Ahmad Nawash was born in Ain Karem, a Palestinian village just south of Jerusalem, in 1934. In 1964, he earned his BA with honors from the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, and in 1970 received a certificate in lithography and zinc etching from the School of Fine Arts in Bordeaux, France. He continued to study these media in Paris from 1975 to 1977, and in Florence in 1980, where he also studied the restoration of oil paintings. A founding member of the Jordanian Plastic Artists Association, Nawash was an active and influential participant in various art scenes throughout the Middle East for over three decades.
Ahmad Nawash discovered his affinity for art as a young boy in Palestine. At the age of ten or twelve, he made the first work of art he recalls creating, which depicted Salah ad-Din, the medieval sultan who restored Jerusalem to Muslim rule. In 1948, when Nawash was fourteen years old, the Zionist occupation of Palestine forced him and his family out of their home in Ain Karem. Haunted by the massacre in nearby Deir Yassin, which had taken place only weeks earlier, the young artist fled with his parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins, first on foot and later as passengers in the back of a truck. Nawash’s family ultimately crossed the river to Jordan, settling first in Salt before relocating to Amman. Here, he began making art as a means of expressing himself and working through the trauma that had alienated him from his country.
The sudden, traumatic flight from Ain Karem would continue to haunt the artist well into his adulthood when Palestine became the dominant theme of his work. In a 2008 interview with Nadia el Issa, the artist stated that a genuine work of art “is the original fruit of its environment,” which, for him, was “Palestine and Jordan, together with the remainder of the Arab World and its miserable masses.” Nawash drew thematic inspiration from the social, political, and economic situations of the Arab World, including “the spectacle of constant bloodshed in Palestine and other Arab countries like Iraq” and “the increasingly widespread scenes of human dignity being trodden down on and abused.” The artist conceptualized his practice as the product of the relationship between his thoughts and emotions and the collective experiences of the world around him, and though they reflected on his environment, his works were rarely autobiographical. In fact, Nawash never inserted himself into his own work, and painted a family member only once, when he was grieving the untimely death of his son, Musa.
Although a prolific creator, Nawash’s style changed very little from his early days as a student in Europe through the end of his career as an internationally celebrated artist.
Most of the artist’s oeuvre comprises melancholy, dreamlike compositions, populated by human figures whose bodies do not obey natural laws of proportion or symmetry. These absurd beings float, unanchored, in planes of muted colors, existing in a visual field that seems to mark itself as a void rather than evoking any kind of tangible world. Though these characters seem constantly in motion, there is no narrative insofar as this motion does not suggest a direction or progression in space or time; instead, Nawash’s nightmarish figures seem to move without ever departing or arriving, trapped on a haunted path that leads nowhere. The stillness and silence of these compositions give them an especially eerie aura; as the late artist and critic Kamal Boullata put it, Nawash’s work seems “to reveal the hallucinations of one unable to scream.”
Nawash cited Paul Klee as his favorite artist and noted that he drew inspiration from the use of warm colors and transparency in his work. However, he attributed the bulk of his stylistic choices to natural emotional pulls as well as the influences of his environment. Feelings, the artist claimed, were the primary factor in shaping the form of his work, from line to proportions to color palette. His disjointed figures, for example, expressed the frustration and sense of loss he felt as a witness to various tragedies in the Arab world. Looking at Nawash’s oeuvre, it is clear that the primary emotion the artist sought to express was pain, but he nevertheless resisted the assumption that his work was nihilistic. “My works absolutely express hope for the future,” the artist protested in 2008. “While it is true that I depict the gloomy side of humanity and of the situation of the world today, how can I, an artist, change any of that except for through the creation of critical artworks that make harsh judgments of reality? I express my infinite hope for the future, then, through the continuation of my creative production.”
Ahmad Nawash died in Amman in May 2017.