Heart/Homeless: A visual expression of Palestinian exile
Just opened at the P21 Gallery is the first UK solo show for Palestinian-American artist Manal Deeb. Titled Heart/Homeless, the exhibition features 32 paintings and digital artwork as well as five video works that explore themes of exile and identity for the artist who longs to return home to Palestine.
Deeb was born in Ramallah in 1968 and lived there until the age of 18 when she left to study art in the US. Thirty years later, the artist remains in America, now mother to three girls, but has never forgotten her home.
The exhibition combines portraiture, calligraphy, and photography to express the continuing importance of Palestine in Deeb's identity, despite the extended time away. The title, Heart/Homeless, draws on the idea of a yearning to return.
"[The title] is meant in a poetic way," Deeb told The New Arab. "Even though I am away from my homeland of Palestine, I carry it inside me."
This is reflected in the artist's use of the female form. Often using her own body as the subject, Deeb channels her anguish into creative expression; making the female body a universal symbol of exile. Here, women become a manifestation of the pain of being away from home, while also a symbol of strength and endurance; never letting go of a dream to return.
|Manal Deeb was born in Ramallah in 1968 and lived there until the age of 18 when she left to study art in the US|
|Even though I am away from my homeland of Palestine, I carry it inside me|
In Refugees' Souls, the artist's face is superimposed on top of a well-known image of women fleeing their homes during the Nakba. Here, the artist takes on a protective, almost maternal role, as if to emphasise that the memory of 1948 lives through her, and therefore, will continue to live through her children as well.
This is echoed in Belief is the Core, where an image of the Dome of the Rock is placed between a woman's legs, as if the famous Palestinian landmark is a gateway to Deeb's soul.
"A lot of these works are self-portraits, but at the same time I use female features to talk about myself or women's empowerment or even my longing for my hometown," Deeb explained.
Many of her paintings stand as a symbol of the artist's personal empowerment gained through living in the diaspora.
One painting, titled Integrity, shows the artist's face emerging out of a golden background. Arabesque motifs fill the canvas and black lines drip over Deeb's face. Her strong, confrontational gaze echoes the strength that the artist has gained in retaining her Palestinian identity, despite living in America for so many years.
"[Living far away], I felt that I am changing and becoming more powerful and getting into what I want," Deeb described.
"Maybe the artwork itself gave me the power because it is a very expressive [medium]."
Arabic calligraphy is a recurring motif throughout the exhibition. At times, letters come together across the canvas but do not form words. Other times, they quote lines from Arabic poetry or the Quran.
"The calligraphy of the Arabic language I wear it as if it is my skin," Deeb explained. "I love how when I read [Arabic] poetry it affects my emotions and my feelings and that's how I make art."
In Hidden, Arabic letters are written over a self-portrait of the artist's face so that only one of her eyes stands out from the canvas. The calligraphy emerges out from golden paint, beautifully written, but holding no meaning.
|Deeb channels her anguish into creative expression; making the female body a universal symbol of exile. Here, women become a manifestation of the pain of being away from home, while also a symbol of strength and endurance; never letting go of a dream to return|
The artist described how she is interested in the relationship between the curves of the scripture and the features of the female form.
"I combined both to make it even better for me, for the harmony of colour, the features and the words," Deeb said.
Despite the painful content of her works, the exhibition is not without hope. Towards the end of the show, recurring images of infants and young children suggest a look to the future generations for the hope of peace in Palestine.
In Our Children are Our Future, a new born baby is cradled in a still river while Deeb's own face looks out into the distance. The maternal gaze perhaps reflects the artist's own experience of motherhood and how Palestinian identity continues to be passed down through generations.
With the current political climate threatening Palestinian rights and claims to their land, the image suggests a look to the future generation for hope of freedom for the Palestinians.
As the exhibition draws to an end, one piece is particularly poignant. Titled, Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night, the digital work depicts the silhouette of a blackbird and a man looking out into a golden background. Recalling the famous Beatles song, the piece shines new light onto the lyrics: "You were only waiting for this moment to be free." It expresses how Deeb and so many Palestinians worldwide are still waiting, and never giving up, on hope to return home.
Heart/Homeless is on at P21 Gallery, London until May 18. Open Tuesday, Thursday & Friday 12:00-18:00, Wednesday 12:00-20:00, and Saturday 12:00-16:00.
Georgia Beeston is a freelance journalist based in London with a focus on arts and culture from the Middle-East.
Follow her on Twitter: @g_beeston