The many shapes of roots produces art which unites all times and thereby consolidates the identity

Meliha Muselmani

The drizzle of the past sprinkles from his sculptures, linking the power of a bygone civilization to a hope lived by ..


The drizzle of the past sprinkles from his sculptures, linking the power of a bygone civilization to a hope lived by the disturbing present. Perhaps he is looking for indelible origins in the solidity of stones;maybe he is extracting the rust of calamity from the heaviness of the iron;conceivably, he is compressing the lines together and uniting the torn identities in the cohesion of wood. Thus you, as a recipient, cannot help but recite a poem when standing in front of his many sculptures scattered on the hills of occupied cities, on the beaches of the sea and in Arab capitals. You cannot help but circling these sculptures more than once, trying to connect the self with its roots. Whereas in front of his painting, you will find a different and contrasting face, brimming with bright colors and oriental decorations, straining your inner self, and you wonder about the secret of that tension caused by these neat lines.
In contrast to his solid and giant sculptures with strong features, the artist Ahmad Canaan, born in the town of Tamra in the Western Galilee in 1965, possesses a generally cool, absentminded, discreet and smiling nature. On his artistic journey over 20 years, beginning in the studio of artist Khalil Reyan in Tamra, through the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, up until today, Ahmad Canaan has contributed a large collection of artworks as sculptures, drawings and structures. Utilizing every material the earth provides, and various techniques, Canaan expresses issues that have, in their turn, sculpted the identity of his artworks and his own identity as a human being and an artist: The artist looking for roots in the ground and looking at the sky, trying to love, trying to break free and trying to fly. After a long journey from the Galilee to Ramallah, we had the following conversation with him.
* I will not ask the artist Ahmad Canaan, who identifies himself first and foremost as a sculptor, and is known for trying to find his roots in his works, about an identitya definition, but a question is forming in my mind. How did your journey to find your identity through your art start; and what was the motivation behind it?
- The beginning for me was posing questions about my self: the search for my self was my artistic beginning, and the opposite also holds true. I never started my journey through the arts affected by a certain artistartistic movement. I began in the studio of artist Khalil Reyan when I was sixteen years old; there I studied basic techniques in using tools and colors and mixing them, and in Bezalel I became acquainted with a lot of art work and became familiar with many schools of art. The controversy regarding issues of identity and the Palestinian situation and conflict, posed questions rather than answering them. The Palestinian people was then continuing its first Intifada against the occupation. One can say that the beginning was my first exhibition entitled Ploughs the Hakawati Theater in Jerusalem, which I created during my last year in Bezalel.. What I mean to say is that my existence as a human being and a Palestinian in an Israeli society formed, and still forms, a motif in my artistic journey to express myself as a Palestinian; that there is a need to prove that youre a Palestinian and affirm your Palestinianity in each exhibition and in every work of art, trying to resist the many attempts to obliterate your identity and eradicate your roots and history in this land.
* The Palestinian critic Aziza Diab said the following about your exhibitPloughs: Despite the many associations that come to mind upon looking at Canaans different types of plows, and which pertain to the individuals relationship to the land in general, and to the reality of the Palestinian minority to which the artist belongs in particular, we notice that his sculptures stand firmly on the ground, steeped in the depths of time, of wisdom and of gods immortality. In your art, how does the reality of the Palestinian minority in particular, and the Palestinian people in general, pertain to the relationship between the land and Canaans civilization?
maybe this is my attempt at explaining my own work which pertains to the land -- that while history is repeating itself, the Palestinians relationship with the land remains intact. They still hang on to it, and even become part of it, to the extent that their relationship with it becomes a component of its identity as much as theirs, and that relationship remains mutual. For more than three thousand years, Palestinians have remained attached to their land, and are still looking at the sky, longing to soar freely with love for life.
* AfterPloughs  , you had many personal exhibitions, among them Mashatih in 1992, Anat in 2001, Land in 2002, in addition to your participation in collective exhibitions such as 50 Years Since the Palestinian Nakba [Calamity], Thoughts, Visions and Identities, Women as Entities and Maturity. My question is, in addition to the diversity of media in which the artist Ahmad Canaan creates, that is, sculptures, drawings, murals, and decorations, there is also a diversity in the subjects addressed, such as the history and relationship with the land, women, environmental works like Growing, which you placed in Arab schools and which the students use as a gathering place in the schoolyard. Recently, you even began this series of works entitled A Wall in the Head; does this express the reality of the wall in occupied areas?
- Works of art are a reflection of the artists self as a human being and whatever thoughts, feelingscontradictions that haunt him. Each work of art is like a snapshot of my life at a particular stage, even if the general Canaanite features remained the main characteristics. During my marriage I worked on several pieces like Mating and others, attempting to express my view of marriage and love and relationships with women, women who were portrayed by Palestinian artists in the 1970s and 1980s as being the nation, the land and fertility. In my pieces, I concentrated on the relationship between a woman and a man, along with everything that implies: harmony, unity and each sides mutual need for the other to complete him/her. After that I had children, and that is a very important stage in any persons life. It affects him and re-sculpts him, resulting in my works, such as Growing and Meeting and Growing, in which children can sit to talkthink. These are environmental works, which a person can not only look at, but also use in his life. At this point I would like to say that it is beautiful for art to be part of a persons lifestyle instead of being a mere ornamental paintingsculpture. Concerning A Wall in the Head, there are two pieces: one is in Ramallah, the other is located on the French-German border. I cant help but express my thoughts about a concrete wall which encloses the Palestinian people in a huge prison and which divides Palestinian lands. This wall exists only in their own heads, and this is what I always tell Israelis: they should eradicate this wall inside their heads, so that they can see others and allow others to see them. In my opinion, no matter how much the occupation escalates its actions, eventually there is only one possible solution for this, which is trying to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The wall practically kills this possibility, and will not achieve peace, and thereby will not attain security for the Israelis. I feel that one of the motives behind my continuous journey through art and participation in exhibitions is my view of art as a common language for all; it poses questions and arouses controversies, and thus achieves some kind of communication.
* In his book, Formation 1, the Palestinian artist Marwan Al-Allan, after defining you as a Palestinian Canaanite artist, mentions a note which reads we would like to point out that the recruitment of the artists works by the Israeli institute, and its disquieting interest in them, poses a big question mark which we will try to address in our search for the relation with the other artistically, in our next study.  Can you comment on that statement?
- You said it; he defined me as a Palestinian Canaanite artist, and he read the priorities in my identity through looking at pictures of my works. You know, I have a sense of distress, worry and suffocation whenever I feel I have to affirm my Palestinianity not only to the Israeli, but also to a fellow Palestinian! The way I see it, my participation in a certain exhibition and the interest of Israeli institutes in my work is a kind of acknowledgement, a moral and cultural achievements. Before raising question marks, and especially when it comes to the Palestinian case in Israel that, in the case of a Palestinian artist living in Israel, the attempts at including him in important exhibitions in the country is tokenism,. However, the issue becomes more complex when it comes to culture and art in Israel, where the educated elite claims to be the most liberal in Israeli society. At the same time, I emphasize that, no matter what challenges the Palestinian artist faces in Israel, good art is conspicuous and becomes the focus of the critics and the educated, regardless of their personal views of the other; and we all know that the view generally held regarding the other who is also an Arab is that he is inferior.  With all modesty as an artist, and with all pride as a Palestinian, I believe that my works constitute a special case in the cultural life in Israel. That is true not only of myself, but of other Palestinian artists in Israel, whose works and styles are excellent, and became the center of interest for critics and art institutes and intellectuals. Personally, I receive many offers to participate in important exhibitions in Israel, and therein lies the pain: if the Palestinian artist wants to preserve his Palestinian identity, he must carefully examine and consider every invitation to participate in an exhibition. And I would like to point out here that not all the exhibitions in Israel have a Zionist theme to them, because art is much grander and broader than one ideology. As an artist, you might be asked to do a mural as a decoration to some building, and this is also part of the artists work, especially when art is his only income.
- The Israeli critic, Nava Shoshani, says of the decorations and ornamentations in your work: … it could be said that the decorations in Ahmad Canaans works of art sometimes appear as a visible background,a decorative layer, but in most cases it appears as a soothingmisleading curtain, which blossomed from the artists way of thinking and his feelings. The recipient is exposed to serious content and pain through the decorated façade. What is the secret of this stress hidden behind the decorations in your work?
- I began my journey in Islamic art and decorations through my visits to museums, especially the Rockefeller museum in Jerusalem, which includes relics of Islamic art in Palestine. The visit was a magical one, which takes you back in time. I started taking pictures of the decorations and the mosaics; my role as an artist is not merely copyingphotographing. The art of decoration in Islamic art is a magnificent one, capable of absorbing much innovation and creativity. This is why I started producing paintings and murals with this decorative style, but not without incorporating my own style. One of the murals I did was a decoration of butterflies, and toward the topmost line you can see the butterflies starting to fly out of order. In another oil painting, also decorated with butterflies, each butterfly was special in its colorshape.
* You use many materials in your work, from wood, stoneiron to painting with oilwatercolor. How do you deal with this variety and difference of materials, and how do you choose a certain material for a new ideawork of art?
- The idea itself chooses its material and technique, but the opposite is also true. A certain material, such as a piece of iron, could inspire a certain ideaartistic shape. But it is not that easy, it is a long procedure of physically and mentally exhausting research. The idea does not remain static, but undergoes many processes of sculpting and additions and deletions and polishing, exactly as happens to the materials before using them. This research process does not end when the ideathe material is processed enoughwhen the work of art is finished. Instead, it continues to grow in other works of art. That is why you see a series of works with the same title, but using different techniquesmaterials like Plow 1 made from Iron and Plow 2 made from Wood, the collection of works Anat made from wood, copper and colors, Anats Shrine and Anats Decorations in oil colors.
* You were among the artists who participated in Jafna Spring 2005. What do you think of this experience, as it was the first Palestinian international artistic workshop you attended which was organized by the Ministry of Education?
- It was a very fantastic and rich experience, which allowed us to contact intellectuals and artists after years of having not done so. The most important thing is that these workshops begin drawing the first features of a Palestinian cultural identity, where artists from all Palestinian countries unite to create continuity in Palestinian art, which suffers from difficulties,even the impossibility, of communication between its artists. As a Palestinian artist, I look forward to such experiences, which enrich Palestinian art on the national and international levels. However, I am singling out the Palestinian cultural reality as part of its Arab counterpart. Especially in the case of Palestinians in Israel, we are prohibited, for example, from traveling to most Arab countries. Is it our fault that we remained in our own lands after the Nakba and the eviction?! Why are the borders between Arab countries not open, as the borders of European countries are? Without this communication, there will be no Arab cultural renaissance which will include us as Palestinians in particular.
* In a collection of works entitled The Leader, the horse appears as the leaderthe warrior in many different situations. In some works it is standing erect, while in others it is lying on the ground, sometimes defeated and sometimes triumphant. Is this portrayal of the horse as a leader a yearning for the past, which witnessed the Arab nation mounting horses as Nava Shoshani, the organizer of the exhibition, notes?
- It is more a need for a leader than a yearning for the past. We spring from our roots which we cannot cut off. In the reality of the Palestinian people, which worsens day by day, the need for a leader to organize things and hold them tightly intensifies, a leader is not whoever mounts a horse with an army behind him; it is the will inside of us, our longing for freedom and our love of life. The Palestinian people have a lot of love for life and want to live it. We need to organize our identities as Palestinians and Arabs, and to charge our political and cultural energies, so that the people can lead itself into its own future.
 * Published in Alhaya Aljadida on the 1st of October 2005