HAMZA ABU AYYASH: IMAGE, TEXT AND IDEOLOGY
كان في ودي أن أسمعكم
قصة عن عندليب ميت
كان في ودي أن أسمعكم
لو لم يقصوا شفتي!
As a visitor to Ramallah I knew the work of Hamza Abu Ayyash long before meeting him. His murals depicting a faceless, muscular, humanoid are scattered throughout central Ramallah and elsewhere in the West Bank. These images are without pretense, populist and simplistic in some ways, complex in others. They are aimed at a young, super-hero video-game oriented audience and spray-painted in broad strokes using, for the most part, primary colors. At the same time his collaborative use of texts as integral to the work gives it a unique gravitas.
From mundane street signs and graffiti to sophisticated advertising and culture jams, we are thoroughly conditioned to see the practice of combining images with texts as seamless or normal. Some visual theorists and cultural critics “read” images as “texts” and speak of how what is literally text serves as an “anchorage,” pointing the way toward an overt or implied meaning. Semiotics and semiology, essentially the study of signs and signifiers, is useful when deconstructing advertising and other Western forms. However, I have found the suggestions of visual theorist W.J.T. Mitchell to be more useful when looking at vernacular political art like that of Hamza Abu Ayeesh. Here, I will use some of his ideas as a form of inquiry and framework around an interview with the artist.
Mitchell argues in his book Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology that “The presentation of imagistic elements in texts, textual elements in images… might be “defamiliarized” by understanding it as a transgression, an act of (sometimes ritual) violence involving the incorporation of the symbolic Other into the generic Self.” (Mitchell p.157) How we understand who (or what) is this symbolic other” and who (or what) is the “generic self” is an interesting question in any situation. In contested areas like the West Bank, where identity is highly politicized, it comes loaded with an on-going history of competing narratives.
Mitchell continues to argue in his discussion of image and ideology that there is no real need for a “master theory to unite the arts.” (Mitchell p.157) In a popular idiom like graffiti where distinctions between image and text seem to have been erased, where artists make their own rules, this seems to be especially true. The critical process Mitchell suggests to “defamiliarize” a naturalized practice and “dispense” with master theories is useful when looking at political graffiti. This is especially true with graffiti artists like Hamza Abu Ayyash, who is fully conscious about how he collaborates with writers and other artists. Hamza prefers the term graffiti because in his words “you get paid for murals.” He also has a side business as a tattoo artist, in his words again, “because you have to make money.” In other words, the borders of political populism and commerciality are as porous in his world as they are in the broader world of images and texts.
“I was born in Lebanon in 1981 then traveled with the family to Tunisia then to Jordan in 1985. We moved to Palestine four years after the Oslo agreement in 1997 and lived in Hebron until 2000, when the family moved to Ramallah. I left to Nablus for education in 2004 and graduated from the Fine Arts Program at An Najah National University. I contributed to several collective exhibitions and held a few of my own. From 2011, I was doing graffiti regularly and in 2012 I had the hunger strike graffiti project."
Hamza Abu Ayyash e-mail, September 30, 2014
Starting in 2012, Hamza began painting images in response to and in support of Palestinian prisoners and the hunger strikes. “Guts,” in both a literal and figurative sense, are important to the inception and execution of these larger-than-life works. The graffiti that composes Hamza’s hunger strike project was recent in August 2012 when I arrived in Ramallah. The colors were still fresh and vibrant. By the time I departed in June 2014 flaking and fading had become obvious. It remains to be seen if they are of a temporal nature or something more permanent.
In one of his most striking and original pieces an eviscerated figure, hungering for nationhood, spills his guts in the shape of Palestine imagined whole. This speaks to the willingness of a subordinated culture’s vernacular voice to shock its audience. It also reflects the inverted geographical iconography present in Israeli and Palestinian mapping of the conflicted land both claim. “Guts” form a literal image of the land and proclaim an equally literal identity. Hamza has little use for metaphor in his image making. He usually leaves this to collaborators who provide the texts. Much of the vernacular political image-making in the West Bank may be viewed as a collaborative whole, emerging for better or for worse from a culture not an individual.
This mural is across the street from a parking lot for Bethlehem University not far from the busy serveech station in the heart of Bethlehem proper. The text by a Palestinian named Nayef Bazzar reads: "My guts declares my identity." According to Hamza, Bazzar spent six years in an Israeli jail from age sixteen to twenty-two.
Other versions of Hamza’s muscleman depict him carrying an imaginary and whole Palestine on his back, crucified to a symbolic house-key, breaking free from chains, raising a fist clenched to an assault rifle from the grave and in a project executed with a group of other graffiti artists, flying through the air like Superman. The populist impulse to create intertextual images for an audience should not be underestimated. It is after all what keeps The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park relevant. The Palestinian alarm clock segment on Family Guy retains the ability to both offend and serve as ironic commentary about the attitudes of many Westerners and in particular Americans.
Hamza wrote the text himself. It reads reads: "My hunger carries my homeland." "Hamza’s figure is carrying the historical map of Palestine with his guts. This photograph was taken September 15, 2012 just a few months after it was painted.
A critique of Hamza’s work may be that it is a bit too generic and in that way meaningless. This "general" approach, to use Hamza's own word, is also its strength. The faceless suffering hero is crucified, carries the state on his back or poses in a yoga position cross-legged holding his heart in clasped hands. “I don’t paint icons” Hamza told me, “”because somebody might not like them.” According to Hamza, the Palestinian Authority (PA) encourages his work. It is not painted over as is some work of other graffiti artists who are critical of the PA or especially Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In addition, communities where he paints give their explicit permission for execution of his work. Hamza attributes this to the fact that his work is simply against “the occupation” but does not espouse any political party or decry the Palestinian Authority.
Rather than trying to extract quotes and build an argument it seems best to let the artist speak for himself. The following interview has been edited for clarity. It took place in Ramallah at the Zam’n Café on April 24, 2014. A conclusion will attempt to reconcile the critical and theoretical issues raised by Hamza’s work.
HAMZA ABU AYYASH: INTERVIEW
Philip Hopper. Tell me more about how words and images work together in your graffitti.
Hamza Abu Ayyash: I know my limits so I go to professionals like poets, like writers, sometimes ex-prisoners. The one in Bethlehem, he’s holding his head, stretching his stomach and his guts falling around Palestine. I didn't paint the crucified man because the whole land is holy not just Bethlehem. The text next to it says, “My guts declares my identity.” The text was from an ex-prisoner friend of mine, Nayef Bazzar. He was jailed when he was 16 and he was released when he was 24... It’s strong as words. Came from someone who’s never been educated. But he was in prison for eight years. I showed him my sketch and he said many words, many sentences and when he told me that I said stop. This is it: “My guts declares my identity.”
Hamza Abu Ayyash: The thing that exploded with me was, the first political graffiti I made was during the declaration of the Palestinian state in 2011. The first time when Abu Mazen went to the UN (Bronner, E. et al). For me I consider this event the first time I start to clarify my name as a graffiti artist. Not just some kid with spray-paint. Afterwards, in 2012, when the major hunger strike started in the Israeli prisons I made a personal project on the walls. Just me and my spray cans for my own mind.
Philip Hopper. One of your figures here in Ramallah is crucified.
Hamza Abu Ayyash: During the hunger strike I transformed this character into Jesus because he’s a Palestinian. He was crucified on the key of return and the number sixty-four for the years of Nakba. And the Arabic text that reads, “We own the dream and the idea and you shall own the coffin.” The text was written by Arafat Al-Deek, a friend of mine who is a poet. I usually ask friends of mine to write texts and I make a visual version of it. I show him the sketch and it was painted in 2012.
The crucifixion mural is near the Old City of Ramallah, which is historically the community center of a relatively large Palestinian Christian minority. In this image the figure does not flex his muscles but hangs limp and corpse-like with a crown of thorns.
Philip Hopper: The one behind the Post Office?
Hamza Abu Ayyash: The text next to it says, “For you I suck my guts.” “For Palestinian people the prisoners sucking his own guts, digesting his guts. The text was from Faris Sabaane another poet friend.”
Philip Hopper. People don’t usually deface your work.
Hamza Abu Ayyash: But I saw someone put a smiley face on the one near the post office. It’s okay. I can imagine why people don’t touch it because you’re not talking about any political party. You’re not judging anyone; you’re just against the occupation. It’s a common problem for all Palestinians. The occupation for every Palestinian… Okay some like the Authority some don’t. Some like Fatah some don't, Hamas blah blah blah. But everyone is against the occupation. When you work with an idea that everyone understands you know that your work won’t be challenged in a way.
Philip Hopper. What about the one on the vegetable stand?
Hamza Abu Ayyash: It’s my text this time and it reads: my hunger carries my homeland. He is carrying the historical map of Palestine with his guts. I like the image of Khadar Adnan but not the icons. Just one does not stand for the many. I painted it during the major hunger strike in 2012 on May 16. The same day my sister gave birth to my niece. My mother called me and said come your sister is giving birth. So I tagged myself and left.
Hamza wrote the text. It reads reads: "My hunger carries my homeland." This detail is significant in that it contains a stencil of the iconic Palestinian hunger striker Kahdar Adnan which Hamza notes in his interview.
Philip Hopper. You work in different styles? The horses?
Hamza Abu Ayyash: In Arab culture the horse is a symbol of freedom and rejecting training. The horse in is a symbol of authenticity, pride. The word horse is from the word for pride (الخَيل). I was with a friend of mine from the US, we were in Lebanon on a project in Shatila Camp and I don’t know I was just drawing small horses everywhere and she said, “You’re the Crazy Horse.” Hey I loved it. A friend of mine who knows a lot about Native American culture told me who Crazy Horse is who he was and all the myths built on his name.
Philip Hopper The Gaza piece is also different.
Hamza Abu Ayyash: I used a stencil for the face and everything else is spray-painted. Usually I do not like stencils. It’s a commercial way to do graffiti because you can do it many times. The text was from a friend of mine, a journalist. It reads, “The days we die is our birthdays” something like that. “The day we are born is the day we die as martyrs. It was during Cast Lead when kids were just dying.
Ayyash painted this work during Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. Hamza dislikes the use of stencils because in his words they are "a commercial way to do graffiti." However he effectively uses the stencil technique to detail the child angel's face.
The stencil technique draws attention to similarities to the images of dead children from Gaza, which appeared in West Bank newspapers. Download a recent example here.
Philip Hopper. Do you have a regular job?
Hamza Abu Ayyash: We have a company… that’s about education. And also I’m a tattoo artist. (laughs) I need some cash flow. Walid the owner of this place is a regular customer of mine. But the walls are our canvases, they are calling my name.
Hamza Abu Ayyash: I have other pieces. One for Sabra Shatila that’s new this November.
Philip Hopper Why are they decapitated?
Hamza Abu Ayyash: Because that’s what they did. And every pregnant woman they opened her up. It’s about Shatila and Sabra. It says Sabra and Shatila only. That’s it.
The left part of this piece is by artist Maher Khatib who is Palestinian and living in Denmark. He was visiting Ramallah and in Hamza’s words, "Instead of serving him coffee or a beer I was serving him a painting with me."
Philip Hopper. Are you worried about people learning your identity?
Hamza Abu Ayyash: No. The intelligence took me many times. The Palestinian intelligence.
Philip Hopper What did they do?
Hamza Abu Ayyash: I’m not saying any bad words against them or against anyone. Just against the occupation. They said go on, carry on… I showed him my card and they (the police) asked what are you writing slogans? I said no. Graffiti? I said yes. They said okay. If it’s graffiti it’s okay… That’s why I like to make my message general.
Philip Hopper What does the text say on your mural near the Jerusalem bus stop?
Hamza Abu Ayyash: Your gut is a slap of anger. The whole thing of the hunger strike was called the anti-guts. That’s why I used the guts everywhere. The funny thing is it’s in the center of the city but it’s clean… Usually I try to make something text and image. You can have both of them together. As you can see the logo for the democratic front is all covered with posters but mine is clean. (It says) Your gut is a slap of anger.
"Your guts is a strike (or slap) of anger." This image was painted on the side of the Jerusalem bus station in Ramallah in 2012
Philip Hopper: What do you think about the graffiti on the big wall? This is an image of the Apartheid message that is on the wall in Al Ram.
Hamza Abu Ayyash: It’s very strong but it should be on the other side. I have a huge article about that. I posted it on Oximity. I had a conversation with a graffiti artist from Germany named Dark Star. He’s very famous. We had a conversation and I agree also with his point of view that the graffiti on the wall raises awareness about the wall. I also had a conversation with Dodger who is a graffiti artist from Italy. We work together. We had a discussion… why not paint on the other side of the wall, the clear side? Why won’t anyone do anything on the other (Israeli) side?
Click to enlarge any image on this page.
HAMZA ABU AYYASH: THE SELF AND THE OTHER
During the interview Hamza made the point several times that there should be graffiti on the “other” side of the Israeli separation barrier. To my knowledge that “other” side is grey and blank except for official security-oriented messages. The answer to Hamza’s question probably has to do with social pressure, stigma and safety. These are also the reasons that few Palestinians leave marks on this wall. Much of the graffiti on the separation barrier is by international protest tourist for the same reasons. Palestinians also have social pressure, stigma and especially safety issues in approaching this wall.
Hamza also referred with a great deal of accuracy to the people he collaborates with in the execution of his murals especially those poets, journalists and former prisoners who supplied texts to pair with his image. He clearly sees the text and the image as necessary and integral.
If we take Mitchell’s suggestion to understand the pairing of text and image “as a transgression, an act of (sometimes ritual) violence involving the incorporation of the symbolic other into the generic Self” what are we to make of Hamza’s work? Which is the symbolic Other and which is the generic Self? Mitchell is not suggesting that images and text may be viewed this way literally but rather as a kind of dialectical exercise. The question remains though and becomes even more interesting, considering the deeply entwined history of text and art in the Arab world.
In his essay titled Calligraphy and Modern Art in the Arab World the Iraqi critic and essayist Jabra I. Jabra wrote “Babylonian and Assyrian sculpture employed cuneiform writing… in a manner which made the writing itself part of the visual composition.” In the mid-twentieth century Arab artists started “ a whole new movement in which calligraphy, interwoven with an abstract background… acquired a freedom of form and significance” which was irrelevant to sacred conventional art. (Jabra pg. 170)
Taking Mitchell’s suggestion then, for an Arab artist it seems that the text is the generic Self both in the sense of personal and collective identity. When I interviewed the internationally recognized artist Kahled Hourani he bluntly told me, “I am a calligrapher.” This was in the context of a broader conversation about art but it is indicative of a more general ingrained attitude about text. Hamza Abu Ayyad uses the words of others in his work yet he speaks about these words more than he speaks about the images that he paints. Jabra I. Jabra concludes that for artists in that world “Identity becomes an individual passion, a personal heaven or hell.” In the West Bank this identity has been purgatorial now for the last sixty-four years but the personal identification remains.
In the Spring of 2014 part of Hamza’s Bethlehem mural was whitewashed. The text remains: “My guts declare my identity.” One is left to speculate how it was decided that “My guts declares my identity” as text would be allowed to remain while the image next to it would be obliterated. It follows again that text may be the symbolic Self, given its importance in Arab cultures. By process of elimination the generic Other becomes Hamza’s figure. The irony is that it too is generic. There is an obliteration of the Palestinian Self implicit with the obliteration of the image.
Some time during the spring of 2014 the imagistic portion of Hamza's Bethlehem "guts" mural was white-washed. We can only speculate about the who and why of this act.
In a chapter from “Iconology” about G.E. Lessing titled Space and Time, Mitchell writes, “The relations of the arts are like those of countries, of clans, of neighbors, of members of the same family. They are thus related by sister- and brother-hood, maternity and paternity, marriage, incest, and adultery; thus subject to versions of the laws, taboos, and rituals that regulate social forms of life.” (Mitchell pg 112) Perhaps the fact that the text, “My guts declare my identity” can be spoken and become temporal saved those words, that statement. Perhaps it is simply the Arab identification with calligraphy. Perhaps someone's "good taste" was offended and we know that slippery slope well. It may, in the end, be impossible to ever know what law, taboo or ritual the image transgressed. With the erasure of the image though, the representation of a body that was intended by the artist to be “general”, the generic Self and for someone became the symbolic Other, criticisms of Hamza’s work as generic become meaningless. His work is more than meaningful. It indicates a time in the early twenty-first century when Palestinians are looking for new connections to the wider populist world.
In the end who objected to Hamza’s literally visceral painting? In this case, in the heart of Palestinian Bethlehem, it was probably not an Israeli. Was it Palestinians who support normalization or simply an objection to the anti-aesthetic nature of the image itself? This work clearly transgressed or refuted some Palestinian status quo but we may never know who erased it.
Sami Al-Qasim’s famous short poem “Slit Lips” encapsulates the difficulty of explicating the Palestinian narrative under current conditions. This is a translation of his poem which appears in Arabic at the beginning of this page. I believe it relates to Hamza's collaboration with poets and prisoners as a thematic bookend.
I would have liked to tell you
The story of a nightingale that died.
I would have liked to tell you
Had they not slit my lips.
All images in this essay and others are available to download free as high resolution files here.
Bronner, E. , Kershner, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/17/world/middleeast/Abbas-Security-Council-United-Nations-Vote.html?_r=0 accessed 10/18/2015, Extensive coverage of this and subsequent Palestinian overtures at the United Nations are well-documented.
Jabra, J. A Celebration of Life: Essays on Literature and Art, Al-Hurriya Press, Baghdad 1988 pgs 170 & 176. An English language copy of this title exists in the Ramallah Public Library.
Mitchell, W (1986) Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, pgs. 157 & 112