Old Masters and the Masters of War: Guernica – Gaza

From Mohammed Al Hawajri’s new exhibition, Guernica - Gaza.

By Vacy Vlazna

The Israeli military occupation is not only an external experience of ubiquitous soldiers, guns, teargas, tanks, F16s , Apache helicopters, warships, checkpoints, prisons, it is a virulent pathogen that infects and debilitates the psyches and bodies of its living hosts – the men, women and children of Palestine contaminating every precious instant of their lives from the first breath to death.

The omnipresence of Israeli aggression is strikingly conveyed in internationally acclaimed Gazan artist, Mohammed Al Hawajri’s new exhibition, Guernica – Gaza 2010-2013, featuring 28 extraordinary artworks which present the Israeli reign of terror invading the artistic vision of certain Old Masters.

I was sent images of Al Hawajri’s paintings via Facebook and his creativity astonished me. I am neither art connoisseur nor critic, but I’d like to share, from an activist perspective, how the incompatible juxtaposition of Old Masters, and the Israeli masters of war can expand our awareness of Gaza’s own Guernica and suffering.

Picasso’s Guernica has become a universal anti-war symbol. ON 26 April, 1937, Franco’s allies, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, sent the Luftwaffe and Aviazione Legionaria to bomb the Basque town of Guernica on market day. ‘The bombing has often been considered one of the first raids in the history of modern military aviation on a defenseless civilian population.’ For the Luftwaffe, renowned for its terror bombings, the Spanish Civil War, according to Hitler’s Reich Marshal Hermann Göring, was ideal to “test my young Luftwaffe at this opportunity in this or that technical respect.” Israel’s terror bombings of Gaza, also testing opportunities for Israel’s armament industry, mirror Göring’s callous military intentions.

Al Hawajri juxtaposes Picasso’s Guernica with a black and white photo of a young Palestinian attempting to fix power lines. The destruction, agony and chaos of Gaza and Guenica are adroitly connected by power lines that run from Picasso’s central light bulb to Gaza’s power poles targeted and damaged by Israeli airstrikes. The destruction of power utilities is integral in Gaza’s humanitarian crisis impacting on poverty, the economy, unemployment and heartbreak. We remember, how in January, a house caught fire from a candle during a blackout, the family, Hazem Mahmud Dahier, 32, his wife Samar, 30, and their four small children, 4-month-old Qamar, Farah 3, Nabil 5, and Mahmud 6, all burned to death.

It seems to me that Al- Hawajri draws Palestine’s martyrs into the revolutionary struggle for liberty with the image of Israeli soldiers coming in for the kill of the dying Marat in the shell of a gutted Gazan home. The painter of The Death of Marat, Jaques Louis David, was a political colleague of the assassinated Jacque-Paul Marat, a French revolutionary leader, physician, journalist and politician. Marat was murdered at home in his bath, a reminder that no Palestinian home is safe from Israeli state terrorism.

Extrajudicial assassination is a longstanding Israeli military policy. Up to the Second Intifada Israel assassinated about 27 Palestinians, including the beloved writer, Ghassan Kanafani. However, since September 2000, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights accounted for 348 extrajudicial execution operations that killed 754 Palestinian martyrs including 70 children.

The letter in Marat’s dying hand named his assassin and added a plea which translated in English says, “Because I am unhappy, I have a right to your help.” This right to be helped is crucial in the context of besieged Gaza and in view of the international community’s utter lack of ‘benevolence’ in its collaboration in Israel’s impunity to commit war crimes in Gaza.

This unconscionable indifference is evoked in Al Hawajri’s irony-laden image of Whistler’s Mother coolly observing a massive Israeli tank crushing the rubble of a Gazan home with helicopters (made in the US), like vultures, flying overhead. The presence of this  famous American painting, iconic of motherhood and family values, prompts, in me, condemnation of the US government support for Israeli brutality and condemnation of the American public that sits at home watching their tax dollars destroy Gazan life sans outrage or action to help protect Gazan families like the 10 members of the Al-Dalu family during the intensive 8 day assault in November 2012  that added to the tragic death tolls and to the 51,433 rendered homeless in Operation Cast Lead.

Irony is also conveyed in the painting that blends Chagall’s Russian Wedding with a Palestinian wedding procession blocked by an Israeli soldier in contrast to the soldier in Chagall’s original painting who is heralding the procession by playing a fiddle.

Chagall repeatedly celebrated the love of home, marriage and his happy existence with his wife, Bella. Marriage is a foundation of society and even on this sacred ground, Israel intrudes with its law that ‘renders residents of Gaza and the West Bank ineligible for Israeli citizenship or a residency permit through marriage. As a result, it separates over 130,000 Palestinian couples where one spouse holds Israeli papers. All appeals made to the Israeli Supreme Court to repeal the law have been rejected. (Malik Samara, alakhbar, 21-4-13)

The three featured Chagall paintings are set in his beloved village, Vitebsk in Belarus where he could return whenever he wanted and for that matter, as a Jew, he could choose Israel as a home unlike the desperate Palestinian refugees to whom Israel denies their legal right of return.

In two paintings, Al Hawajri superimposes Chagall’s couple in The Promenade and  Over the Town into the apartheid landscape of the Annexation Wall. The exhilaration of love that frees lovers to transcend earthly limitation, in this instance the imposing Wall, we know, applies only to Israeli Jews. Certainly not to Palestinians. In fact the illegal Wall benefits only Israel and separates and divides Palestinians:

…it is difficult to overstate the humanitarian impact of the Barrier. The route inside the West Bank severs communities, people’s access to services, livelihoods and religious and cultural amenities….—United Nations

Ingeniously Al Hawajri blends Jean-Francois Millet’s rendering of peasant life with the inescapable presence of the Occupation. The Annexation Wall encroaches on the fields of Millet’s The Shepherdess,The Angelus and The Gleaners reminding us of Israel’s stranglehold on Palestinian agriculture by the confiscation of land for buffer zones, for the extension of the Annexation Wall, as well as the siege on Gaza that purposely creates shortages of seeds, fertilizer, and farming equipment so that, according to the UN FAO, ‘Roughly two-thirds of Gaza’s 1.5 million people are deemed food insecure”.

Millet didn’t paint idyllic scenes, his paintings were honest portrayals of hard peasant labor hence the exhausted peasant couple in his Noonday Rest are enjoying a well earned sleep. Al Hawajri alters the quiet scene with the arrival of a unit of Israeli soldiers and a tank calling to mind the dangers farmers face daily. This month, volunteers are accompanying farmers from Khuza’a village, south of Gaza to protect them from military patrols that shoot randomly at them while they harvest their wheat. Harvest seasons throughout Palestine are especially dangerous for farmers.

For me, Noonday Rest also evokes the psychological loss of safety and security. Sleep is a basic necessity for human survival and health and therefore the right to rest is included in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Inevitably, Israel systematically violates Palestinian rights to rest by ramping up a state of anxiety and fear with night-time raids and violent home invasions. Arrests of children and adults occur mainly at night when the whole family is suddenly awakened, their home invaded by armed soldiers shouting and ransacking the family’s possessions then kidnapping the frightened target leaving the family distraught and their lives devastated.

I recall how in January 2012, soldiers crashed a house, in the middle of the night in murdering 66 year old Omar Al-Qawasmy as he slept in bed. It was a case of mistaken identity. One soldier was discharged without charges and the other soldier exonerated. Such impunity heightens Palestinian vulnerability and insecurity.

To intensify the sleep deprivation, mental exhaustion and stress, Israel regularly and mercilessly bludgeons Gazans with series of sonic booms, mainly at night, that sound like massive explosions which can cause miscarriages, heart attacks as well as trauma, loss of hearing, breathing difficulties and bed-wetting in children.

I see Al Hawajri’s transformation of Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory as a dark indictment of Israel and a haunting memorial of the massacre of Palestine’s innocents and innocence. The ultimate human tragedy is the suffering and death of a child. And the ultimate depravation of any society is cold-blooded heedlessness for the lives of children and in this regard, Israel’s depravity is sub-human. Since September 2000, more than 1396 Palestinian children have been murdered by the Israeli state, including 1030 children in the Gaza Strip alone. Injured children triple this number.

The Catalonian coast is replaced by Gaza’s which seems to watch over the Gazan baby, little Hanen Tafish, who sleeps forever in her illuminated shroud. Dali’s melting clocks usually symbolize time slowing down in a dream state,  but here, in the context of Gaza’s nightmare, time appears to be weeping in a dissolution of grief, and this immortal memory and grief – of parents, of families, of Gaza, also blankets the dead baby. One is painfully reminded of the hundreds of images that emerged during Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar Cloud of beautiful Gazan children slaughtered by Israel.

I believe the soul and sumud of Gaza is embedded in Al Hawajri’s exhibition and genius. This collection of Al Hawajri’s art is not for adornment, it is the art of strong love and responsibility for justice, for an abandoned people, for Palestine.

Mohammed Al Hawajri’s art can be seen here.

– Dr. Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters. She was Human Rights Advisor to the GAM team in the second round of the Acheh peace talks, Helsinki, February 2005 then withdrew on principle. Vacy was coordinator of the East Timor Justice Lobby as well as serving in East Timor with UNAMET and UNTAET from 1999-2001. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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  1. “As a result, it separates over 130,000 Palestinian couples where one spouse holds Israeli papers. Slight exaggeration in numbers .. maybe chop off a zero or two, but in any case they can live together outside of Israel so what’s the problem?

  2. I find this art to be immensely powerful and moving. Hopefully the artist and his supporters will be able to find a way to broadcast these images around the world so that all people will at last become aware of the cruel, inhuman and illegal acts that the Israelis perpetuate daily against the Palestinians.

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