Painting Palestine: Samir Salameh’s art embodies the Palestinian cause

Rory Macdonald/PNN/Bethlehem

Samir Salameh, a distinguished-looking septuagenarian with a large, white beard and a warm smile, is considered one of Palestine’s seven master painters. The first retrospective of his life’s work opened in Palestine last week, with exhibitions currently being held at four galleries in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem- a testament to the size and variety of his oeuvre.

Salameh’s personal story of upheaval, expressed in his art, can stand as an analogue for the vicissitudes suffered by Palestine since 1948: aged just four, he and his family were forced out of their home in Safed during the Nakba and reached Dira’a refugee camp in Syria by way of Lebanon.

Aged fifteen, he became passionate about drawing. His talent was quickly recognised and he was the recipient of several awards, including a visit by the former Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser. His formal studies took place at the School of Fine Arts in Damascus and École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, from which he graduated in 1972 and 1981 respectively.

Since his first exhibition in 1963, Salameh’s bold works have been included in 70 international solo and group exhibitions, and you can find his art in the Potsdam Gallery in Germany and in Jordan’s National Gallery among other venues. Consequently, his creations, inspired by cubism, abstract expressionism and the geometry of Arabic abstraction, have received a wide international audience.

Many of Salameh’s works have Palestine running through them. As Hanan Wakeem, director of the Palestinian Art Court- Al Hoash in East Jerusalem, explains, he ‘has been living in exile and wandering the world in search of his roots and his lost homeland. He wanders among the colours and abstract representations that he has created along the way’.

From his representative to his more abstract paintings, Salameh’s use of colour is mesmerising. The same is true of his more recent watercolours, which explore Palestinian landscapes and architecture. One watercolour, the first painting displayed in Bethlehem’s Bad id-Deir Art Gallery, pictures- in blues, purples, yellows and greens- the grassy slopes beneath the Church of the Nativity, which have now long since disappeared. Others depict the old city of Jerusalem and the beauty of the Jordan Valley at sunset. They all evoke the beauty of Palestine, both as it was and as it still is.

Despite living abroad for many years, largely in France, Salameh has always maintained a close relationship with the land of his birth. He worked for the media office of the PLO for three years in the early seventies, developing political posters for the resistance movement. Later, he contributed to Arabic publications for UNESCO before returning to Palestine after the Oslo Accords. In this period, he helped with the technical designs for the Red Crescent Society Hospital in Khan Younis and other projects in Ramallah and al-Bireh.

On his first return visit to his hometown of Safed in the summer of 1996, he was saddened not to be able to find his childhood home, as described by his parents. However, his colourful paintings of Safed manage to restore Palestinian life to the town and recall, in the mind at least, the home he has not seen for seventy years except in memories.

As Ovid, one of history’s most famous exiles, wrote in his poem, the Tristia (‘The Sadnesses’): “Our native soil draws all of us, by I know not what sweetness, and never allows us to forget.”  The message in Salameh’s art is similarly nostalgic, but, importantly, forward-looking and hopeful. Commenting on his art, Palestine’s Culture Minister, Ehab Bseiso, recently said ‘The strength of Salameh is to provide an important message about hope, a future of freedom’.

Note: Salameh’s exhibitions are open at Zawyeh Art Gallery and Gallery One in Ramallah, Palestinian Art Court – Al Hoash in Jerusalem, and Bab id-Deir Art Gallery in Bethlehem.