Fouad Agbaria was born in 1981 in the village of Musmus near Umm El Fahm, Palestine.His mother was an educated housewife, and his father, a Hebrew language tutor. As a child, he enjoyed family gatherings in a household of love and compassion and listened to his grandparent’s stories. Growing up in a village, he accompanied his grandfather to the orchards, the olive groves, and the meadows of Musmus, where he observed olive picking, wheat harvesting, and the gathering of wild plants, among other activities. Given his humble origins, Agbaria struggled to meet his dream of becoming an artist. While still a student in Jerusalem, he taught in schools in the towns of Jawarsih in Ramleh, Eisawiyeh in East Jerusalem, and Abou Ghosh on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway in order to cover his tuition fees. Agbaria earned his BA in fine arts from Bezalel Academy in West Jerusalem in 2004, and an MA from Haifa University in 2014.
Palestinians living in Israel are second-class citizens, restricted to specific geographical, social, economic, and political spaces. Umm El Fahm lies within Israeli borders, and as a Palestinian living there, Agbaria was part of a marginalized community; naturally, this environment influenced his art. Nostalgia was central to his early work, in which he deploys themes from his past to both confront a disappointing present and advocate for an alternate future. Weaving the personal and the political in works inspired by his childhood, Agbaria provides a heartfelt perspective on the Palestinian struggle.
Agbaria made his international debut in 2006 when he participated in the group exhibition Equal and Less Equal alongside acclaimed artists such as Sebastiao Salgado and Andreas Gursky. Put on by Jerusalem’s Museum on the Seam, so named because it straddles East and West Jerusalem, the exhibition addressed the discrimination and exploitation facing workers in the era of late capitalism. Worker (2002), portrays the Palestinian laborer in Israel, who is inevitably underpaid and deprived of basic social welfare. The oil on canvas painting features a man against a blank white background; he is seated, but he lacks a chair. The worker’s position is unstable and strenuous – despite the repose suggested by a seated position, he alone supports the weight of his body – and expresses a loss of place and identity, as well as financial security.
Agbaria revisited themes common to the Palestinian nationalist iconography popular in the early 1980s. In an attempt to revive places from the past, his first solo exhibition, Visual Memory (2012), showcased oil paintings and lithographic prints depicting deserted places, rural settings, landscapes, and cactus hedges. For instance, Cactus in the Village (2010) depicts a landscape haunted by human absence. A huge cactus plant with dense green oval leaves occupies nearly half the width of the canvas, while an old stone house rests in the background in a depopulated rural area. Drawing from artist Walid Abu Shakra (1946-2019), Agbaria re-introduces the cactus as the village’s marker and one that outlives its exiled inhabitants. Indeed, in many of his works, Agbaria re-appropriates the sabra, also known as the prickly pear cactus,which has been used for decades by Palestinian artists as a symbol of endurance and resilience. Artists of the Abu Shakra family are primarily known for their cactuses; in addition to Walid, Asim Abu Shakra (1961-1990) painted potted cacti to convey the sense of isolation he felt as a Palestinian in Israel, and these images are echoed in Agbaria’s simplified, geometrical renderings of cactus leaves. With Karim Abu Shakra, Agbaria launched a 2016 joint exhibition, Bond, that featured paintings of blossoming potted cacti in vibrant colors. The paintings shown in the exhibition demonstrate Agbaria’s development of a post-impressionist style, with mid-scale paintings dominated by broad swaths of bright color as well as pointillist brushstrokes and gradated washes.
Fouad Agbaria’s rural genre scenes portray pre-Nakba Palestine as an idealized, abundant agrarian culture, rich in communal identity. For example, The Earth’s Embrace (2012) portrays a peasant woman joyfully picking wheat stalks from the field. In Masculine Harvest (2012), a male peasant forcefully pulls wheat bundles with a pitchfork. The pointed difference between these paintings suggests the rigid gender roles often found in traditional rural cultures, with the woman smiling and maternal while the man demonstrates strength and virility. Reminiscent of Jean-François Millet’s iconic The Gleaners (1857), Agbaria’s Field for Harvest (2012-2013) depicts peasants bending to pick up harvest crops. Agbaria’s paintings look realistic, but unlike the accurate likeness depicted by Millet, he only captures the impression of an image. The fact Agbaria painted his figures with brisk brush strokes, they lack realistic detail. Peasants, fields, and trees become patches of color. These patches, objects in their own right, transform into figureless expressionistic abstractions exemplified in Harvest (2014).
During his early childhood, Agbaria eagerly awaited the broom maker’s visits to the village of Musmus: he loved to watch him craft his brooms with a needle and a yarn of straw and to observe his bizarre tools. This encounter was inspirational for the artist, who developed a style of spikey brushwork that mimicked interwoven straw.
The artist’s harvest scenes blend the colors of the landscape - a warm yellow-brown summery palette – with those of the characters that populate them. Mirroring Vincent van Gogh’s post-impressionistic painting technique, Agbaria brightens his colors and loosens his brushwork, alternating broad and fine brush strokes onto the thick oil paint, and occasionally using a palette knife to apply thick layers of paint to the canvas.
In his more recent works, Agbaria establishes an abstract style focused on Arabic calligraphy and floral ornamentation, creating freestyle calligraphic scripts in acrylic on canvas. The verses he illustrates are usually drawn from the Qur’an, the work of famous Palestinian liberation poet Mahmoud Darwish, or Agbaria’s writings. A colorful pattern of brushstroke arcs and lines surround the letters and scripts that are inscribed in luminous gold, white, or blue paint. This luminosity symbolizes omnipotence and divinity, aligning itself with what is traditionally considered “Islamic art” while reflecting a contemporary cultural and artistic identity.
Fouad Agbaria was studying the history of carpet-making in the Middle East when he began Weaving and Cracks (2017-2018), a series of large-scale oil paintings on canvas that depict carpets adorned with floral and arabesque details. The carpets themselves call to mind pride in craftsmanship and cleanliness, as in the Arab world, these textiles occupy domestic and religious spaces. For Muslims, carpets draw additional religious associations due to the custom of prayer rugs, which serve to protect the supplicant from the dirt of the floor and keep her or him clean while she or he prays. Atop each of Agbaria’s carpets, however, the artist paints battleships, tanks, car tires, children’s toys, or playground slides, mixing these associations with symbols of war and everyday life. These paintings thus evoke his childhood in a troubled homeland, juxtaposing past and present, innocence and destruction, war, and peace. One of his latest works, Survival (2018), showcased in the 2019 group exhibition Even the Trees Bleed, again features a resilient cactus growing on concrete. The exhibition tells a story of man’s expropriation and exploitation of nature as well as of his fellow man, a reality that fuels Agbaria’s artistic creation.
Married to his teenage sweetheart, Agbaria continues to live and work in Umm -El Fahm, Palestine.