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Ahmad Canaan: The Transition from the Allegorical Woman to the Woman of the Daily Life.

By Aida Nasrallah 

Since the seventies, the image of the woman and its symbolizations in the works of various Palestinian artists has emerged as a national mythos, that is, a forceful element that represents the nation. The connection between the woman and the homeland was established insofar as the mother’s conception of her children complements the homeland's (i.e., motherland) offering of a sense of motherhood to its people (Kandiyoti, 1991, 429), despite the wide gaps between representations of the woman’s body in art and literature and its role in real life (Tarabishi, 1997, 3-10). In her two articles of the same year, Tina Malhi-Sherwell contends, with particular reference to artistic works from the seventies and the eighties, that the woman’s body is basically necessary to preserve an identity and national genealogy (Malhi 2000a, 2000b). Also, Vera Tamari and Penny Johnson both present works by Palestinian painters that demonstrate projections of the enlarged symbolic woman as a model of pain and the motherland. For example, in both Taiseer Barakat’s and Nabil al-Anani’s works among others, “the woman’s body is enlarged and women wear clothes that through its embroidery transmit the abstract character of Palestine’s nature. Their eyes never meet the audience’s to suggest a dreamlike gaze directed toward the future (i.e., alluding to the return to the distant motherland). That is, the woman’s inflated body manifests the idea of the stolen land (Tamari, Johnson, 1995, 164). This is not to say that the woman has been envisioned in allegorical  fashion to those of goddesses and saints (Hajjaj, 2001, 43) even though Kinaan exemplify what Sherwell, Tamari, and Johnson claim regarding the incorporation of the woman into the home and land in several of his earlier works as in Anat’s collection. The artist, as shown in the current catalogue, abandons the theme of the allegorical woman (i.e., the ideal woman or goddess) and collects, between the years 2008 and 2014, drawings that depict the daily life of the woman, showing her at home, in the yard or the kitchen, and on terraces such as in Woman on a Terrace (2009), or during friendly gatherings in the evening having coffee such as in Friends (2008; picture number 63), Repose (number 64), or Coffee Time (number 67), Tea with Mint (2012; number 37). These drawings show women in various forms and times. For example, in a painting titled Coffee with Cardamom (2011; number 34), a young woman stands in the kitchen and prepares coffee while wearing modern black pants, a shirt, and a veil covering her head. Also in the painting, an open window behind her reveals a panoramic view of her village. The artist also portrays women standing behind “Mashrabiya” screens such as in The Lady of Mashrabiya (2011; number 13). The details in this painting do not refer to the woman’s presence as is customary in Islamic tradition. She appears behind “Mashrabiya” screens on the street, where she may see and not be seen by other people outside.

              In the drawings titled My Queen, the artist captures his wife in different personal portraits from her daily life since 2008. Turning our attention to My Queen 2 (number 25), we may notice that it is deduced from My Queen 1 (number 26), and in both portraits, the queen drinks coffee with no reference to location as the background is closed. In My Queen 3 (number 27), the queen sits on the floor in a house with local furniture and with a painting by the artist decorating the wall. Her eyes are directed toward somewhere as she is busy sending a message from her cellular phone. This way, the artist documents his wife in different stages of her life and his painting as well. He also presents the contradictions of the use of advanced technology in today’s life - that is, on the one hand, the artist shows tradition through clothing, and on the other hand, he presents contemporary technology through devices such as the iPhone and electronic messaging. The iPhone appears again in picture 38 with the title Two Women and a Smartphone (2013), and in another two drawings titled Short Message (2013; numbers 44 and 54).

            In a drawing titled Sultana (2011; number 35), the artist stresses this contradiction through the woman’s contemporary outfit and her smoking of the water pipe. The name Sultana derives from the woman wearing the traditional Turkish headwear for men, the Tarboush, on her head. In comparison to the outfits of all the women in the catalogue, sultana’s outfit suggests that she hails from a different area than the others who cover their heads.

            In The Violin Player (2008; number 40), the artist includes other forms and roles of the woman. His daughter Ahlam, the violinist, is wearing a dress with Palestinian embroidery, and she is playing her violin in a room with furniture that we today know is associated with the Moroccan divan. The scenery represents one of several forms of cultural and traditional mixture hailing from different countries constituting the artist’s visual culture by way of demonstrating the changes in furniture styles and the lives of women of different periods. Such representations counter western perspectives regarding the Palestinian Arab woman that so far has been categorized as a victim or merely as beautiful.

            Canaan has not limited his drawings of women to a certain generation. He has painted young, adult, and elderly women he is either acquainted with or related to such as Mother and her Daughter (2009; number 25). Sawsan (2008; number 28) is a portrait of his older sister, and Mother a portrait of his mother. My Mother (number 29) and The Grandmothers (2009; number 68) also belong to this category.

            There are three paintings titled Hajji Fatima (2008; numbers 30, 31,and 32). In number 31, Hajja Fatima appears in a style that stresses realistic details of the surrounding environment. We may see details of the terrace, a window and the stool upon which the Hajji sits. We also clearly see her dress’s blue color. In the identical painting number 30, the background has been replaced with degrees of blue in circular and spiral forms. Her dress assumes the same decorative forms but in different colors. The third drawing is presented in a circular framework. It is an identical, but photo shopped, portrait of Hajji Fatima that splits the body and the background. The force in this painting allows for ambiguous stylistic and thematic interpretations. This kind of cloning of the same portrait appears in several styles as is also shown in Tea with Mint (2012; number 36).

            The paintings titled Supplication (2013; numbers 42 and 43) and those titled Short Message (2013; numbers 44 and 45) presents the woman in modern outfits while covering her head. Supplication and Short Message, similarly, undergoes cloning techniques based on the previous model. These drawings shows the contradiction between the realism in portraits of females and the fragmented backgrounds of identical and symmetrical geometric shapes. The technique employed in these drawings is the result of a long process in Canaan’s artistic project. He clones a picture and plays with it through endless multiplications as shown in the cubs of the Horse. This technique has come characterize the artist’s style.

            The realistic paintings of women allows for the model to undergo an experience of the visual self insofar as the woman becomes the target of the audiences’ vision. Similarly, the woman may look at herself, and reflect on the process of production that has transformed her into a visual object. The model’s perspective may not be neutral despite attempts of being neutral. Also, the clothes serve as iconic blades that enable us to proximately envision the apparent form in the painting in different transcendent ways. The paintings also address the vision and the contrasting relation between tradition and localization which adjacently constitute two different compositions whose merging into one involving the woman and her surroundings.

            At the peak of this hypothetical era with the abundance of technological means, many people nostalgically crave for the warm past of the Palestinian life. Likewise the artist paints such details of Palestinian life. In reference to this, the return to realism as shown in this catalogue which also entails paintings s of the Palestinian woman who occupies a major position in solidifying what time has erased. These personal paintings of women as visual units are unique in that they     carry names. These portraits cannot but be cultural. They are cultural in their appearance, outfits, movement, and the quality of their relations to other characters. The artist followed up on his discovery of how features of clothes may lead to a semiotic study of Canaan’s works. It is an inextricable part of furnishing individual memory that will not become collective soon. The purpose of these paintings in furnishing entails perpetuation as a kind of future memory (Nasrallah, 2010, 51)


Arabic References:

al-Hajjaj, Kadem. (2001) The Woman and the Sex between Myths and Religions. Beirut: Arab Prevalence, Tarabishi, George.

Canaan, Ahmed. (2008) The Knight. Tamra: East House.

Nasrallah, Aida. (2010) “Furnishing Identity and Memory through Language and Location in Contemporary Palestinian Female Art.” in al-Hissad 2: 43-49.


English References:

 Benjamin, Walter. (2003). “Extracts from The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” in The Photography Reader. Ed. Liz Wells. London: Routledge. 41-52.

Kandiyoti, Deniz. (1993). “Identity and its Discontents: Women and the Nation.” in Colonial Discourses and Postcolonial Theory. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. London: Harvester-Wheatsheaf. [pages].

Malhi-Sherwell, Tina. (2001a). “Bodies in Representation: Contemporary Arab Women’s Art.” in Contemporary Arab Women’s Art: Dialogues of the Present. Ed. Fran Lloyd. London: Saffron Books. 58-70.

Tamari, Vera and Johnson, Penny. (1995). “Loss and Vision: Representation of Women in Palestine Art under Occupation.” in Discourse and Palestine: Power, Text, and Context. Ed. A. Moors et al. Amsterdam: Gropius Press. 163-72.

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