Ahmad Canaan – Sculptures

Tamar Hurvitz Livne







Wings spread out

In flight towards the sea

Towards the source of light

Shaking free

Detaching themselves

From the grip of the earth

From worries and battle cries.

The flight towards the sun is

Weightless and effortless

The last hours of the day recede

The wings flap

And tremble as they glide

Towards a tranquil earth

Ready to embrace as darkness falls


Lies Moeller[1]







Art is a cross-cultural language of signs and forms imbued with meaning – a definition that aptly defines the work of the artist Ahmad Canaan. Art is a language in which a poem by a woman who was born as a Christian and who chose to convert to Judaism may touch upon a central motif in the work of an Israeli-Arab-Palestinian artist who defines himself as a Canaanite, and who constantly moves between different identities. The desire to take flight and to detach oneself, if only momentarily, from the burning earth, from questions concerning ones self-definition and identity, may well be a universal desire. According to the Muslim tradition, Al Buraq, the Prophet Muhammads magical horse, transported him from Mecca to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem – the site from which the prophet ascended to heaven. When he returned to the earth, this unique beast, which  could reach the horizon in a single leap, transported him back to Mecca. Ahmad Canaans statue Al Buraq (1997) depicts a sort of centaur, a fusion of a man and a winged animal, and may be described as a fantasy; it is part of a series of winged sculptures that bespeak the human desire to take flight, and the distance separating the heavenly and the terrestrial realms.

            Ahmad Canaan was born in 1965 in the Arab town Tamra, and grew up in a family of carpenters. To this day, his family owns three different carpentry shops. According to Canaan, As a child I was always building things. My mother sewed clothes and my five brothers and I worked at the carpentry shops. Manual work is something Ive been doing since childhood. [2]From a young age, Canaan chose to study at Jewish schools. As a fourteen-year-old boy, he began studying at the Kfar Galim School in Haifa, and later at the citys Ironi Aleph high school. As he describes it, the transition from his hometown to Haifa was an eye-opening experience. The sculptural reliefs and memorial sculptures he saw along the road, the art equipment he purchased in the citys Hadar neighborhood, and the art exhibitions he visited at Beit Hagefen all impacted his artistic outlook early on in life. In the 1980s, I enrolled in school at Kfar Galim in order to integrate into Israeli society. I felt that in order to get along better in life, I needed to study and become familiar with things, he explains. Already during his adolescence, then, Canaan began charting his initial flight trajectory, consciously choosing to familiarize himself with other identities.


As a child and adolescent, Canaan was already interested in painting. This interest grew when he began studying painting and sculpture with the artist Khalil Ryan, a Bezalel graduate and resident of Tamra. During those years, Canaan first became familiar with Palestinian art, which was reproduced during the 1970s in publications disseminated by the communist party (which was opposed to the Israeli occupation). He was influenced by the works of artists such as Suleiman Mansour, Taysir Barakat, Nabil Anani, Ismail Shammout, and Kamel Al Mughanni.


As a young adult, Canaan applied to the architecture department at the Bezalel School of Arts and Design in Jerusalem – motivated by the idea of pursuing a career in a field that was related to artmaking, yet which afforded a better chance of earning a steady income. His two applications to the schools architecture department were both rejected, and he was told that his talent as better suited to the art department. He subsequently applied to Bezalels art department, and was admitted immediately. In the course of his studies, Canaan became familiar with Western art, and also acquired new metalworking skills. As the only Arab student at in his class, he began searching for his artistic identity. One of the comments that opened my eyes, Canaan recalls, was made by the painter Dedi Ben Shaul, who told me in front of the whole class that I didnt have to imitate IsraeliEuropean painters – that I came from a different culture, and that I had to return to my roots in order to embark on my own artistic path. This comment led me to become interested in Canaanite culture.


The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term habitus to a set of dispositions that generate practices and perceptions in the realms of knowledge, taste, understanding, connoisseurship, art, and culture. According to Bourdieu, a habitus is formed in the course of an individuals childhood education, and subsequently impacts his choices as an adult. Canaans work, which consciously builds on childhood and adult memories, revolves around a bifurcated, hybrid habitus, one shaped by several cultures and identities. When I am asked how I define myself, he explains, I say I am a Canaanite. This definition enables me to avoid the problems associated with other types of definitions. If I say I am an Israeli artist, I am perceived elsewhere in the world as a Jewa Zionist. This is not the case, and I have to explain that I have an Israeli passport, and that I am an Arab and a Palestinian. Ive found that describing myself as a Canaanite is the most convenient answer. I live in a state of duplicity, and move between three different identities – the official identity given to me by the state, my cultural affiliation with a given people and society, and my conscious identification with ancient Canaanite culture. [3] By defining himself in this manner, Ahmad Canaan thus roots his identity in an ancient cultural sphere that encompassed numerous religious, national and ethnic groups. 


Canaan belongs to a society that is defined in Israel as a minority. This fact calls for an examination of his work in the context of post-colonial discourse, which critically examines social structures as the product of power relations between a hegemonic culture and the cultures that are subjected to it. In his groundbreaking book Orientalism, [4]Edward Said argued that the image of the Orient constructed by the West preserved the relations between ruler and ruled, and catered to Western needs; this image was both shaped by and reflected in visual art, as well as in other cultural products. Unlike Said, Homi Bhabha, [5]who coined the term the third space, has described the Orient as a cultural point of encounter – a sphere in which the conquerer and the conquered are mutually influenced by one another and imitate each other. This is the space in which symbols and concepts are endowed with new meanings, and which gives rise to a new, complex and heterogeneous reality that is not predicated upon a dichotomy between the conquerer and the conquered. In this essay, I have chosen to analyze Canaans works as the product of such a third space –  an intercultural sphere that may, as Bhabha argues, become a sphere of negotiation and dialogue, rather than a sphere devoted exclusively to resistance and struggle.


In this context, it is interesting to examine the use of the term third space in another theoretical context – in the writings of the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott. [1]Winnicott uses the term the third space to describe a form of individual experience, which takes place in a transitional space that mediates the relations between inside and outside, between the subjective and that which can be objectively perceived. According to Winnicott, it is in this space, which he associates with play, that individuals construct culture. The experience of creative play that unfolds in this third space may eventually give rise to more mature manifestations of transitional objects in the form of artworks and other cultural artifacts, philosophy, religion, and creative scientific work. It is the existence of this sphere, according to Winnicott, that is responsible for mans mental health.


Although Ahmad Canaan defines himself as a Canaanite, it is impossible to ignore his identification with the struggle of the Palestinian people, and his art must thus also be examined in the context of Palestinian art. Palestinian visual art is highly variegated and is created in various parts of the Palestinian diaspora, yet its study and documentation are still relatively limited. Scholars of contemporary Palestinian art, such as Kamal Boullata, Ganit Ankori, and Tal Ben Zvi[6]  note several themes that recur in the work of different Palestinian artists: a deep connection to the land; a concern with cultural heritage; a preoccupation with geography and with borders; a concern with the gendered body and with questions of identity, exile, and the experience of refugees. In addition, both the titles and the contents of these artworks make use of various Arabic words to create an inter-visual sphere in which language and the different connotations of various words acquired multilayered meanings. These characteristics all appear in Canaans works.   


One aspect of art created in the context of a larger attempt at national self-definition is a concern with tradition, which is given expression in the revival of ancient forms of craft, in the exploration of a given cultural legacy, and in a search for authenticity. [7] Canaan frequently makes use of traditional myths and stories, as well as of ancient forms of craftsmanship. A recurrent motif in his work, which he became interested in during his last year at Bezalel, is the image of the plow. Canaans plows bespeak a traditional connection to the land, and represent a simple and modest way of life.  It alludes to the figure of the Arab peasant, to his specialized knowledge of the land, and to ancient means of cultivating the earth that date as far back as the Canaanite period. The plows in his sculptures are often winged; in some instances they are attached to an earth roller, while in other instances they are combined with animal figures. In addition to the tension between internal and external spaces and between the different iron bodies represented in these sculptures, both their style and their forms are related to a masculine, phallic type of action, which involves defining ones territory and declaring ownership over it. The sculpture Baal, for instance, which combines an animal form and a plow, alludes to the Canaanite god Baal, whose name it bears, and by extension also to the etymologically related word mastery, which in this context is related to mastery over the land. Interestingly, the plow motif has a similar symbolic meaning in the parallel narrative of the Zionist movement (see, for instance, E.M. Liliens 1902 illustration for the Fifth Zionist Congress, in which the ploughman, the plough, and the horse advance towards the sun). This observation underscores the argument that Canaans art is the product of a third space, which is shaped by what Bhabha describes as reciprocal influences and reciprocal contamination between different cultures.

In Boaz Neumanns book Pioneering and Desire in Early Zionism,[8] which is concerned with the second and third Aliyah, Neumann describes the hoe and the plow as central tools in the pioneers work world. In addition to their instrumental significance, these tools, he argues, were perceived as part of the pioneers body and experience. Based on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Fιlix Guattari, who blur the boundaries between the terms territory and body, Neumann develops the term geo body to describe a body that perceives itself as part of the surrounding territory. In Canaans sculpture The Ploughman, the human figure cultivating the earth, the animal, and the work tool are transformed into a single iron entity, while the boundaries between body, tool, animal, and territory are blurred.


Another sculptural motif that recurs in Canaans work in different variations is the camel. What is the symbolic significance of this animal, which is referred to as the ship of the desert?[9] Does it represent life in harmony with nature? Modest needs and the ability to make do with few provisions? The ability to survive in a difficult climate? Or is it, perhaps, a symbol of the Orient? In some instances, it seems to be calling our attention to the sense of ease with which it inhabits an environment that has always constituted an arena of struggle. This motif is directly related to Canaans own childhood memories of camels. One of the most memorable scenes he experienced during his visits to his grandmothers house in Al Yamoon, in the vicinity of Jenin, was a camel caravan returning home at dusk, burdened with bundles of hay and sesame stalks, their bells ringing through the landscape. The display cabinet in his familys home also contained a miniature, ornamental camel caravan made of olivewood; this type of souvenir, which was produced in Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, became widespread in Israel beginning in 1967. The living room also contained a kilim featuring the image of another camel; as a child, Canaan would repeatedly copy and draw these camels. His own sculptures of camels always appear as part of a herd. They are composed of cut iron plates that were welded together, a process that lends them a somewhat square, geometric appearance. The camels head is always turned upwards, towards the sky, as if stifling a cry.

In the sculpture Rain Prayer (2003), Canaan created a theatrical moment centered on a forgotten female ritual. In the course of this ritual, a millstone is held above the head of a seated woman, while another woman stands above her and recites a blessing while the surrounding audience members pray and sing for rain. This traditional ceremony, which was still conducted at the village Al-Damun, in the vicinity of Tamra (a village that no longer exists), was described to Canaan by one of the elderly women from the village. The physical contact between the women and the constituted an intimate moment the context of a larger social event. In Canaans sculpture, the womens large, rounded, strong bodies raise questions concerning physical contact, gender, and human relations with nature.


Canaans sculpture Fish (1998) may be read in two different ways: seen in profile, the bony fish appears as an expression of want. When the viewer faces it head on, by contrast, the fish appears to be composed of two concentric circles – an expression of wholeness, harmony and flow. This duality, which exists in every human creature and in every experience of reality, is given special expression in Canaans life and work.


The exhibition at the Open Museum in Omer centers on a group of Canaans iron sculptures. The powerful works in this series are shaped by the same sculptural language and treatment of the material. Canaan, whose works are usually based on small-scale models, cuts the crude sheets of iron with a laser cutter, welds them together, and endows them with a delicate, lyrical quality. The recent sculptures he created for this exhibition feature elongated strips of metal ornamented with a decorative design, which seem to reiterate the statement: My work is rooted in tradition.


Canaan creates sculptures, paintings, environmental sculptures and reliefs, and makes use of wood, stone, copper and iron. One of the most striking expressions of the material richness of his art is his own home, which is a lifelong work in process. Ahmad Canaan lives and works in his home. He is deeply connected to Tamra and to the surrounding land and fields, as well as to the archeological artifacts that have been discovered there. The house, which he built with his own two hands, is an artwork in its own right. It stands out among the surrounding houses, and constitutes an impressive cultural artifact. Canaan surrounds himself with things that may assistinspire him in the creative process, so that the house functions as an inspiring environment for artistic creation. Whereas his streamlined iron sculptures are characterized by streamlined forms, this domestic environment is free of conflicts, and thus of the impetus to impose some form of restraint. Here Canaan feels committed to no one but himself, and everything is possible.


The design language of this house, where Canaan lives with his family, is eclectic and multicultural: the interior contains shades of pastel green, blue, and peach; multilayered expanses of colored cement that reveal traces of their manual creation process; carved wooden lattice work; various ornaments; handmade stained-glass windows that let in soft, pleasant light; a circular coffee table with a mosaic top, which may be separated into three triangles; embroidered pillows; small models of sculptures; paintings, and books. This cozy interior is defined by rounded lines, so that the central space provides a clear view of all those who are present in it. Nothing is concealed, and everything is real.


The sources of inspiration for this house are the colorful stone and concrete houses that the artist remembers from his childhood in Tamra, as well as domes and ornaments inspired by the Old City of Jerusalem and by the years he spent living in the city. The dome-shaped roof and the openings that let in light and air were inspired by the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, and by the flow characteristic of Antonio Gaudís architecture. In the course of the construction process, Canaan consulted with the architect Isam Khatib. Had Canaan been accepted in Bezalels architecture department all those years ago, this life-long project may not have taken such an authentic form.


Canaans life and personality are both characterized by a combination of restraint and a sense of unease. He is an artist who lives between three different identities and cultures and who sees himself as a mediator, while striving for recognition in each of these different contexts. For this reason, he finds it difficult to make strong statements that pertain exclusively to only one of these contexts – a difficulty that may well explain both the restraint and the great subtlety that infuses his works with such power. Canaans art evolves in the space between the plough and the wings: On the one hand, he is in search of solid ground – of land that can be cultivated and owned, and of a sense of belonging and security. At the same time, his gaze is directed towards the heavens, to a spiritual realm, as he searches for the sparks of divinity embodied in human existence. His work is characterized by a transcendental thrust, which is characteristic of all individuals who attempt to transcend the limits of the self, and to rise above difficult conflicts and identity-related concerns. He approaches art as a fusion of form, mass, and material, whose coming together provokes in him great excitement, pleasure, and enduring interest.


[1] Lies Moeller, Young Moon, Tel Aviv: Yehoshua Tsʹatsʹik Publishing, 1958, p. 16, in Hebrew. The poet Lies Moeller (1906–1976), the daughter of a German Protestant minister, was born in Basel. Following the rise to power of the Nazis, she converted to Judaism and immigrated to Palestine in 1935. Her poetry was all written in German, and was translated into Hebrew by a range of Israeli poets including Yaakov Orland, Leah Goldberg, and others. This poem was translated into Hebrew by S. Salom.




[2] All statements by the artist are quoted from conversations with the author of this essay.


[3] The Canaanite period dates to the second millennium BCE in the land of Canaan – that is, in the area between modern-day Gaza and northern Syria. At that time, this area was inhabited by a range of ethnic groups, which each worshipped a different pantheon of local gods. The members of these groups were farmers, fishermen, traders, builders, and sculptors. Canaanite culture evolved during the same period as ancient Egyptian culture, and is known to us through archeological findings and ancient texts, including the Hebrew Bible. During the 1940s, a group of Israeli artists who called themselves The Cannanites (The Young Hebrews) turned to ancient Canaanite culture in an attempt to sever all ties to the Jewish Diaspora, and to revive the ancient connection between Hebrew culture and the cultures of the various peoples that inhabited this area in ancient times.

[4] Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Pantheon, 1978.

[5] For a discussion of the third sphere and of Homi Bhabhas thought, Bhabh++as “The Question of the ‘Other’: Difference, Discrimination and the Post-Colonial Discourse,” in Theory and Criticism 5, pp. 144–157, 1994. See also Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture, London & New York: Routledge, 2004.



[6]  See Galit Ankory, Palestinian Art, London: Reaktion Books, 2005; Kamal Boullata, Art, in Philip Mattar (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Palestinians, New York: Facts on File Library of World History, 2000, and Israeli and Palestinian Artists: Facing the Forests, in Kav 10, 1990, pp. 170–175, in Hebrew; Tal Ben Zvi (ed.), Hagar – Contemporary Palestinian Art, published by Hagar: Jewish-Arab Education for Equality, 2006.



[7] See Itamar Even-Zohar, The Emergence of Native Hebrew Culture in Palestine, 1882–1942, in

Catedra 16, 1980, pp. 165–185. See also Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London: Verso

Books, 1991.



[8] Boaz Neumann, Pioneering and Desire in Early Zionism, Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2009, p. 94, in Hebrew.

[9] Canaans works also contain explicit references to ships. In his sculpture Refugees, which features a group of women, the design of the ship is reminiscent of ancient Phoenician vessels.


the article from the catalogue:Ahmad Canaan sculptures-2011

The open museum Omer.the Negev