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Reflections on the Palestinian Art Movement before 1948

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 29.05.2012:

The Paintings of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra

By George Al Ama and Nada Atrash


May 2012

The Palestinian Nakba in 1948 and the rapid succession of events in its aftermath have undoubtedly left their mark on the various aspects of life in Palestine, including the literary and artistic movements. During the few years before the Nakba, the art movement witnessed a rapid evolution that is clearly apparent in the establishment of the Arts Club at the YMCA Jerusalem, led by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra together with Robert Malki and others. The Arts Club was a gathering place for Palestinian artists where exhibitions were held, lectures about art were presented, and various topics were discussed.

Although Jabra is better known for being a writer and an art critic, he shall always remain one of the pioneer Palestinian artists of the twentieth century. Born in Bethlehem to a Syriac-Orthodox Christian family in 1920, Jabra went to school in Bethlehem, and later in Jerusalem, where he had to move with his family. He continued his education at the University of Exeter and University of Cambridge, where he obtained a degree in English literature. In 1951, Jabra obtained a fellowship from Harvard University.

Describing his pre-1948 art in a letter to the late Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout in 1985, Jabra wrote, “The majority of what I have painted as an amateur and not as a professional, in those years (before 1948), is still at our home in Bethlehem; most have been done using oil. It has occupied me mentally and psychologically, specially between 1946 and 1948.” Jabra used the oil colours to paint on the canvas of gunnysacks, wooden panels, and glass; innovative and not very common media. Women and nudity repeatedly appear in Jabra’s paintings, and the inner conflict described by the artist is very clear in his paintings, some of which are signed Gabriel Jabra.

Jabra continues in his letter to explain that he did not hold any exhibitions during that period, but that their house in Bethlehem was open to anyone who wanted to view his paintings. He goes on to describe his relationship with Robert Malki and the establishment of the Arts Club in Jerusalem. Jabra’s description of their house being open to anyone who wanted to view his paintings reflects the interest of the people of Bethlehem in his art. He was truly a pioneer for that period of time.

In his childhood autobiography The First Well, Jabra recounts that the Bethlehemite mother-of-pearl artists had influenced his perception of art as a child, and that his first attempts at drawing and painting were in 1931, in Bethlehem, where he would imitate a barber who used to enlarge photographs in his shop. Jabra notes that the barber used to draw squares on the original small photo and copy them to the large panel in front of him on the drawing board; his description here reflects two important facts: first, that arts were practiced, accepted, and appreciated in Bethlehem during Jabra’s childhood, and second, that Jabra himself was influenced by these local arts.

Another major factor that influenced Jabra in his childhood was his teacher, the artist Jamal Badran (1909-1999), which he explains clearly in his letter to Shammout: “Jamal Badran taught me drawing when I was in the fifth grade in 1932, at the Rashidiyieh School in Jerusalem. His personality and skills were an inspiration to the class. I shall never forget that he was the one who taught me perspective and shade and shadow, and he often encouraged me to draw. I was twelve years old at the time.” Jabra goes on to describe how Badran used to send the students to Al-Haram Al-Sharif to examine the ornaments and copy them.

Jabra left Palestine and moved to Iraq in 1948 where his literary career flourished. He contributed to the Iraqi art movement, and he was an active member of the Baghdad Modern Art Group, which was established in 1951 under the direction of the preeminent Iraqi artist of the time, Jawad Salim, where he strove, according to Nathaniel Greenberg, to integrate Western epistemologies into the creation of a local aesthetic that served both his political stance toward the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and the role of modernist art in the post-World War II era.

The modernist paintings of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, which were painted in Bethlehem before 1948, were documented in 2003 by Al Wasiti Art Centre in Jerusalem in The Forgotten Scene: Pioneer Artists from Palestine. These paintings reveal a spirit of experimentation and the influence of Fauvism and futurism, and are, no doubt, of a cultural inheritance that documents Palestinian art before the Nakba. Nathaniel Greenberg notes that later in Iraq, Jabra sought in his art to move beyond the binary of Islam and the West, repetition and change, and emulation and innovation. In politics, Jabra attributed the loss of Palestine to an “outmoded tradition” and thus his novels and paintings depict individuals experimenting with action over reflection and self-determinism over communalism.

After leaving for Iraq, Jabra played a key role in developing the heritage art of the 1950s, but he never returned to Bethlehem. It was truly a loss for Palestine, which has lost many other intellectuals along with Jabra, pioneers in the formation of the Palestinian literature and art movement before the Nakba. The Nakba has had a deep influence on all aspects of Palestinian life, and the art movement was no exception. Jabra’s involvement in the Iraqi modern art movement immediately after leaving Palestine left its mark on Jabra’s art as well.

The Palestinian-exile, Iraqi citizen Jabra died in Bagdad in 1994 leaving behind him an art inheritance that was destroyed during the explosion of his house in April 2010. The incident went beyond the loss of the art inheritance of Jabra and the outstanding works of his Iraqi colleague-artists – those who have been recognised as the pioneers of the modern Iraqi art movement – to representing the loss of an important documentation of a stage in the Arab art movement in the mid-twentieth century.

Artworks used for the analysis of Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s pre-1948 paintings, part of which are published in this article, are from the collection of George Al Ama.

Artworks documented by Nidal Al Atrash.

George Al Ama and Nada Atrash are part of the Research and Training Unit at the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation in Bethlehem. George and Nada can be reached at

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