SHADOW OF THE SHADOW
ARTICLE BY JOHN HALAKA
Bashar Khalaf’s new paintings for the series “Shadow of the Shadow” can be seen as an homage to the renowned Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour. They are in large part an admiring elegy to Sliman’s massive influence on contemporary Palestinian art. But Bashar’s paintings must also be considered as a declaration of independence from the work of that iconic master and his influential generation of visual artists.
Bashar and Sliman’s paintings reflect on themes of occupation, loss and political responsibilities from distinctly different vantage points. The unique perspectives presented by each of the two artists, have been shaped by the political and cultural experiences of their respective generations. Bashar Khalaf (born 1991) studied under Sliman Mansour (born 1947) at Al Quds University. He is a great admirer of his mentor’s technical sophistication, his nuanced narrative structures, his compositional arrangements, his penetrating cultural critiques, and his life long commitment to the struggle of the Palestinians against an extremely divisive occupation. Like Sliman Mansour, Bashar Khalaf’s paintings are thoughtfully composed, sensitively painted and are imbued with political metaphors. But Bashar’s paintings are deliberately parsimonious in their compositional structures when compared to the work of Sliman. They also address the viewer with less overt symbolism.
Through their austere representation of forms and space, Bashar’s paintings present an intelligent cultural critique of his generation’s relationships to the experiences of occupation and resistance. What makes the cultural critique presented in his new paintings unique and germane is the fact that Bashar posits his critique of the Palestinian condition by directly referencing and commenting on Sliman Mansour’s visual meditations on those same themes. By developing an original visual vocabulary that references leitmotifs of occupation and resistance in a few of Sliman’s iconic images, Bashar is not only remarking on the present realities of Palestinian politics, but is underscoring the evolution as well as the deterioration, over a span of forty-five years, of the political realities of the Palestinians under occupation.
Bashar’s themes are identical to those of Sliman Mansour; all of his new paintings reflect on the experience of life under occupation, as well as on the personal and collective responsibilities of the occupied. Without directly appropriating any of his mentor’s compositions, he consciously positions his assessment from the perspective of a young Palestinian artist living in an increasingly vanishing homeland. He is well aware of the weight of history that has been placed on the shoulders of his generation, but is also cognizant of the increasingly insurmountable limitations to change the course of that history. The tension between the sense of national responsibilities and the experiences of overwhelming limitations is a deliberate by-product of the grinding frustration created by the on-going military occupation on generations of Palestinians. Several of Bashar’s paintings identify the uncomfortable realities of his generation. They suggest, at least to this viewer, the realization that within the tension between the desire for resistance and the ostensible futility of direct action lays the paralyzing seduction of acceptance. A seduction amplified by the relative comfort of materialism and the involuntary personal and cultural adjustments to the now seemingly routine diet of enclosures, land appropriations, violence and humiliation, provided by the occupation.
Bashar Khalaf’s paintings raise numerous questions about the viewers’ and the artist’s relationships to the settler-colonial military occupation. They offer real-time warnings to generations that have known nothing but the restraints of that occupation. The paintings identify in subtle, seductive and yet uncomfortable ways, the dangers of confusing inertia for action, passivity for resistance and division for strength.
John Halaka is a Visual Artist and Professor of Visual Arts at the University of San Diego. He is a long-time observer of Palestinian art.