Interview with Nabil Anani

Nabil Anani is one of the most prominent Palestinian artists and one of the key founders of the contemporary Palestinian art movement. After graduating from Alexandria University in Egypt in 1969, Anani returned to his homeland, Palestine and began his career as a multi-talented artist, especially known for his use of local material.

Anani was awarded the first Palestinian National Prize for Visual Art in 1997 as well as the King Abdullah II Prize for Visual Arts in 2005, and became the head of the League of Palestinian Artists in 1998. He has devoted much of his time to volunteering; he is one of the founders of the Palestinian Art Association in 1975, as well as Al-Wasiti Art Centre in Jerusalem in 1993, and played a major role in establishing the first International Academy of Fine Arts in Palestine

Alia: How old were you when you discovered your love for art, and how did you come about it?

Nabil: When I first realized my passion for art, I was maybe around 12 years old. I started in school. I used to follow whatever my art teacher told me, and during other classes I often found myself sketching, while the teacher was talking! While I was studying all my books had some sort of doodling on the margins in pencil or pen. I gained the reputation of being called the “artist” in class, so the teachers would always ask me to draw out what ever illustrations they needed such as world maps. But that wasn’t my ambition. My dream was to make paintings. When I was younger I used to hear about Michelangelo and Raphael and the greats, and I used to occasionally see their artwork in magazines.

In 1965, my uncle introduced me to the well known artist Ismail Shammout. I went to his office and met Ismail who had all his paintings plastered on the walls there. I was in awe. I started asking him how to finds canvases and what he uses to paint. He was very helpful.

Alia: You attended university in the 60’s in Egypt, what prompted you to travel abroad for your education?

Nabil: Egypt was the center of culture and education then,  it was the place to go. So everyone at the time wanted to send their children for higher education in Lebanon or Egypt, but mostly Egypt. Egypt was great, it was “Um il dounya”, mother of the world. My parents did not want me to study art. My dad said this profession will not put bread on the table. They begged me to study any other subject except art. I did not take my parents’ advice, and the minute I arrived at Alexandria University I took the art aptitude test, and was accepted as an arts student. 

It was there that I was influenced by my great Egyptian teachers such as Hamed Ewais, Mostafa Abdel Moity, and Hamed Nada.

Alia: You have a certain style, when we see a painting we know its done by the the master Nabil Anani. Can you explain how you developed into that style?

Nabil: To be honest with you, I did not intend to have a certain style. But stemming from my culture,  my surroundings and my education, a certain unique style must have emerged. When I first graduated I was mostly interested in the Palestinian village, so I kept on drawing villages. I would draw some political scenes, but I would always go back to the village. Because I lived in the Halhul village, and used to love to play there, in between the  arches, and all the beautiful surroundings. I would play with my uncle in the fields and we would lie down under the stars at night. It was breathtaking. This had a lasting effect on me. My childhood really affected me, and until today, without even knowing it, I still go back to the village.

In terms of my style,  I like raw material. I get bored from only using acrylic or oil. I like every once in a while to change. I sometimes paint with acrylic, years time I painted on leather. Leather would require certain materials like henna, dyes, ink, sumac, curcumin, anything from the kitchen.

During the first intifada, we did a four person exhibition: myself, Sliman Mansour, Vera Tamari, and Tayseer Barakat. We were named the Experiment and Innovation group. That gave me more excitement to use different mediums. At that time, we the artists tried to use local raw materials from our land, and nothing from outside. 

Alia: I wanted to ask you about your recent works where we notice a lot of olive trees. What does the olive tree signify to you?

Nabil: I used to go out in nature in 1982 and we did a joint exhibition for all the artists at the time called the Palestinian village. It was a very nice experience for me. Lately I’ve been going back to the village a lot, especially at the time of olive picking in the beginning of spring. I went to the West of Ramallah, where there are plenty of villages. 

The olives caught my attention. The view of the olive trees covering the mountains as far as one can see was breathtaking. So many trees, these are what distinguish Palestine. In addition, the olive tree has a beautiful form and shape. It also has an economic significance. The Israeli government is cutting and uprooting the trees to make our land barren. They are replanting them on their side.

The olive tree is a symbol of national pride. Political and national. Since its roots are deep in the land, and some of them are around 2000 years old. Sometimes when I see a beautiful view and a mesmerizing mountain top, then suddenly I see a settlement. I steer away from that. Sometimes I just draw the view from below.

Olives from West Ramallah, Acrylic on Canvas, 2018, Nabil Anani

Alia: Another main element of yours is the woman. Can you explain the symbol and meaning behind using her?

Nabil: My mother was a fighter, she gave birth to 11 kids, and brought them all up in 3 rooms. My father made sure we all got a college education. My father used to tell us: Your weapon is your education.

The woman is a fighter, at the same time, she is beautiful. Her beauty is what made me want to depict her as a main element in my paintings. She is different than the man in her elegant dress, with the beautiful Palestinian cross stitch embroidery. Her head dress is gorgeous, and so is her hair. You can play with her head scarf, stretch it to the left or right, and play with the placement of her hair.

At the same time, the woman is the symbol of my homeland, and our identity. Politically, she is the the mother of the martyr, mother of the wounded, owner of the house that was torn down, she is woman whose husband or brother is in jail. She can endure a lot of pain. I consider her a hero.

Woman in the Field, 2018, Nabil Anani

Alia: This was a difficult year for all of us with the global pandemic, how did you preserve your artistic talent and your creativity?

Nabil: On the contrary, this gave me more time for art, I stayed in the studio most of the time, I took advantage during the first corona lockdown and kept on working. Not less than 5 or 6 hours a day in my studio.

During Corona I used to take long walks. And I noticed on the ground some cans that were flattened by cars. And I started collecting them and ended up doing 3 works from this tin metal that turned out really well.

Untitled, Iron rust and Iron, 2020, Nabil Anani

Alia: As one of the more prominent living Arab artists, what advice would you give aspiring young artists today?

Nabil: Firstly, the artist has to be able to draw well, and then they are free to do what ever style they may choose. They can move onto abstract, installation, what ever he wants. He has to work on himself, and keep on drawing, he can draw faces, nature, he has to be precise and notice all the elements in nature with utmost accuracy so that they can have a solid foundation for the future.

Secondly, if you don’t do a lot of work, you will move slowly like a turtle. you will never move forward. You need to work more to discover where you have reached. And to take a look at what other artists in the world are doing.

Thirdly, Arab artists should have commitment, they shouldn’t just draw for the sake of producing a beautiful painting. It should have a meaning and message. We have important issues that need to be tackled. In my opinion, artists have a duty to fulfill.

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