The Quest for Identity in Ahmad Canaans Work

Ruti Ofek






The encounter with Ahmad Canaans sculptures, and the attempt to identify their sources of inspiration in order reach that narrow path enabling us to entertain a dialogue with them, lead in two different directions: the first is related to the historical attempt to assimilate elements of Canaanite culture into Israeli art, while the second is the attempt to understand the essence of contemporary Palestinian art created in Israel. Both these attempts are related to a quest for identity, which is characteristic of both Israeli and Palestinian artists. Indeed, the sources of inspiration underlying both Jewish and Arab artworks created in Israel intersect at certain points in the ancient past, whose precise nature can never be fully ascertained thus giving rise to a range of different interpretations. One such historical moment is the Canaanite period, which has been interpreted both by the group of Israeli artists known as Canaanites, such as Itzhak DanzigerYonatan Ratosh, and by Palestinian artists such as Ahmad Canaan.


The range of influences that inspire both Jewish and Palestinian artists in Israel is given expression in the different sculptural traditions that exist one alongside the other in the Israeli sphere: these include Zionist memorial sculptures, whose heroic character is shaped by the legacy of Western art; Canaanite-inspired sculptures of the kind emblematized by Danzigers sculpture Nimrod (19381939); mythical sculptures that build on a range of universal traditions; and constructivist sculpture concerned with the creation of a sculptural environment. Canaan has long been active in this artistic arena, while introducing into it a unique artistic approach; his sources of inspiration lie in his personal world, which is rooted in the age-old traditions of Tamra, his native village in the Galilee. This Arab-Palestinian tradition, which is part of his everyday life, is integral to his visual world view. Canaan also entertains an ongoing dialogue with the art created in different Arab countries. Jewish Israelis have little knowledge of Arab art in general, and of Arab sculpture in particular. For the most part, they are familiar with Arab artists whose works are exhibited in the West, and who have been selected by Western eyes. A large part of the Arab art exhibited in the West is concerned with political critiquewith the difficulties of living in a traditional, conservative world; these themes, however, represent only a small part of the themes addressed in the Arab-Muslim art world.


Canaans great advantage is that his sources of inspiration are all located in his immediate environment, and do not require him to journey to faraway places. His sculptures give expression to various aspects of Arab-Palestinian tradition, and introduce us to its intricacies, narratives, and expressive forms. Adam Baruch once wrote that Israeli sculpture is Western sculpture, since Israeli art is Western art, and the formal questions examined by sculpture are all Western. So that when we speak of tradition, we are essentially speaking about a Western, European tradition that has some local aspects, and which has given rise to Israeli successes; nevertheless, this is not a form of artmaking rooted in Israeli culture, and does not represent a local tradition. [1]Ahmad Canaans work centers on those very aspects that Baruch described as missing from the definition of Israeli sculpture. Canaan, who seeks to maintain his unique identity as a Palestinian artist living in Israel, would likely not approve of the definition of his work as integral part to the Israeli sculptural arena. Yet his position as part of the Israeli art world is a product of reality, even if he does not consider it to be a goal in and of itself.


The quest for identity in Canaans work is largely given expression in formal terms, rather than thematic ones. The choice of subject matter occurs naturally, as the artist exposes and becomes consciously aware of the things and motifs that surround him. Canaans sculptures center on a concern with form and matter, and with the tension between the various elements that make up each work. They are characterized by a thrust towards abstraction and by streamlined, minimalist forms, and are neither heroic nor overly poetic. These sculptures are suffused with references to myths passed on from one generation to the next by means of traditional stories, which are concerned with man and with the surrounding environment. This traditional world forms the basis for Canaans concern with themes related to man, earth, and water. According to Haim Maor, Ahmad Canaan does not feel committed to a single style, material,ideology; he prefers to remain flexible, free, and autonomous, without subjecting himself to the dictates of others. The idea invites the material and the style. [2] As Canaan himself states, I am not interested in limiting myself. I am surrounded by enough limits religion, village, state, and so forth. [3]At times, Canaans sculptural statements allude to political concerns, albeit in an implicit manner. The problematic status of Israeli Arabs is ever-present in his works, and almost every one of them may be interpreted in the context of specific political concerns.


At the same time, the two female figures in Canaans sculpture Rain Prayer (2002), for instance, do not only commemorate an age-old tradition, but also link it to the type of modern, monumental sculptures prevalent throughout Israel. The placement of this work in two urban public squares (in Ashkelon and in Ganei Tikva) transports the traditional prayer for rain into the reality of everyday Jewish-Israeli life. The prayer for rain represented in this work is thus revealed to be a universal prayer, which is recited annually by every people residing in a dry, arid climate. This work is composed of hard, rigid materials (iron and aluminum), yet its contours are soft and feminine. 


In Winged Plow (2002), an ancient agricultural tool acquires a pair of wings that may be interpreted as an allusion to the winged lion that appears in a range of ancient traditions. The plow symbolizes the relationship between man and the earth, while the wings may bespeak a connection to the legacy of the past. Wings also appear in other sculptures by Canaan, such as The Attempt to Fly (2001), in which the winged figure is a woman, as well as in additional sculptures, such as Eternal Connection and The Ploughman, which are not included in this exhibition.


The rider sitting proudly on his horse is another recurrent theme in Canaans sculptures. In some instances, it is composed of numerous laser-cut parts that have been welded together (Salah a-Din, 2006),of complementary positive and negative elements (Resurrection, 2006). As Aida Nasrallah remarks in her essay Ahmad Canaan: The Picture that Tells a Story Between Imagination and Reality, Canaan returns obsessively to the motif of the rider, which recurs in various techniques and variations: The rider [] represents the savior,imaginary redeemer, as well  as the longing for a historical redeemer (for instance, in the sculptures The Knight of Dreams and Waiting for the Savior). At the same time, this figure bespeaks the painful political condition of a suffering people [] these works give expression to the artists preoccupations concerning the current political situation, and to his vision of his peoples redemption. Indeed, his artistic project is suffused with hope [].[4]


In Canaans sculpture The Warrior (2004), the monumental figure of a knight in armor is in fact composed of numerous miniature warriors. In Al Buraq (1997), he makes reference to the Muslim tradition, and to the horse that the Prophet Mohammad rode from Mecca to the Al-Aqsa mosque. Canaan endows this magical winged beast with a human face, thus creating an image reminiscent of ancient Assyrian reliefs.


Canaans body of works also includes a group of sculptures featuring boats; despite the differences between them, the title given to all of these works is Refugees. The first work in this series, which was sculpted in 1991, features a group of people, while the boat created in 1999 carries several figures reminiscent of human beings. The boat created in 2002 carries keys, while the boat created in 2006 is transformed into an abstract image with an identifiable bow and stern, with a number of marble cubes positioned at its center. The title Refugees is clearly imbued with a political charge; yet it does not necessarily allude to the Palestinian refugees, and may be interpreted as a comment on a contemporary problem that exists worldwide. Ahmad Canaans sculptures combine cultural and natural motifs, tradition and innovation, East and West; they form a body of works that is strongly rooted in the cultural tradition of this Palestinian-Israeli artist, and which in Bubers words may lead us along the narrow path of dialogue and mutual understanding.
















      [1] Amos Kenan (ed.), Sculpture in Israel: Search of Identity,

(exh. cat.), The Open Museum, Tefen Industrial Park, 1988.

[2] From the catalogue kol hakavod1998 curator Haim Maor

[3]  From the catalogue kol hakavod1998 curator Haim Maor.

[4]  Catalogue of Ahmad Canaan the knight2008