Sliman Mansour Preserves Palestinian History Through Art

Nearly every day, Sliman Mansour makes the hours-long journey between his home in Jerusalem and his studio in Ramallah. The Palestinian painter has been documenting his people, their ancestors, their land, and their fight for liberation for over half a century. 

“Anything that is Palestinian, even just being here, breathing and thinking, is a sensitive matter to the Israelis because they built their narrative around denying our existence,” Mansour said in a video interview with Hyperallergic. “Our work not only as painters but as intellectuals — in culture, in everything — is to express that we are here.”

Sliman Mansour (photo by Manolo Mylonas)

Over the years, he has chronicled the history of Palestine’s six-decade-long resistance. Today, the 76-year-old artist’s paintings, sculptures, and cartoons are more poignant and urgent than ever. His evocative studies of everyday life capture the carnage and sorrow of the occupation as well as the enduring resilience and beauty of his community. In some works, halos frame the subjects’ heads; in others, ropes bind their hands behind their backs. Women embrace children or cradle symbols of the land: oranges, olive trees, doves. In a radical act of defiance, some landscapes rewind time, showing natural Palestinian topographies before they were wiped out by Israeli settlers in the late ’60s. 

“You can see it in my paintings,” Mansour said of his hometown, Birzeit, a small village north of Ramallah. He reminisces about afternoons swimming in natural springs against a verdant backdrop of olive and fig trees that once lined the hills. “To live in that area during summer and spring, it was like heaven.”

Now Birzeit’s stone terrace gardens are gone, preserved in Masnour’s paintings as a metaphor for the occupation and emblem of the past. What is left of the landscape is dilapidated, forest-like, and overrun with weeds. (The Israeli government prohibits the Palestinians from bringing in heavy machinery needed to maintain the olive groves that used to be their main source of income.) In Gaza, a more immediate tragedy is unfolding — over 15,900 people have been killed and entire neighborhoods annihilated by bombs since October 7. “There is danger in the air,” Mansour said: In Gaza, ceaseless military bombardment; in the occupied West Bank, the settlers’ increasing violence.

Sliman Mansour, “From the River to the Sea” (2016), oil on canvas, 41 x 51 1/2 inches

The painter dreams of peace as his son Fares drives his car through the Hizma checkpoint in East Jerusalem, where a foreboding metal turn-stop is the first sign of the border-crossing station. Annexed in the ’80s and now occupied by Israeli settlers, Hizma bears little resemblance to its past life as a Palestinian village.

Mansour finds himself constantly thinking about the children of Gaza, their safety, and their fate.  Like the Palestinian children of today, Mansour was born into a state of unrest: in 1947, a year before the state of Israel was created and the Zionist military forced over 700,000 Palestinians to flee their homes in what came to be known as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” As a young boy, he was always painting. Later, his mother sent him to boarding school in Berlin, where a teacher, also an artist, discovered and fostered his preternatural talent. 

“In the ’70s, I just wanted to paint,” Mansour said. It wasn’t long until his love of the craft became infused with the political energy of his generation. He came into his own as a painter at a time when the question of identity was crucial for all Palestinians, following the 1967 war that saw the entirety of their homeland absorbed by Israel. There were no galleries or museums in the West Bank and Gaza. Some villages didn’t even have electricity. 

Sliman Mansour, “Jamal al-Mahamel” (Camel of Hardship) (1973), oil on canvas, 28 x 41 1/2 inches

When Mansour was 26 years old, he co-founded the League of Palestinian Artists alongside Nabil Anani, Issam Badr, and others. “We thought the best way to show our art to the people and make it available was to start printing it as posters,” he said. An expansive survey of his limited edition prints is currently on display at Zawyeh Gallery in Ramallah until December 30, which includes one of his early works, “Camel of Hardship” (1973). The painting-turned-print depicts an elderly Palestinian man carrying the city of Jerusalem on his back and is a fixture in many Palestinian households.

At first, Mansour painted nostalgic portraits of villagers in traditional dress as well as the often-nameless faces of Palestinian refugees that he came across in photos. When the world around him turned increasingly hostile, he painted what he saw with an unflinching eye. In 1976, he used his paintbrush to memorialize Lina Al-Nabulsi, a 17-year-old who was shot dead on her way home from school by an Israeli soldier after waving the Palestinian flag in solidarity with a passing protest. 

“At that time, all the photos that were taken of her when she was killed were confiscated by the army,” he said. “They didn’t want to show her dead. So I thought, ‘I will paint her.’” 

Sliman Mansour, “Aross El-Watan (Bride of the homeland) – Lina Al-Nabulsi” (1976), oil on canvas, 43 x 33 1/2 inches

In his early years as a painter, Mansour was jailed twice under the pretense that his works were inciting violence. “They didn’t tell me that I was arrested because I was an artist, but I think they wanted to intimidate me,” he said of the two-week-long interrogations. “They put a bag on my head; I was handcuffed behind my back; I was beaten, the same as what everyone else who is imprisoned goes through. I didn’t pose any threat in terms of security — they just didn’t like what we were doing.” 

Despite the Israeli government’s pushback, Mansour and his colleagues continued to portray their reality. In 1979, they opened the first gallery in Ramallah and called it Gallery 79. People traveled from throughout Palestine to see their exhibitions, which also attracted the attention of Israeli officials who began showing up and seizing paintings. The artists’ works became more subversive as a result; an iconography of resistance began emerging as fruit and flowers.

Paintings containing the colors of the Palestinian flag were soon banned, as was anything deemed political in nature. Badr questioned what would happen if he were to paint flowers in the hues red, white, green, and black. “It would be confiscated,” Mansour remembers the soldier replying. “Even a watermelon would be confiscated.” 

The charged discussion only reinforced the artists’ conviction. Soon many began to include poppies and watermelons in their works as a sign of rebellion — a practice that continues to this day. 

Sliman Mansour, “Memory of Places” (2009), oil on canvas, 47 x 54 inches

When the first Intifada began in 1987, artists worked under new rules, this time self-imposed: They began boycotting art supplies from Israel, opting to use readily available materials. Mansour formed the New Vision Group with Anani, Tayseer Barakat, and Vera Tamar, and embraced the uprising’s philosophy of self-reliance. 

For Mansour, this meant a return to his childhood in Birzeit, where he would help his grandmother make beehives by mixing water and hay with the land’s pale, yellowish soil (which is traditionally used as the foundation for ovens and even homes). At first, he spent time trying to hide the cracks that appeared as the mud dried. “I thought they were ugly, but little by little, I started to see their beauty. They reflected our political life here — the hundreds of checkpoints that fragment our landscape,” he said.

Other artists began experimenting with leather, henna, and wood. Paintings morphed into sculpture and collage. Collectively, Palestinian art underwent a profound transformation. Brush strokes became stronger, and the colors became more vibrant. “Now artists look at that time as the link between the old way of doing art and what the new generation is doing now,” said the painter. 

Sliman Mansour, “The Immigrant” (2017), aqueous print on archival Canson rag paper, 19 x 16 1/2 inches
Sliman Mansour, “The Village Awakens” (1987), aqueous print on archival Canson rag paper, 21 x 16 inches

Soon, however, the sense of urgency became subdued by talks of peace and the 1993 Oslo Accords that saw a pair of agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. “After 1993, the fact that we are under occupation became blurred,” said Mansour. “Before that, it was very clear that we are occupied and there is an occupier.” In the ’90s, the whole world began to acknowledge the Palestinians. “Still, they didn’t accept us as normal people,” he added. “They accepted us as half-human beings, with no rights at all.” 

Mansour has dedicated his life to preserving and uplifting Palestinian identity. He has taught at universities, exhibited his work across museums and galleries internationally, and founded multiple art institutions in Ramallah. “There is always somebody you have in mind when you make your art, for me it is the Palestinian people,” he said.

Today, he observed, Palestine’s fight for liberation is back in focus, photographed, filmed, and shared online, so graphic and jarring that it has become infeasible for the world to ignore it. 

“The international support by people demonstrating gives us hope of better things to come,” Mansour said. “Everything is clear: We are occupied, and it is impossible to have peace here. Our fight now is to tell the world that we are full human beings. We are not less than any other people in the world.”

Maria Lewis

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