top of page

An Interview with Sliman Mansour


Haley Laningham


Gaza, 2014 (acrylic and charcoal)


Sliman Mansour is a Palestinian visual artist. He was born in 1947, one year before the Nakba, in Birzeit, a town north of Jerusalem. His role in longstanding Palestinian resistance to dehumanization, specifically as caused by the Israeli occupation of Palestine, cannot be overstated.


 

The genocide of the Palestinian people is difficult to approach with words. In this interview, I wanted to talk with one Palestinian speaking out in the form of art. Sliman Mansour graciously offers his life and art as a testament to the resistance of the Palestinian people. He says of his own work in his artist statement:


Photography credit: Fares S. Mansour

As a witness to the struggles and aspirations of my people, my work transcends the canvas, embodying a dialogue between tradition and contemporary expression.


The symbols embedded in my art, such as the enduring olive tree and the Palestinian embroidery, are not mere motifs; they are vessels of collective memory and steadfast resistance. Through them, I endeavor to transcend temporal boundaries, crafting a visual tapestry that resonates with the enduring spirit of a people subjected to physical and mental displacement.


He goes on in his provided biography:


My purpose behind my artworks is to create and strengthen the bond between Palestinians and their land and culture, and encourage pride in that connection. For foreigners, my aim is to fight the dehumanization of Palestinians. . .I long for a Palestinian art that will be part of the international art movement, thus helping to end the dehumanization of the Palestinian people and to draw attention to the fact that they play, as their ancestors did, an important role in the culture of humans. I don’t have a message of hate—all my messages are about love and humanity.


In the following interview, Sliman Mansour recounts his life under Israeli occupation and speaks about his art—its beauty, resistance, and meaning—in the face of genocide, past and harrowing present.


 

See more of Sliman Mansour’s work here.

 

Haley Laningham: Not only are you a world-famous artist, but you are also a witness to and expert on Palestinian history. I feel as though most people in the United States know the ways Israel established itself in 1948 through the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, referred to as the Nakba, but don’t have a general knowledge of the more recent events which have preceded the genocide we see today. I’m hopeful that going a little further back in history than the horrors of the recent day might illustrate the longstanding resistance of the Palestinian people. Can you share any memories you have of the Six-Day War of 1967? 


Perseverance and Hope, 1976 (oil on canvas)

Sliman Mansour: At the time of the Six-Day War, most young people were not really aware of their Palestinian identity because we grew up under the Jordanian Hashemite regime, which was hostile to Palestinian identity for many reasons. I lived in a village near Jerusalem and a Jordanian army camp. The next day of the war, the Israelis started bombing the army camp, and most people fled the area. Some friends and I decided to walk to Birzeit, my original village, about twenty kilometers north of Jerusalem. On the way, we saw about ten people shot by Israelis all along the way. We went to my grandfather's house, ate food with my grandmother, and went to my aunt's. We slept there. The following day, we went out to the village, and four Egyptian commandos started shooting at a convoy of Israeli vehicles coming from the north to the town. Three of the four were killed. One retreated to the valleys around Birzeit and escaped. We walked with the people who buried the commandos. In the first days, there was a lot of conflicting news about the war and a lot of false news coming from Arab radios. When the truth reached the people, there was a general feeling of sadness and shock. There was a lot of interest to know more about Israel and how the Israelis live, and also to see parts of Palestine like Jaffa, Haifa, West Jerusalem, and the Galilee—and mainly the sea. We longed for the sea, an essential cultural factor in our memory. That war didn't affect our self-image. We were sad about the defeat of Jordan, Egypt, and Syria, but Palestinians didn't have an army to fight, so we were occupied, but it's not because of our doing. Hebrew, as a language, was not so strange; we thought it was very similar to Arabic. These are a small part of my memories from that period.


HL: The Oslo Accords took place in 1993. According to Al Jazeera’s article “Israel-Palestine conflict: A brief history in maps and charts,” that seemed like an optimistic time. Is that true? What did Palestinian daily life look like in the 90s into the unfolding of the 2000’s? Do any of these memories connect with the pieces you’ve allowed us to publish in particular?


Homeland, 2010 (acrylic and charcoal)

SM: Immediately After the Oslo Accords of 1993, people were happy, and I remember seeing young people giving soldiers olive branches. For two years, there was a general feeling of hope and happiness. Of course, some people didn't like it, mainly Palestinians living in refugee camps. After 1995 and the Israeli attack on the south of Lebanon, this general hopefulness remained mostly because there was no significant change in our lives. Occupation continued as usual with even more settlements. The atmosphere started to be dangerous again, and people began losing their optimism and faith in peace. So, the last years of the twentieth century were full of despair and hopelessness until the Camp David talks failed, which doubled the doubts about the seriousness of Israel and peace. This atmosphere paved the way for the Second Intifada in 2000.


HL: You finished Homeland in 2010. Therein, we see the checkpoints Israel imposes on the Palestinian people and how Israeli checkpoints limit Palestinians’ freedom of mobility. This draws my attention to the construction of the West Bank barrier, which was “officially” completed in 2002, though other sources draw attention to versions of the barrier erected before the wall. On this wall, as I understand, many Palestinians have made art and have even painted the faces of martyred Palestinians such as Shireen Abu Akleh, the journalist. Does that wall have a name among Palestinian people? What does it mean to take the West Bank barrier wall, a symbol of apartheid, and use it as a kind of canvas to celebrate the very culture that the wall, and the constructors of the wall, aim to suppress, even erase?


SM: The Wall has several names among Palestinians—“Apartheid Wall,” “Separation Wall,” “Racist Separation Wall,” and sometimes just "the Wall." Among artists, there are two approaches, one for using the Wall to express ideas and send messages and the other against going with any action because we should not make the Wall acceptable and beautiful. I did not have any attitude toward the Wall, and once, I tried to paint something on it; I even made a sketch on the computer. Still, when I took my paint and started to work, I realized how big the Wall was, and how it would take away much of my time and energy, so I panicked and didn't continue the work and was left with the sketch only.


Rituals Under Occupation, 1989 (oil on canvas)

HL: Is there a name for the current genocide of Palestinian people? Do the Palestinian people see the current genocide as a continuation of Israel’s violence, or does it feel like a departure into something different?


SM: They still haven’t decided on a name for the war in Gaza; some call it “The Massacre in Gaza.” But there is a general feeling that we are in a new stage of Israel’s war on Palestinians. It is a continuation, but it entered a new clear phase, especially with the growth of the right-wing and the religious parties in Israel. People even started to fear for their presence in the West Bank with the increase of religious, far-right Israeli settlers, who remain to be violent and armed. Israel is not afraid of anything as long as they have the full support of the U.S. With the religious feelings taking over the minds of society, Palestinians are expecting the worst unless there is a change in the U.S. attitude towards Israel. Also, Germany dominates the European Union and is not better than the U.S. A friend in Germany told me he feels safer in Tel Aviv than in Berlin.


HL: Among supporters of the Palestinian resistance, including allies of many different nationalities online and in public demonstrations/protests, the watermelon stands as a symbol of the right for Palestinian peoples to exist in their homeland and in peace. In my research of your many other interviews, it seems that you yourself were a part of the collective—The League of Palestinian Artists—which started that symbol. How does it feel to see the watermelon taking off as a symbol (perhaps even more than in the past) in the international community? 


SM: Yes, I was one of the founders of the Palestinian Artists’ League, and the story with the watermelon started when the Israelis closed my exhibition in the only gallery in the occupied territories and gave us orders that we were not allowed to paint in red, green, black, and white. I feel proud that although the watermelon symbol was not my creation, I was one of the people who experienced its start and development and played an essential role in exposing the crazy rules of the Israeli army to local and international media.


Settlement, 2008 (oil on canvas)

HL: Settlement depicts the figure of a soldier made of barbed wire covered in what seems to be blood or rust. What was behind your artistic decision to shroud the soldier’s head in a shadow? Can you talk about what this work is meant to symbolize and/or signify?


SM: The red color on the barbed wire is rust, not blood. This image symbolizes the settlers who are used by the Israeli government to grab Palestinian land. They are aided by the Israeli army, so after a while, the difference between them and the soldiers becomes blurred. Also, the area will be full of barbed wires wherever they go, so the difference between them and the barbed wires becomes blurred. This is simply the idea behind this painting. When I finished it, the image of the neck and head was powerful against a light background. So, the dark background is an artistic decision.


HL: In a previous interview, you responded to a question about freedom by saying, “A big amount of freedom is in people’s hearts and minds. Maybe a political prisoner somewhere is freer than his or her jailor.” Can you elaborate on this? How does this notion figure into a desire for peace, freedom, and self-determination?


SM: Yes, freedom is mainly in the minds and hearts of people. The Israeli wars and treatment of the Palestinians were both moves to achieve defeat in our hearts, but they failed. That's why, during all these years, we kept searching for justice and dignity and to free ourselves, and what's happening now is another try in that direction. I think if we were defeated in our hearts, nothing would have happened now or in the past.


Shrinking Object, 1996 (mud on wood)

HL: This has been talked about in previous interviews, so I apologize for being redundant, but it’s just so captivating. Shrinking Object and Peace, among others not published here, were created using dirt, mud, and wood from Palestinian land as a result of boycotting art supplies manufactured by Israel around the time of the First Intifada. You go on to talk about how you used to think the cracks were ugly, but then thought of them as representing Palestine’s geographical fragmentation. This may be a very small memory, but do you remember the first time you went out to get the materials? Or could you describe your creative process when composing these pieces?


SM: I remember when I was a child, I watched my grandmother make beehives from mud mixed with hay. I helped her. Playing with water and mud in the summer was great for a child. When I thought about using natural materials, I immediately thought about my grandmother and the mud. I asked an old lady in a nearby village about the soil and how to make mud. She explained everything about the soil and its name, how to get it, and how to clean it from fossils and other materials using water and a sieve. I did that soon after I had plenty of mud. Usually, it's yellowish, and sometimes it gets greenish. It was really nice to do all that work, and it helped me prepare my mind for the artistic experiment. I dried the mud and kept it in square blocks, and when I needed it, I put some blocks in water, which became mud. I used to grind the hay into small pieces and mix it with mud and plastic glue. Ultimately, I had a very strong material that looked fragile. Initially, I used to mix mud with powder color and paint it with my fingers. In the end, I used a brush and added some color powder as paint and some shapes and lines. It used to crack when it dried, and I filled all the cracks. It was a tedious thing, and after a while, I got tired of doing that, and I started to stare at the cracks and think about what to do. During this time, I began to enjoy the cracks and stopped coloring the mud. It took me about five years to come to that conclusion, but I kept working with color powder, closing the cracks, and doing objects with odd shapes. Sometimes, they looked like sculptures.


The Flight to Egypt, 1984 (oil on canvas)

HL: In The Flight to Egypt, a woman is depicted holding who we can assume to be her child. What do women symbolize to you? Moreover, what do mothers symbolize to you in your work? 


SM: For me, women and mother figures are symbols of the homeland, and sometimes, they are symbols of the revolution. So, they must always be strong with big working hands, beautiful, proud, and, of course, wearing a Palestinian dress. I usually design the image and never use a model.


HL: I’m unsure if this is opaque to the rest of the world, but the United States is currently experiencing a growth of religious nationalism. Are there any words of wisdom you’d like to share from your experience about what a misuse of religion can do to a population? 


SM: Politics is the art of concessions, but religion is a dead end. God, who owns the ultimate truth, is hard to discuss with his representatives or rational subjects. Religion can be used in many ways and for many purposes because it can be interpreted in many different ways, and we have many examples throughout history. In our case, religion was and is an excuse to grab land and create an apartheid regime. In other places, it's used to normalize the rich and poor in communities.

Barbed Wire, 1986 (oil on canvas)

HL: Are there any Palestinian artists, filmmakers, thinkers, or anybody at all to whom you’d like to direct our readers’ attention? 


SM: I’d like rather to direct attention to the following organizations: The Palestinian Museum NGO, The Palestinian Museum U.S.A., and Al-Hoash Palestinian Art Court/Jerusalem.


HL: Do you have any organizations to which you’d like our readers to direct financial aid?


SM: In the turmoil of incidents in Gaza, people with cancer in Palestine are lost, especially children with cancer. I would like people to support the Maryam Foundation for Children with Cancer.


 

HALEY LANINGHAM is a PhD candidate in Poetry at Florida State University. She holds an MFA from the University of Oregon and acts as Art Editor for Southeast Review. 





Comentários


bottom of page