Ismail Shammout

Palestine 1930-2006.

"Ismail Shammout's 1984 picture of a Christ-figure by the seashore shows just how art may defeat the discourse of the aesthetic philistine and, at once, insert the modern Palestinian into the canons of artistic culture. Here Shammout has taken the classic Renaissance deposition scene - when the body of the crucified Christ is removed from the cross - and inverted it. This Christ, through rigor mortis, has become the composition's pillar of strength, the support and shelter for his mourners. His perfect Apollonian torso holds up the right side of the picture, while his gesturing arm defines the scene's horizon. The blood running from the hallowed stigmata merges with the setting sun, which has become an echo of the Christ-figure's triumphant posture. Underneath, the Palestinian populace huddles in a latent state between passivity and potential.

With his visual references to European classical tradition and the locally situated myth of martyrdom, Shammout marries ethnic particularity and canonical glory. He conflates the art of the (Italian) Renaissance - evidenced in the idealizing figuration and perspectival composition - with a local tragedy. A kuffiyeh shrouded Christ and women in thob and mandeel mourn thee loss of the western coast of their land. Shammout's aesthetic act can be viewed as an appeal for recognition from Western audiences, to be redeemed from the charge of "philistine," but it should also be viewed as an effort to shape the self-image of Palestinians (and Arabs) themselves. For although the Palestinian nation that Shammout undertook to represent in bodily form was fragmented and dispersed, tortured and tormented, his act of painting brings it into a single solid mass, rising up through its suffering. In particular, his use of a revered European tradition of figuration calls forth the possibility of imagining a "real" Palestinian nation, paramount in dignity and recognizability to the European fatherlands of fine art.

Underlying Shammout's imagination is the injunction that Palestinians come to see themselves, literally, from a specific perspective. They will have to articulate their claims to nationhood in a particular way. In sum, Shammout's figuration is an optimistic act based on the idea that there can be a national body worthy of representation in a universalist tradition, and that it can be shaped by highly skilled spokespersons, well-versed at addressing both foreign audiences and local ones."

- Excerpt from 'Between the Promise of Life and Its Fragility: The Arab Body in The Khalid Shoman Collection' by Kirsten Scheid
Arab Art Histories - The Khalid Shoman Collection, published by The Khalid Shoman Foundation, 2013