Palestinian artist Laila Shawa in conversation with The Majalla
“Me being a Palestinian, I guess, may have something to do with the interest people have in my work.” says internationally-renowned artist, Laila Shawa at her most recent exhibition at London’s October Gallery, The Other Side of Paradise; a visual amalgamation of kitsch and glamour, colorful pop art, Persian miniature paintings and mannequins festooned with plumes and jewels.
On first impression the collection exudes exuberance and opulence. Before long, however, it becomes apparent that this masks a darker subject matter. A jarring, explosive bang from an accompanying soundtrack shatters the illusion, and the disconcerting and bizarre inclusions appear: Israeli drones, screaming faces cleverly disguised, charred dolls and bejeweled headless, limbless, female torsos draped – Rambo-style – in bullet belts and grenades.
Suddenly the impression of this so-called ‘Paradise’ – a reference to historic accounts of Palestine’s idyllic gardens – is one of disturbing illogicality.“If you live, you see, you become politicized the moment you come from this part of the world.”
“If you live, you see, you become politicized the moment you come from this part of the world.” explains Shawa, who originates from a country where, more often than not, art is instinctively inspired by the Palestinian cause.
Shawa, however, was not always politically motivated in her work. Hailing from a political family – she concedes that they “defined her outlook” – Shawa was born in Gaza in 1940 eight years before the State of Israel was declared to exist in Palestine. Between the 1960s and early 1970s, still in the early days of her career, she felt the political situation around her had become an overused artistic tool, which created in her an aversion to “an exploitation of the Palestinian cause in art.”
Despite her awareness of the “politically charged” environment, she says: “I rejected that because it was more propaganda art, it was more driven by what the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) thought artists should do and I went totally the opposite way.”
Emphasising another conviction, Shawa says “I believe that an artist can only work from direct experience. You have to be directly in a situation to experience it for you to be authentic in your work”. She adds “Up to that point I hadn’t actually come face-to-face with the Israelis, with the occupation, though in theory the Israelis occupied Gaza in 67, and things started to shift in my head.”
It is for this reason, in conjunction with her fiery intellect, that The Other Side of Paradise and Shawa’s work in general (a few pieces of which were displayed in an adjacent gallery room) concerns itself more with a personal awareness of a situation, commenting on the deeper, complex issues that exist as a consequence of the unnatural and chaotic state of occupation. “My development is my intellectual development, its my knowledge, its my awareness of the world I live in.” she says.
As a young artist and woman in the Middle East, Shawa “started noticing the dichotomies that existed in Arab societies and to a certain extent the status of women and how women can be manipulated.” Issues affecting women in the Middle East were Shawa’s initial focus – “At that point I remember that it was basically marriage that I was rejecting.” (She subsequently produced a large series of work on prostitution, which also placed the idea of arranged marriages in the region within this context.)- and, along with issues affecting children in Gaza “It’s not just the mental or physical it’s the whole decade of formative years of development that is just gone”, have long since informed her practice.
Shawa has experimented with a variety of media over the years. She was also motivated and informally tutored by a family friend, who worked as a war photographer with the UN photographing refugees. “The eye of a war photographer is very different”. she says “It was very good training.” In 1975, when Shawa was involved in the ambitious building of a cultural center in Gaza, she also became directly involved with daily life under occupation. “I came face to face with Israelis, I was exposed to a great deal of the realities that were happening”.
She did not react artistically, however, until the first intifada of 1987. The inspiration for this, she says, was “a very simple matter. People started writing on the walls of Gaza.” Under occupation, people in Gaza were banned from all forms of media. “So people had to resort, in order to communicate with each other, to write their political messages on the walls (which were often covered up afterwards), and it made me think, ok, what to do with this.” Accompanied by two bodyguards, dodging arrest by patrolling Israelis, Shawa went around “in the back streets and in the alleyways with the camera, taking pictures at great speed.” She would subsequently produce her series of silk screens and prints, collectively entitled The Walls of Gaza to great acclaim.
Within The Other Side of Paradise, it is not hard to pin point the most disturbing of the pieces. It is the silent looping CCTV footage taken at an IDF checkpoint on the Gaza-Israel border that shows a woman isolated in a security cage, who, while ordered to de-robe, becomes increasingly confused and anguished as she fumbles with an explosive that she clearly has no idea how to detonate. “The subject of Trapped, the core series in The Other Side of Paradise started with a woman suicide bomber,” Shawa explains “And this woman’s story is a very long story”.
Moved by the footage which was aired in a 2007 Channel 4 documentary entitled The Cult of the Suicide Bomber, Shawa, who bought the rights to the film, felt urged to enter her “harrowing” investigation into the still-taboo and complex subject of female suicide bombers in Palestine. It is unsurprising that Shawa’s work has been described as “uncompromising” in its documentation of the region. “It made me want to find out why she failed,” explains Shawa “Her failure intrigued me because I thought if you’re going to be a suicide bomber you’re going to do it properly.”
Shawa discovered that many of the female suicide bombers had been induced into the practice for reasons of honor relating to their families, not only to avoid disgracing or being killed by their families but also achieve the honor associated with becoming a martyr. “I didn’t want to be judgmental in my work” Shawa says emphatically “I wanted to pose the question: are women suicide bombers heroes or are they victims-or are they both? I had to put her in the context of occupation, I had to put her in the context of Gaza being bombed and I had to put her in the context of children being killed.”“I had to put her in the context of Gaza being bombed and I had to put her in the context of children being killed.”
The Other Side of Paradise is that context. Among the pieces, Inside Paradise depicts burned dolls that represent children; Another, Gaza Sky on first look are comic book illustrations of airplanes, complete with the ‘Wham!’ visual sound effects, but they are in fact, Israeli drones. “I am driven by some guy sitting in an office sitting in front of his computer game, of you like, and deciding to send a drone up to kill hundreds of people. He could be anywhere.” says Shawa.
There are also criticisms of the self-brutalizing responses to this. In a series entitled Trapped I, II and III, still images of the screaming girl from the CCTV footage are placed behind a mesh of calligraphy, or “ ‘greeking’, to represent the misreading or miscomprehension, essentially, of religion.” says Shawa. “This interpretation or misunderstanding traps the person behind it, it controls their actions.” The writing is sparse in the first of the three paintings, but becomes denser and denser “until she is completely overwhelmed by her ignorance in her misunderstanding.”
Disposable Bodies, a series of provocatively-decorated mannequin torsos that would not look out of place in an Amsterdam window, is a “tongue-in-cheek criticism of the concept of the suicide bomber.” Paradise Now, a bright blue torso with peacock plumes and dynamite strapped to her thighs, is “ready to go up to heaven, she’s a bird of paradise already. If you look at her body it has all the sexual connotations,” Shawa says, hinting at warped ideals, and the nature of these women as being controlled, dispensable and muted commodities.
Decades after her first foray into the subject, Shawa remains deeply concerned for the female condition in the Middle East: “In the Arab world, rather than advance [women] are being kicked back and controlled, this resurgence of Islam in the wrong context is damaging women to a great extent.”
“Twenty to thirty years ago in Cairo you wouldn’t have seen a veiled woman anywhere. Today 90 percent of the women are wearing veils in Gaza, the same in Lebanon and in Syria – what happened? From being one thing and aspiring towards one thing to being totally invisible-it doesn’t make sense.”
Probing such controversial issues requires courage and strength character. Indeed, Shawa’s bold and intelligent curiosity is reflected in her extensive and successful four-decade repertoire of work. As she points out, however, her need to comment on the conditions around her is also an intrinsically human one: “The moment you open your mouth and you say I do not accept what is happening to my country you are called an activist. Why are you an activist? You are a normal person who does not accept-a normal person complaining bitterly and adamantly.”