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Canaan's Selection of themes 

 by Yousef Elias

Ahmad Canaan is listed among the most prolific artists, with a 30-year artistic career, during which he created hundreds of artistic works spread worldwide. He adopts a unique artistic style, expressing his inner self as a multidisciplinary artist, both as a painter and a sculptor.

By following up on the artist's creations throughout the past decade, we have witnessed a constant progress in his artistic career, on both stylistic and thematic levels. What distinguishes Ahmad from others is the selection of themes which represent him as an Arab person belonging to this land, and inspired by his society and surroundings.   

In this article, I will address some of these themes, divided into multiple collections: the Cavalier collection, the Refugee collection, the Wedding collection, the "Illegal Residents" collection while the Woman collection will be addressed by Dr. Aida Nasrallah in a separate article.

The Knight collection

One of the prominent themes addressed by the artist was the Knight. It is well known that this theme is present in all ancient civilizations starting from the Pharaonic, Greek, and Sumerian civilizations, the culture of Ancient Rome, and passing through the Islamic Golden Age and the Far Eastern civilizations; since it implies cultural connotations related to manhood and chivalry (Hurwit, 2006. qut in Nasrallah, 2008.and Mehmet-Ali, 2006 qut in ibid).


 The artist has addressed the cavalier theme through the utilization of different techniques, drawing and sculpture[1]. He has derived the Knight concept from the Islamic history, mainly from the figure of Saladin who liberated Jerusalem from the crusaders (Painting 1- the Savior). In this painting, the Knight appears in the form of a black shadow running the length of the tableau, with the city of Jerusalem, especially the Dome of the Rock, appearing clearly in the background. We notice that the cavalier is devoid of all facial features. We infer that the artist is completely knowledgeable about abstract art and the way it is integrated within the context. Thus, the work is not limited to an epic depiction; it moves to the symbolic space, and subsequently becomes more expressive.

It's evident that the Knight -Jerusalem theme was not addressed only once. It was repainted by the artist (painting 2- the Savoir) with the shadow of the cavalier appearing on the right side of the painting; the left side is occupied by Asherash (Oshra)- the Canaanite mother goddess, while the city of Jerusalem reappears in the middle. The artist has framed the city with the figure of the Knight; he reproduced the Knight through the graphic printing technique, using the Knight template. This repetition is consistent with Arabesque elements based on repetitions and similarities. Moreover, the artist has added Canaanite symbols and letters on the sides of the painting, to show the city's ancient history and his attachment to this history. By looking carefully at this painting, we notice that it is not a pictorial scene of Saladin's encounter with Asherah, surrounded by a group of Knights. He has gone beyond these limits to reach a level where his artistic work formulated expressive symbols which constitute together the Savior's concept.

In addition to these two paintings, there are dozens of artistic works addressing the cavalier's theme. This is an indicator of the intellectual and artistic richness which motivated the artist to create this amount of artistic works, depending on creativity and innovation in terms of color and composition.    

The Refugee collection

Ahmad Canaan has walked in a way similar to the one followed by the artists Ismail Shammout, Sulieman Mansour and others with regard to the Refugee theme. While Shammout chronicled the displacement which he witnessed, mainly in the fifties, as we notice that his painting Where to..? 1953, is drawn with a style combining between the expressive and the realistic, and amplifying the man's figure (Ismail Shammout ,Art in Palestine ,1985 page number 152), the refugee's figure in Canaan works is not defined since he does not draw the facial features, but uses the transcription and replication technique of a template snipped in the form of refugee. Thus every Palestinian becomes a refugee: a replication of his suffering and displaced brother.  The artist drew the figure of the Palestinian refugee wearing a Keffieyeh, still roaming throughout the earth, hoping to resettle in his homeland (the Return painting). This collection is unique since the same figure appears in all paintings, thus gaining an iconic dimension through repetition.

In one of the paintings (the Refugee-4), we see the refugee's back, while he's carrying his belonging in his hands and heading for nowhere, to settle in the void which dominates the general structure of the artworks, thus enhancing the displacement feeling experienced by the refugee.

In another painting (the Refugee-5), we observe that the artist drew the path that the refugee should have taken. This path is actually the shadow of the refugee's figure, lacking facial features. Moreover, the repetition of the same figure alludes to the huge number of refugees still trapped in other countries, waiting for their return. Another eye-catching element in this collection is the big size of the artworks (190/140) which is consistent with the human height. By using this longitudinal artistic composition, the artist aims to enhance the spectator's empathy with the refugee that could have been one of us.


The Wedding collection

This collection contains many paintings that represent the artist's past lifestyle, including paintings of everyday life, and wedding-related themes (the Dabke painting- a modern Levantine Arab folk circle dance). These are nostalgic paintings portraying the remainings of the fragrant past, reflected through the men's traditional costume (the Qumbaz-male robe and the Sirwal- baggy trousers, with the Keffieyeh and Agal), and the rural scenes with all their details. The artist has persisted in adapting the artistic structure of the painting to its content. The structure of the Dabke painting reminds us of the annular structure adopted by the French artist Henri Matisse, through his painting the Life Dance. This demonstrates the artist's knowledge of the history of art and the way he integrates this knowledge into his own work, consistently with the Arab local context. What is mainly remarkable in this collection is the horizontal composition which serves the content; in addition to the harmonious colors which express the paintings' concept very strongly.         


Illegal Habitants

Despite the barriers and the barbed wires that divide this land, there is a social and vital blending between the Palestinians residing in both sides. This urges the Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian territories to illegally enter the cities and villages of the Israeli side, to work secretly. They become fugitives, constantly pursued by the Israeli authorities; therefore they are obliged to live in the mountains and hide between the trees, to disappear from sight and escape. 

In one of these paintings ("Illegal Habitants- 2") the artist drew the night-shelter. He portrayed the mattress/bed they sleep on, with some sheets and shoes scattered in the painting's space, between the trees. Here, the artist re-evokes Van Gogh's The Bedroom. By choosing these elements without the presence of humans, these artworks become more expressive of the humanity of these people, who are like other people, but whose destiny and life circumstances rendered them illegal Habitants in a village/city, that might be their grandparents' original homeland. The utilization of these elements- the bed and the sheets, which definitely belong to people, enables the artist to express a sociopolitical situation experienced by thousands of people. All this has provided the artwork's with a deeper expressive force and took it out of the Palestinian Arab framework, to become an expressive symbol of thousands of displaced people in the world, sleeping on the ground and covering with the sky. Concerning the colors, the artist persisted in highlighting the colors of the Galilean landscape, mainly the olive trees. There is an interpenetration of different colors-albeit somewhat contradictory- that play a harmonious melody, which is consistent with the idea and the expressive strength.

My surroundings

The rural surroundings had a significant impact on the artist, appearing clearly in this collection that represents his attachment to the land and the people. This is illustrated in painting no' 46 (Said and Aisha); at first sight we observe a familiar scene, since many artists have painted similar figures in nature. However, what distinguishes this artwork from others is the fact that it simulates the artist's nearby surroundings represented by the village's general scene. We observe Said and Aisha sitting beneath a tree and glancing at us in a way that probably invites us into the painting. This transforms the painting from a nostalgic picturesque scene into an artwork that interacts and communicates through the figures' glance at the spectator who starts an inner dialogue about his/her relationship with Said and Aisha that represent figures living in our souls and memory, to ultimately declare our position regarding the place and the residents. This is affirmed by the choice of the modern plastic seats which the figures sit on, alluding that these figures are not from the fragrant past, but rather live among us; and this increases the spectator's interaction with the artwork.

This relation with Said and Aisha and their association with the place urged the artist to create another artwork named- painting no' 47 (Said and Aisha 2): where the place concretely intermingles with the figures through the artistic composition adopted by the artist in his work. He drew the figures on a wooden board and the place on a separate board; then, he cut both paintings into rectangles and started reconstructing his work to create a one homogeneous artwork, in terms of form and theme. The voids resulting from cutting and reconstructing were used as a space that allows entrance between the lines of the artwork. 

This type of artistic composition demonstrates the artist's skills and the way he employs the artwork's components to present the concept innovatively, keeping distance from the picturesque style, and rendering the artistic composition an integral part of his artwork to gain an expressive power    

Ramallah and Jerusalem constituted a significant stop in the journey of the artist Ahmad Canaan, since he lived there throughout his academic studies and integrated into the cultural life in both cities which attracted many people from different places, locally, regionally and globally. This is evident in painting no' 57 (Jerusalem Café) and in painting no' 58 (Ramallah Café). Both paintings embody a group of people drinking and smoking, while others are caressing their laptops. The artist has nearly drawn the same figures, with the same positions in both paintings

In painting no' 57- although the painting's name alludes to the presence of a coffee shop- we notice that the artist drew his figures on the outer space of Jerusalem, and has gone beyond that to mingle them with different parts of the city, mainly with the Dome of the Rock. Again, the artist chooses to employ the figures in the artistic composition to convey his message, adding the painting's upper part which embodies the mountains of Jerusalem in a Van Gogh- like way, depending mainly on blue and yellow. This composition affirms the cultural charge that renders this city a basic component in the artist's personality. This also applies to the other painting featuring a coffee shop in Ramallah, with all its cultural symbols. Drawing the same figures in the same positions in two different places accentuates the artist's cultural identity that inherently represents a large segment of the Palestinian people.



The Galilean olive tree has surpassed its definition as a sacred fruitful tree, to become a symbol of endurance throughout the political events that shook the region in the mid-twentieth century. The collection contains other paintings that portray the olive groves (the Galilean olive Grove painting- 1) belonging to displaced Palestinians, but tare currently at the disposal of the custodian of the absentee property. These olive groves witness the past history and suffering, and are waiting for their owners who are dreaming of the return. Therefore the artist has deliberately refrained from drawing people or any life features to emphasize the tragedy. There is another painting representing the olive harvest (The Olive Harvest Painting 1) that has become a family ritual embodying the struggle for existence and clinging to the lands of the fathers and the grandfathers. This is clearly reflected in the painting depicting the artist and his family at the olive harvest.




نصر الله، ع. (2008). "أحمد كنعان: حكواتي بالصورة بين الواقعيّ والتحليق للحلم" في الفارس. طمرة: دار الشرق.

Available on:

Nasrallah, A. (2008). “Ahmed Canaan: The Storyteller between Realism and Dream of Flight” retrieved online.

Helping Resources:


Atac, M. A. (2006).  “Visual Formula and Meaning in Neo-Assyrian Relief Sculpture”," The art Bulletin,): 88  1); pp. 69-101.

Burckhardt. T. (1976). Art of Islam; Language and Meaning, World of Islam Publishing Company Ltd.

Critchlow, K. (1976). Islamic Pattern: An Analytical and Cosmological Approach, Schocken books, New York, NY.



[1] For further information about the techniques, see Nasrallah, 2008

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