Basharat Bashir

Featured Artist: Ismail Shammout

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Art can be a form of relief and a means of expression for the people living in places afflicted by violence and oppression. Art provides a way to share experiences which otherwise remain untold and restricted within an indidual. The role of political art is very significant in places experiencing tyranny and forced occupation as in such places there are always strict laws forced on people preventing them from any physical demonstration or protest. There have been many artists in the past that with their creativity stood against the oppressor and led several movements against illicit occupational forces. One such artist was Palestinian born  Ismail Shammout.

Shammout was born in 1930 in the Palestinian agricultural town of Lydda. His family was among Lydda’s 25,000 residents who were forcibly driven out of their homes on July 12, 1948 by Israeli occupation. They were forced into exile without any food or water, to an unknown destination and gloomy future.  . In an interview Shammout had said that “we were forced through rough, dusty terrain, without food or water, we were the lucky ones who arrived in the village of Ni’lin, north of Ramallah, where we were welcomed with bread and water. There were many along with Shammouts family who could not make it to Ni’lin. After sometime when hope of return vanished and it was clear that the Israelis are never going to let the refugees to return to their homes, Shammout’s father decided to move his family to ‘Khan Younis’ a refugee camp in Gaza, where he had business colleagues.  During their stay in Khan Younis Shammout helped his father to make some living by selling homemade halva on the streets. And when he was not helping his father He drew and painted with whatever material he could get.

In 1950 Shammout went to Cairo to pursue his dream of going to art school and becoming a painter. And in 1953 he returned to Gaza with his collection of 60 works that included oil paintings, watercolors and drawings. He held his first art exhibition in Gaza which was a success. After that Shammout held an exhibition in Cairo, along with Palestinian artist and refugee from Jaffa Tamam Al-Akhal who later became his wife. The exhibition was inaugurated by than Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser.  The exhibition was a success, and with money from sales of his paintings, Shammout was able to go to Italy to enroll at the Academia De Belle Arti in Rome.

Shammout was an influential Palestinian artist, whose prominent style of painting employs recognizable symbols of Palestinian culture and traditions. His work is clearly influenced by the incidents that he witnessed and experienced during the exodus of his people and then by their life of misery and despair in the refugee camps. His most famous painting “Where to”, is an oil on canvas painting depicting the Lydda Death March of July 1948. This painting has attained an iconic status in Palestinian culture. It is perhaps the best-known version of his several representations of the refugee experience of the Palestinians. The painting represents a distraught father, on the forced march out of Lydda, carrying a sleeping child on his left shoulder, while a little girl clutches his right hand and looks up at him in exhaustion, just behind them is a third child crying and walking alone. In the background there is a skyline of an Arab town with a minaret, while in the middle ground there is a withered tree. The painting is a visual record of emotions of loss and helplessness.

Shammout became a part of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the Director of Arts and National Culture in 1965. He also held the position of Secretary General of the Union of Palestinian Artists. In 1983, following the Israeli aggression on Lebanon, and the expulsion of the PLO, he moved with his family to Kuwait. In 1992 during the Gulf War Shammout moved with his family to Germany and finally settled in Jorden.

One of the founders of modern Palestinian visual arts Shammout became the face of Palestinian resistance through art.. His art consistently features scenes of the Palestinian tragedy and struggle, are widely reproduced in Palestinian publications, and have been exhibited worldwide. Accoding to him art is the way people can know about the suffering, sadness, and dreams of Palestinian people and people living in such situations as that of Palestine should continue to deal with it.

After 50 years in 1997, Shammout was allowed to return to his hometown, but as a tourist. He went to his house which was occupied by a Jewish Israeli family who refused to allow him in. With reminisced painful emotions of exile Shammout along with his wife Tamam Al-Akhal returned to Amman, and started to work  on their most ambitious project “Palestine: The Exodus and the Odyssey”. The project is a collection of 19 large murals painted by Shammout and Tamam Al-Akhal from 1997 to 2000. The paintings illustrate, in chronological sequence, the plight of the Palestinian people since the creation of Israel in 1948.

Shammout continued to paint up until his last days, he died on July 1, 2006 at the age of seventy-six during his third heart surgery, survived by his wife, Tamam Al-Akhal, and three sons. He left behind a legacy as an artist, historian, and activist.

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