Interview with Sliman Mansour

Sliman Mansour is one of the most distinguished Palestinian artists working today. Throughout his fifty-year career, Mansour has established himself as an internationally recognized artist and cultural leader dedicated to giving visual expression to Palestinian identity. Born in 1947 in Birzeit, Palestine, Mansour was initially encouraged by his boarding school housemaster to start painting. In 1967, Sliman pursued a degree in fine arts at the Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem.

 In the 1970’s, Sliman readily embarked on his artistic journey that would help transform the Palestinian art scene. He was head of the Artists Union during the first intifada, co-founder and now director of the Wasiti Art Center in Jerusalem, and is a member of the New Vision art group which focuses on local material. He has  also taught at numerous cultural institutions and universities throughout the West Bank, including the Al-Quds University. Sliman is currently living in Jerusalem.

Alia: Over the past 50 years, you’ve become internationally recognized as a pioneer in Arab art with your exceptional and moving images of Palestinian struggle but also hope. I want to first start with your childhood, you were born in Birzeit in Palestine in 1947. How was your general childhood growing up, do you have any specific memories?

Sliman: I think if you ask anybody, they will tell you that their childhood was so beautiful. All the people, they yearn for their childhood memories and so on. For me, I think it was also the same. I had a very beautiful childhood in Birzeit. I spent most of my time in the olive groves, and there were several swimming pools, you know natural pools. I lived in heaven at that time.

My problem was that my father died when I was around 4 years old. And I remember we had a lot of financial problems but I don’t remember where. I used to eat good and have everything I wanted but I knew we had financial problems.

Alia: At what age did you realize that you have the artistic talent and the passion for art?

Sliman: It seems my mother and my family, they discovered that I had a talent. But a big push I had in becoming an artist was in my boarding school when the house father, was a German teacher, and noticed my talent, and started encouraging me, showing me art books, and teaching me how to paint. He actually formed a club of art in the school. He taught us a lot on how to work together and this helped me in the future when. I need other artists to work together.

So our teacher took us to the souk [market] in Jerusalem, and all the students started looking, making sketches. And there, I made a sketch of several things, but among these sketches, I made an old man carrying things on his back. And I turned this sketch into a painting later on, which became a very famous painting in the Arab World.

Jamal Al Mahamel II, 1973

The German teacher also took us on several camping trips in Palestine, in the West Bank. And when you go and camp, you get to know your country better. You sleep on the ground, and you wakeup early in the morning, and you look around, and it creates a. kind of love for the land.

Alia: Now young artists can use the internet and find any artist around the world and be inspired by their work. So how did you find or how did any young artist in Palestine find inspiration?

Sliman: I can tell you that the artists in the West Bank, in the occupied territories, were living in a ghetto, in a cultural ghetto, where we were influenced by the very few books that we could find around. There was the communist party who had books from the Soviet Union and I saw a book from the Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, and until now I dream of that book, I loved it very much.

Alia: The general art scene in Palestine before the first intifada, who were the leading figures in Palestinian art?

Sliman: After the 67′ war, there were actually no art exhibitions, until 1971 or 72, an artist, he finished his studies in Egypt, and he made an exhibition in Jerusalem, Nabil Anani. I went to that exhibition to see it, and we became friends immediately.

Some artists from Jerusalem and Ramallah also came to the exhibition, so we decided to establish a union, we called it The Palestinian Artist League. The first exhibition was in Jerusalem in 1975. It helped us form an idea of what the people wanted to see. The people who came would also talk to us and give us ideas. The exhibition moved to Ramallah, then to Nablus, then to Nazareth, and then to Gaza.

Mother, Breastfeeding, 1976

You know, we were young and we thought that we are revolutionary, and we are a part of the Palestinian revolution.

– Sliman Mansour

Our connection to the people was very important to us. There was no infrastructure for art in the West Bank and Gaza. Even some places, some villages, some camps, they didn’t have electricity. So we thought the best way to reach the people was by printing our works. The soldiers noticed the attention we were getting from the art, so they started confiscating the posters and the postcards, and fining the people who sold them.

In 1979, we opened a gallery in Ramallah and called it Gallery 79. We started making exhibitions there, solo exhibitions because it as a small place. So the soldiers started coming to the opening of every exhibition and sometimes taking whatever they don’t like. It affected our art because we used to smuggle our work in the car and we developed a kind of art that is symbolic. The people will understand what we mean and the soldiers will not understand.

Resting Woman, 1985

Alia: Can you explain the story behind Rituals of Occupation, 1989?

Rituals under Occupation, 1989

Sliman: It’s like a small story. In 1989, during the intifada, I met a judge, a Palestinian judge, who came to me and we drank coffee together, and he told me his story. He said, “I have a son who is handicapped and I live in the old city [Jerusalem], So after he left, I got the idea, that as people, we have a big cross on our back.”

Alia: What importance did it have to use the raw material in the art in terms of being closer to your land and having a stronger message about identity?

Sliman: It gave me a kind of freedom to go and experiment new things. And that’s what my colleagues also did.

Alia: Also, what’s beautiful about your mud works is you’ve. experimented so much with it and have started to embrace the cracks that begin to form in them. What do the cracks signify?

Sliman: In the beginning, I tried to close the cracks, trying to hide them, fill them, but I don’t know how, suddenly I realized these are beautiful the cracks. So I thought that the cracks are symbolic also of the fragmentation of the land. There were many checkpoints and all the settlements, and the confiscated land. And they are also symbolic of myself becoming old.

Alia: What’s really special about you, is that you’re a Palestinian artist living in Palestine. What are the challenges as an artist living under occupation and what is the silver lining?

Sliman: This kind of atmosphere, if you don’t live in Palestine under occupation, you will not get such ideas. If you live here, you notice that there is a big difference between how people use to think and how people used to feel in the 70’s and 80’s and how people feel now.

The Struggle Goes On, 2016

I mean these people sitting on the beach is symbolic of how people they like to live. The people who are marching, it’s how the people, they like to take action during that time.

Mariam (Mary), 2021

The best symbol for Bethlehem is Mariam and the child. So it gave me the idea of Bethlehem as a prison. Like the wall, the soldiers, and the mother and the child.

Alia: Do you feel like your art changed people’s perspective on what’s happening in Palestine?

Sliman: I hope, I hope. I would love to have my art make a change in the world about Palestinians, because they want to dehumanize the Palestinians. I hope and I think my art helps a little bit in changing that idea.

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