalist iconography. The symbols of revolutionary Palestine – the gun, fighter, fedayeen, andkeffiyeh – are all foregrounded in his work. In the series As Once Was Known, men whose heads and faces are covered with the Palestinian keffiyeh – the symbol of self-proclaimed “freedom fighters” – lounge about in everyday scenes; reading a book, wearing a suit on the way to work and carrying a potted plant at home. Jawabreh playfully humanises these symbols of the revolution via the mundane and quotidian, but representing the ordinariness of the masked revolutionary also demands his fall from iconic grace.
Jawabreh also takes aim at the authoritarianism that has easily transformed revolutionaries into autocrats throughout the history of uprisings — particularly the Palestinian Authority (PA). In his series Citizenship, a uniformed soldier is paired with a clearly abused creature —half-donkey, half-man — who appears blindfolded as they play a board game while the soldier inspects his bandaged torso, all on a brightly patterned background. If we are to consider the series as a narrative or a national allegory that continues Jawabreh’s signature inquiry, with the soldier representing the military, then the abused creature can be seen to represent the people the military is charged with protecting.
Jawabreh’s work playfully harnesses the disenchantment with authority and the interminable peace process heightened during the Second Intifada. By subverting a didactic iconography long dominated by the Palestinian leadership to convey a national identity anchored in militancy, he critiques what he calls a “power that’s now devoted to enhance prestige, money, and control” rather than the protection of its citizens.
Born in Al-Aroub refugee camp in the 1970s, Jawabreh claims his political consciousness and sensitivity to symbols developed at an early age when, at age six, he began to notice black flags posted over camp homes to memorialise the Sabra and Shatila massacre. A few years later, his school was engulfed with tear gas during the First Intifada, whereupon his “childhood took a whole new turn.” He describes it as “a daily routine of attacking us while we ran for our lives.”
Last summer, when more than 450 children in Gaza were killed by Israeli bombardment, Jawabreh located 81 photos of the deceased children. The Last Image series is comprised of those children’s portraits, painted in bright colours against jasmine-pattern backgrounds reminiscent of traditional Palestinian embroidery. He claims the short bloom period of jasmine flowers is a fitting allegory for the premature deaths of the children.
Jasmine pervades. In The Revolution is Led by a Hero photography series, Jawabreh refocuses his lens on the freedom fighter – but again, he decontextualises the revolutionary, who is not posed against flags and weaponry but a white background emblazoned with jasmines, while the keffiyeh masking him is not a standard black-and-white but rather a white fabric stitched with jasmine flowers. In extracting the fighter from his conventional context, Jawabreh deconstructs nationalist iconography by calling attention to the construction of the freedom fighter as an entrenched, stylised symbol long instrumentalised and promoted by a failed Palestinian leadership.
“At first glance, my artwork appears mainly political.” He adds, “But if you look closer, you can see that my art tends to humanise politics, tries to pull it out of ‘clichés’ created by the occupation and media.” Today Jawabreh lives in Bethlehem, and he no longer teaches art or runs Marsam 301, which used to organise visits of international artists to Palestine and work on art projects with people in their homes, schools and streets. He is focusing on his next project, a multi-media installation representing Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. In light of his sustained,critical assessment of nationalism and a devaluation of its iconography, the renowned artist who values scepticism will most likely try once again to “wipe off the dust that covers all this history,” as he puts it.