by Tally Tamir
The paintings of the Umm el-Fahm-born Arab Israeli artist Asim Abu-Shakra bear a unique local significance. The rare consensus about his work is not only a reaction to his outstanding talent and to his tragic death from cancer in 1990 at the age of 29. There is something in the aesthetics and conception of his art that arouses a sense of closeness and identification in the Israeli viewer: influences from the tradition of French painting, Giacometti’s drawings, Streichman’s oil paintings, Moshe Kupferman and David Reeb. Above all, there is an extraordinary poetic and subliminal gift that enabled him to turn a simple motif, such as the potted cactus (tsabar),1 into a powerful artistic statement. His talents endow Abu-Shakra’s painting with the uncommon quality of broad emotional and intellectual accessibility.
Yet a closer look at his works and a detailed examination of their content reveal a deep connection to Palestinian art, which is not readily apparent, and a persistent concern with questions of identity, conflict and foreignness. Indeed, any discussion of Abu-Shakra’s paintings must take into consideration his complex identity as an Arab-Palestinian-Israeli which, in Azmi Bishara’s [a Palestinian Israeli MK] words, constitutes “a contradiction at the heart of identity.”2 Bishara rejects the idea of perceiving the Arab-Israeli identity as one in which two identities coexist, seeing it rather as a dialectic existing in an uneasy state of constant tension: “The Palestinian and the Israeli identities are two sides in conflict and do not live in peace with one another.”3 According to Bishara, the Arab in Israel is condemned to perpetual foreignness in a country that “is his and is not his at one and the same time... but is in no way his homeland.”4
“I have deliberately used the term ‘foreignness’ and not ‘alienation,’” says Bishara, “because foreignness is more basic. The liberal humanist or left-wing Israeli can be alienated from his society. But the Arab does hot have the right to be alienated from Israeli society, since he is not given the choice of belonging or alienation. His state of not belonging is predetermined.”5
Tsabar — Saber
The phrase “a contradiction at the heart of identity,” coined by Bishara, may relate to Abu-Shakra not only with regard to the contradiction between his Arab and Israeli identities, but to another inner contradiction with which he had to cope: that between his identity as an Arab concerned with national questions and his identity as an artist. Abu-Shakra experienced the full intensity of this conflict precisely because he felt such a profound identification with both identities. As a painter, he was fully aware of the danger of making propagandistic use of art, and fastidiously maintained the purity of his artistic statement. As an Arab, he identified deeply with the Palestinian problem. As an Arab artist, he had to find some way of bringing the two identities together. Abu-Shakra’s distinction among Israeli-Arab and Palestinian artists lies in the fact that he succeeded in uniting an artistic image with the expression of political feelings, thus producing a clear and impressive statement.
In his article “Israeli and Palestinian Artists: Facing the Forests,”6 Kamal Bullata, a Palestinian artist living in Washington, outlines the development of Palestinian art, paralleling it to early Israeli art. He stresses the unwritten commitment of all Palestinian artists, some of them exiles in various places throughout the world, to depict the landscapes of Palestine and the symbols of the homeland. Among the artists mentioned by Bullata is Walid Abu-Shakra (b. 1949), Asim’s older cousin, who lives and works in London and undoubtedly has a decisive influence on him, at least in regard to his fundamental decision to become a painter.
Speaking of Walid Abu-Shakra’s work, Bullata writes: “The manner in which he executes his themes is traditional and reflects the vivid memory experienced by the native-born.” What exactly does Walid Abu-Shakra paint? “Here, in black and white, the roots of an ancient olive tree descend into the dark ground; there, an old path leads up a hill... and in the foreground of another print, bushes, thistles and wildflowers still grow in the cracks of houses where people once lived. The tsabar, yes, that same cactus plant previously associated with the Israeli ethos... has been given a central place in Abu-Shakra’s landscape. Since the first generation of native-born Israelis, the fruit of the tsabar has held symbolic meaning for the Israeli; with the establishment of the State of Israel, its roots took on symbolic meaning for the Palestinian. The prickly exterior of the fruit, in contrast to its softness inside, served as a symbol of the native-born Israeli. For the Palestinians, since the ancient times the tsabar has been a functional tool of the farmer, a means of marking the borders of his place-names. Over the past forty years, houses have been torn down, stones have been moved, and maps have been redrawn, but the roots of the tsabar have proved to be the bulldozer’s most stubborn enemies. To this day, the borders of the ancient villages can be retraced thanks to the invincible nature of the tsabar. The Palestinian symbol of the tsabar roots took on another cultural meaning because of the plant’s name in spoken Arabic, saber, which also means ‘patience,’ ‘tenacity.’ Here again we find an exchange between cultural meaning and a natural phenomenon. In this process, the native’s linguistic metaphor reflects his visual sense of ‘home.’ Although working in his London studio and reconstructing the codes of his childhood landscape, the artist from Umm el-Fahm never forgets that the tsabar plant continues to grow in his homeland, nor far from the olive tree.”
Bullata’s analysis of the meaning of the tsabar in Palestinian culture, and in the context of Walid Abu-Shakra’s work, casts the potted cactus plant in Asim’s paintings in a far more political light than has generally been perceived, even presenting it as another version of a popular traditional motif in Palestinian art. This elucidation alters the typical reading of Abu-Shakra’s paintings by the Israeli viewer. In her comprehensive article on the motif of the potted cactus in Asim Abu-Shakra’s painting, Sarit Shapira7 states as obvious that “the image of the tsabar is... related to the concept that refers to the collective Israeli prototype... This twist in the image of the tsabar plant and self-definition is in effect a dialogue with Israeli culture and terminology, and not with concepts of identity (whether linguistic or formal) of the Arab-Palestinian culture... Abu-Shakra’s use of the tsabar as an emblematic motif may attest to the lack of personal or collective identifying mark of his own.” She adds: “In this sense, Abu-Shakra’s tsabar is an identifying mark of ‘otherness,’ since he, as an Arab, applies it to himself, while ‘originally,’ and in common usage, the image refers to the Israeli Jew.” Shapira, however, is mistaken in attributing authorship (the “origin”) of the image of the tsabar to Israeli culture. Examination of its sources in Palestinian culture reveals that here, too, a wealth of concepts exists around the image. These interpretive factors redouble the complexity of Abu-Shakra’s tsabar: it operates as an ironic and critical image of the “stolen identity” of the Arab who wishes to see himself as the sabra (as Shapira shows), while at the same time remaining part of an internal Palestinian code, symbolizing suffering and deep-rooted tenacity.
‘Foreigners in Their Homeland’
Asim Abu-Shakra’s connection to Palestinian art also finds expression in his initial choice of the landscape motif. Ganit Ankori, who has also investigated the parallels between Palestinian and early Israeli painting, states: “In depictions of the national landscape, the personal impulse of the artist to portray his immediate surroundings merges with an ideology that advocates stressing the collective attachment to the homeland. It is therefore not surprising that landscape painting is one of the prevalent genres both in early Eretz Israeli art and Palestinian art.”8 Like Bullata, Ankori explains that “the motif of the plants typical to the land and the fruit of its earth also occupies a central place both in early Eretz Israeli art and contemporary Palestinian art. The olive tree, with its twisted roots and ‘tormented’ trunk, which captivated artists such as Rubin and Krakauer, often appears in the paintings of Palestinian artists as a symbol of the ancient connection to their homeland and their devotion to the land.” According to Bishara, the inclination to hold fast to the rural landscape and the fellah’s tradition compensates for the lack of a sense of a real homeland. “The village,” he claims, “has become an intimate haven, making it possible to return to the bosom of close social relations. It is the tangible homeland of those who are foreigners in their homeland.”9
At the start of his artistic career, when Asim Abu-Shakra first came from Umm el-Fahm for the entrance exams to the Kalisher School of Art in Tel Aviv (where two of his cousins also studied) he, like the others, painted the landscapes of the village and scenes from its daily life: women in traditional head scarfs with infants in their arms, and similar motifs. In the course of his studies, he abandoned the narrative scenes representing the national problem, but did not relinquish their deeper meanings.
The recurrent motif in Abu-Shakra’s painting — the potted cactus — is repeatedly charged by his sense of not belonging, the perpetual feeling of foreignness in Tel Aviv, in an entirely Jewish society: the feeling that something is not in its natural setting. The tsabar has been transplanted from the wild, tangled hedges that appeared in his early landscapes to a small flowerpot on a windowsill in Tel Aviv. The downsizing of the cactus hedge to a small decorative plant, and the confinement of the earth surrounding its roots to the measured amount needed for a house plant, convey not just a sense of foreignness and discomfort, but also a protest against the taming of nature, against a state of oppression and indignity. In his early work (from his third year in art school), Abu-Shakra painted tsabar hedges in an open landscape, with bombers circling above — a clear expression of a political situation in a setting imbued with threat and fear. The local landscape, with its characteristic cactus hedges, symbolized the state of anomaly, the violation of this natural sense of belonging to the landscape. Bullata shows that Palestinians attribute particular significance to the roots of the cactus as tenacious and patient (attributions differing from the Israeli myth applied to the fruit), and this perhaps explains Abu-Shakra’s preoccupation with the potted plant: placing the cactus in a flowerpot involves uprooting it, detaching it from the ground — as in a state of exile.
Abu-Shakra returned again and again to the motif of the potted cactus, gradually changing it from a symbol with political connotations into a source of personal identification. In his last paintings, as his disease spread and he faced imminent death, the exterior background slowly disappeared and the potted cactus became a sublimated expression of severe loneliness: detached from everything, turned entirely in on itself, mindful only of the limited beauty it could still produce. In a conversation, Abu-Shakra once stated: “The cactus fascinates me because of its amazing ability to flower out of thorny death.”
Solidarity and Solitude
The road by which Abu-Shakra traveled crossed a number of junctions in Israeli art. At Kalisher, the school’s tradition tended at the time of his studies towards pure painting concerned with color, texture and composition, placing less emphasis on conceptual approaches. Abu-Shakra’s natural propensity for lyricism and his sensitive use of color were undoubtedly reinforced and consolidated by his studies. He developed within a tradition of Israeli art based on the values of the Lyrical Abstract, although he himself never adopted a thoroughly abstract style. Paradoxically, in terms of style, Abu-Shakra’s work might be said to perpetuate the traditions of Israeli art to a greater extent than that of other Israeli artists of his generation. Young Israeli artists considered certain stylistic features to be the legacy of the founding fathers, such as Zaritsky and Streichman, from whom they sought to free themselves in order to devise a new language of their own. Abu-Shakra, not suffering from his “Oedipal complex,” saw these same features as a solid foundation on which to develop his own personal version. The interiors of Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Giacometti and other modernists also entered his repertoire of influences, internalizing for him the essential principle that the freedom and poetic quality of art have absolute priority over any political slogan. At the same time, Abu-Shakra drew from the modernist tradition of the artist’s moral commitment to human values, viewing art as a form of social responsibility.
For Asim Abu-Shakra, the encounter with the work of Giacometti was a watershed. He was profoundly impressed by Giacometti’s manner of drawing and the way in which he designed the three-dimensional space of his objects. The influence of Giacometti (whose work he first saw in Maya Cohen-Levy’s drawing class in his second year) remained with him throughout his studies, taking on added dimensions over time.
Under this influence, his painting acquired a large measure of refinement and intimacy, and was drawn to the corners of rooms, to objects, to a delineated and cultivated space rather than to unlimited open expanses. Abu-Shakra’s real affinity with Giacometti derived not only from the esteem in which he held his pictorial style, but also from the spirit of humanism and skepticism he found in Giacometti’s work, recognizing there the dialectic so close to his heart: human solidarity, on the one hand, and basic solitude, on the other. As the motif of the potted plant emerged, it proved to be not too far from this point of departure: a single object in a space that is both full and empty at one and the same time.
Three Israeli artists exerted important influences on Asim Abu-Shakra’s work. The first, whom he met in his second year at Kalisher, was the painter Uri Stetner, one of his teachers. As a result of his encounter with Stetner’s work, Abu-Shakra became concerned less with specific scenes (village women, local landscapes, etc.) and more with painterly values: the application of paint, the use of white in designing space and background, and compositions of interiors and still lifes suffused with a delicate lyrical aura. The second artist was Moshe Kupferman who led him in the direction of expressive monochromatic reduction. Kupferman’s grays and purples, his restrained and succinct lyricism, and the prominence of the line preferred over the blot — all these reduced Abu-Shakra’s style to a more restrained statement tending towards monochrome. The third artist was David Reeb, one of Abu-Shakra’s teachers in his last year of studies, who was to become a close friend. Reeb had a crucial influence on the work of Abu-Shakra, who absorbed from him a style of flatness, decisive linearity, and the use of ornamental patterns and black contours. The encounter with Reeb’s work led Abu-Shakra to shift in his later paintings (particularly in the last two years of his life) from lyrical sensitivity towards a more rigid, direct language. This language emerged from the attempts in Israeli art to formulate more precise plastic means for political statements than could be made through lyrical painting. Such an attempt suited Abu-Shakra as much as it did Reeb. Their divergent personalities have led to Reeb’s image of the potted plant in the window being commonly perceived as a real, everyday object, while Abu-Shakra’s plant perforce radiates the poetics of symbolic solitude and an assumption of the possibility of beauty.
It should be noted that Abu-Shakra’s encounter with Reeb’s concrete realism also helped crystallize the motif of the potted cactus in artistic rather than political terms. The source of his cactus was an actual potted plant, small and not particularly impressive, that stood on the ledge of one of the windows opposite his studio in the “Red House” on Nahmani Street in Tel Aviv. Abu-Shakra’s studio was adjacent to Eitan Hillel’s Wrap Gallery, the first to mount a one-man show of his paintings. Hillel presented him to the public out of faith in his talent and a wish to lend Abu-Shakra his full support.
The Sumud Symbol
Abu-Shakra’s short career ended abruptly. It is rare for an artist of only 28 to achieve such a mature style in a well-formulated, concise statement. His sketchbooks and drawings indicate directions which were yet to find expression in his paintings: linear drawings full of humor and the lightness of a child’s point of view; rapid sketches of everyday scenes; allegorical figures, such as Little Red Riding Hood; virtually unknown erotic pictures, and more. One of the last subjects he dealt with, and in which he showed great interest, was a series of illustrations for texts by Bertholt Brecht. For Abu-Shakra, Brecht’s work was the epitome of his own artistic principles: moral realism, uncompromising human values expressed in a simple, direct, yet moving style. Abu-Shakra never abandoned the artistic aspiration to arouse the viewer’s feelings. For him, feeling was an important means of raising the viewer to a universal human level.
During the last two years of his life, aware of the little time left him, Abu-Shakra devoted all his energies to paintings of the potted cactus, displaying the painful process of having to grow up too fast that resulted from the artist’s deteriorating physical and mental states. It may be said that, at least, one process was completed: Asim Abu-Shakra succeeded in altering the course of Palestinian art, and raising it from the status of a nostalgic-political aesthetic to a universal art ciphering political codes at deeper levels. Indeed, he also completed another process: beginning as an artist in Umm el-Fahm, he passed through major movements in Israeli art, always preserving an emotional awareness of the state of foreignness. He did not continue the tradition of painting olive trees which Reuven Rubin had started and Palestinian artists of his own generation had carried on. Rather, he dealt with the landscape tradition in a conscious manner, without allowing the landscape to impose its significance on him. From Palestinian art, he took the traditional symbol of the sumud10 — an expression of tenacity and fidelity to the land — and gave it a relevant and broader dimension, aware both of its place in the tradition of Western art and of its meaning in the local symbolism of both peoples. In his work, Palestinian foreignness seems to cast its shadow on what might have been the best of Israeli art.
1. The cactus plant (in Hebrew tsabar) has different meanings in Arab and Israeli cultures: in Hebrew it symbolizes the native-born Israeli — the sabra — whereas in Arabic it appears as a metaphor for tenacity and patience. Cf. also p. 3.
2. Azmi Bishara, “On the Question of the Palestinian Minority in Israel,” Uri Ram, ed., Israeli Society: Critical Aspects (Tel Aviv: Breirot, 1993), p. 205 (Hebrew).
3. Ibid., 1993, p. 204.
4. Azmi Bishara, “Israeli Palestinians: The Shadow of Foreignness,” Hagit Gur-Ziv, ed., Statements on Silence (Tel Aviv: The Center for Peace, December 1989), p. 72 (Hebrew).
5. Ibid., 1989, p. 71.
6. Kav, 10 (July 1990), pp. 170-175.
7. Sarit Shapira, “Cactus in a Flowerpot,” Kav, 10 (July 1990), pp. 37-41.
8. Ganit Ankori, “Beyond the Wall,” Kav, 10 (July 1990), pp. 163-169.
9. Bishara, 1993, p. 207.
10. Sumud — a political-mythological term familiar to the Israeli public from the title of Raja Shehadeh’s book (New York: Adama Books, 1984), meaning “to endure, to remain firmly planted on one’s land”; see David Grossman, The Yellow Wind (New York, 1988), p. 145. The symbolic-poetic meaning of the sabra as saber — in the sense of patience and tenacity — is similar to the political concept of sumud. For further reading see also Doreet LeVitté Harten, Israeli Art Around 1990, Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, 1990.
The original version of this essay was published in the catalogue of the comprehensive exhibition of Abu-Shakra’s work at the Tel Aviv Museum, 1994 (curator: Ellen Ginton).
From The Jerusalem Review, No. 2, 1997. Reprinted by permission.