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Laila Shawa: still shaking people up: Lawrence Joffe talks to the Palestine-born artist whose work forms part of the British Museums collection, Laila Shawa. (Mosaic).

Born the daughter of a wealthy family in Gaza, Laila Shawa was eight years old when the state of Israel was declared. Gaza's population quadrupled virtually overnight. Cramped refugee camps were established which eventually became permanent fixtures. Farmers lost access to grazing lands in the Negev. Gaza's new Egyptian rulers imposed martial law, and deposed Laila's Cambridge-educated uncle as mayor. Her father, Rashad, an active nationalist and former deputy high commissioner for Haifa, was jailed for `high treason' because of his ties with Jordan, while Egypt's President Nasser exacerbated tensions between the pre-1948 elite and the impoverished masses.

Now based in London, Laila Shawa is one of only a few Arab artists to successfully break through barriers in the West, according to Dr Venetia Porter, curator for the Oriental Department of the British Museum, who has purchased several of Laila's creations for the museum's collection. "Good art should really shake people up. When I first saw Laila's work, it jumped straight out at me", she says.

Young and rebellious, Laila strove to find her own path. Six weeks after enrolling to study philosophy and sociology at the American University of Cairo, she returned home disconsolate and disillusioned. Luckily, she found an advocate in Victor Delborgo, an Egyptian of Italian Jewish extraction, an architect and close family friend. He had noticed Laila's creative talent, and strongly recommended to her father that she study at the Leonardo da Vinci School of Art, in Cairo.

It was an unusual choice for a girl raised in a traditional Muslim society. But her father was persuaded, and in 1957 Laila began her new life. "I had a ball", she recalls. "I loved the teachers and enjoyed being with such a variety of people from different nationalities: Swiss, Italian, Greek and Egyptian."

After a year she transferred to the Academia de Belle Arte in Rome, in 1958. For six years she studied under Renato Guttuso, gaining a BA with honours in fine arts, and a further Diploma in Plastic and Decorative Arts from the Academia St Giacomo. Between 1960 and 1963 she also frequently travelled to Salzburg, Austria, where she collaborated with the famously fiery Expressionist, Oskar Kokoschka.

At the time Laila fell under the spell of the western idiom. Her hero was the 16th century Flemish master, Pieter Breughel. "He knew how to depict the human condition within the dimensions of the universe. And, while he was critical of people, he always maintained a sense of humour", says Laila. In time Laila would put her burgeoning artistic career on hold to render service to those less fortunate. Between 1965 and 1967 she worked as a supervisor for arts and crafts in UNRWA refugee schools. For another year she instructed art teachers at the UNESCO Institute of Education

Returning to Gaza in 1965, she began to incorporate indigenous elements into her work. Passionate abstractions gave way to a more narrative style. She held her first solo exhibition at Marna House in Gaza, and visited Jerusalem, which left a great impact. "The walls and architecture of the Old City have influenced my work ever since. For years, I painted nothing but cityscapes. I am fascinated by form, and what people leave behind as a sign of their presence."

In early 1967 she left Gaza and UNRWA to set up anew in Beirut, her mother's birthplace. She revelled in the city's cosmopolitan atmosphere, enjoyed four solo exhibitions, and found work as an illustrator of children's books. But another great change was just around the corner. Over six days in June, Israel conquered the Sinai Desert, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza Strip.

For Palestinians, defeat came as a second nakba (catastrophe). Paradoxically, though, occupation allowed West Bankers and Gazans to revisit their lost land. Says Laila: "I had no real recollection of physical Palestine. It was a shock going back to a place that you have only heard of."

Increasingly, Laila translated that sense of shock into more overtly political work. Her paintings now sought to reclaim, preserve and reinterpret a distinctively Palestinian identity. They depicted new themes, like the inequities of occupation, and the injustice of the subservient role imposed on women.

On other occasions she employs humour, as in "Impossible Dream", her 1988 portrait of women in full hijab trying to eat ice-cream. To Laila the work symbolises an Arab world that clings to distorted interpretations of Islam, yet still desperately wants to enter the modern world. "We seem unable to achieve this balance," she muses. "Or rather, we are `westernising' in only the most superficial aspects." Evidently not everyone got the joke: 40 furious female protesters assailed Laila when the painting was exhibited in Jordan some years ago.

When civil war erupted in Lebanon in 1975, she returned to Gaza and then relocated to London. In 1977 she met Sa'ad Mohaffel, a talented Syrian architect, and the pair collaborated on a giant mural project in Yemen. Then, for the next decade they devoted themselves to a truly grand enterprise: the Rashad Shawa Cultural Centre, the largest arts and conference facility named for Laila's father in Gaza. Laila created its massive stained glass windows. The centre consumed all their time, and also cemented their personal union. Before long they married. "Maybe it was a way of compensating for my desire to be an architect" she jokes.

Sadly, Laila's father Rashad Shawa died in 1988, the very year his centre was inaugurated. The previous two decades had been extraordinarily eventful. Rashad had endorsed the PLO's foundation in 1964, and, though the organisation subsequently tried to assassinate him, he successfully steered a middle path between Arafat's Gazan minions and Israel's military occupiers. After becoming mayor in 1971, Rashad revived the local citrus industry; and his Benevolent Society for Gaza provided essential social and medical services to Gaza's needy. Laila still bridles when she recalls how the Palestine Authority peremptorily `confiscated' his Centre and dissolved his charity in 1998.

The year also marked the intensification of the Intifada, the first concerted revolt against Israeli rule. "I become much more involved with my work, and started photographing writing on the walls of Gaza. I then incorporated those photos into colour lithographs. Children would crowd around, bemused that I was shooting bare walls. Over time we developed an understanding, and they would insist on posing. Ironically, walls had become a method of communication for a traumatised society, one of the few forms of self-expression left to them."

One poignant montage shows a boy with a superimposed red `target'. Another, "Children of War, Children of Peace", taken in Gaza's Sheikh Radwan refugee camp, is now displayed in London's British Museum. It shows multiple Warhol-like monochromatic images of a boy mustering a metal pole like a rifle. He was three years old.

"War deprives children of their childhood", argues Laila. "Toys become arms. The games they play are all war games. They have no places to play and their pysches are all screwed up. Often they grow up damaged, believing violence is the only way to resolve problems." Lamentably, this has now become a universal scourge, she says. "Just think of child soldiers in Sudan, Sierra Leone or Afghanistan."

Ideally, says Laila, "art should be a dialogue between civilisations." But dialogue can also be aggressive, fragmentary, confusing. Gaza's walls, for instance, carried a strange discourse between the occupier and occupied. Israeli soldiers `replied' to graffiti by covering it with purple paint or dollar signs. Laila superimposed US flags, reinforcing the suggested message.

The dollar imagery reappeared in 2000, when Laila was commissioned by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to portray the figure of Christ for the Millennium, from a Muslim woman's perspective. One canvas shows the crucified Jesus covered in dollar bills -- a stark comment indeed on the ravages of materialism.

Laila Shawa is committed to a just accord between Israel and Palestine, and participates in dialogue groups like Salaam-Shalom. At the same time, she condemns what she depicts as Israel's disgraceful treatment of Palestinians. In her view, matters have worsened since the Oslo Accords of 1993. However, she does not pull her punches regarding corruption within the Palestine Authority, which she believes is widespread.

All the more reason, then, to cherish chinks of humanity amidst the gloom. Palestinian voicesare crying out to be heard. "Take prison artists: their style may be emotional and untutored, forged in isolation from the world. Yet their works are powerfully document milestones in a people's history;" says Laila. "By contrast, Palestinian artists in the Diaspora have exploited new encounters to produce daring, sophisticated creations". Many talented individuals benefit from what Laila regards as a rare PLO triumph -- the Union of Palestinian Artists. Now she dreams of building a contemporary art museum and college in Gaza.

As the traditional trading thoroughfare between Egypt and Mesopotamia, Gaza was always a blend of peoples, with a richness of imagery for artists to draw on. Canaanite, Philistine, Israelite, Greek, Arab, Ottoman and Mamluk, all left their mark. The Shawas themselves first migrated there from the Arabian Hijaz 1,400 years ago.

London is another thoroughfare. Yet it is London's trade in ideas that particularly excites Laila. "Arab art was romantic and nostalgic. Here, any issue is grist to the mill. There is the freedom to experiment, exposure to so many influences, and real reverence for art in books, magazines and television documentaries. If art in the west is informed by advanced technology, then we must use that too."

These days Laila Shawa's myriad works can be found in permanent collections and leading galleries from England, Scotland and the USA to Jordan, Kuwait and even Malaysia. She has written for or been cited in at least 16 art books, and has participated in some 30 joint exhibitions, from London and Paris to Baghdad and Jerusalem. Laila firmly believes that the international language of art could benefit from a bigger Arabic vocabulary.
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Article Details
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Author:Joffe, Lawrence
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:7PALE
Date:Feb 1, 2002
Words:1649
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