On the very day that Jerusalem came under Israeli occupation in 1967 “exile became a central reality in my life,” recollects Kamal Boullata in the opening passages of the colossal volume that brings together the writings of celebrated Palestinian artist. Only 25 years of age, as Israeli occupation forces rolled into the Holy City, Boullate recalls how he had been declared an “outsider” in the place of his birth and dismissed as the “other” in his place of residence.
Though Boullata was barred from the city that had been the source of much of his artistic inspiration, his memories of childhood and the rich pattern and decoration he encountered in Jerusalem from the architecture of the Dome of the Rock, Christian churches to the embroidery of traditional Palestinian dresses continued to inspire his work, which have been elegantly compiled in the 2019 volume There Where You Are Not.
Edited by Dr Finbarr Barry Flood, the volume brings together the writings and paintings of the celebrated Palestinian artist who passed away last August, two months before the book’s publication. Boullata’s musings in philosophy, politics and the history of art produced over four decades of exile in Europe, North Africa and the United States, are wonderfully presented in the volume accompanied by hundreds of beautifully drawn paintings and photos.
The 45 essays in the volume explore the intersections between aesthetics, history, politics and philosophy. To readers unfamiliar with the subject, such a vast array of themes in a single book may at first seem daunting to crack through. However, as I discovered with great pleasure, Boullata writes as beautifully as he paints, as he strings together what may at first seem like too broad a palette for popular consumption.
With the Middle East undergoing what many would consider to be a rapture with its past following the age of colonialism, a central theme of Boullata’s work, it seems, is to bridge the traditional with the modern; the contemporary with the conservative. “The Arab world possesses works of art that represent more than thirty centuries of human development.” Boullata says bemoaning the impediment to its advancement. “And yet the foundations of a native studio art were laid less than one hundred years ago. Studio art’s nebulous beginnings among the Arabs were triggered in one country after another by each country’s encounter with Europe.”
The first chapter, which consists of only four essays from Boullata’s biographical writings, delightfully covers some of the familiar theme of exile and childhood memories that has shaped Palestinians all over the world. The remaining 400 or so pages captures Boullata’s thinking on subjects as broad as art in Palestine; art in the times of Palestinian revolution; towards a revolutionary art; feminism and gender; calligraphy in Islam; classical art and modern European paintings; belonging and globalization and an exhaustive list of other subjects.
With history and politics dominating the discourse on Palestine, perhaps not many will be familiar with the richness of Palestinian art. But even in this abstract field, politics and history is infused with Palestinian art which Boullata sees as emanating “from the margins of the world”.
While this compilation of Boullata’s work on first impression may seem somewhat daunting to readers unfamiliar with the genre, there is so much to be learnt and appreciated from the essays in the volume that is nothing short of an encyclopaedic in its scope.