Hani Zurob was born in Gaza’s Rafah refugee camp in 1976. He grew up in the home his father had inherited from his parents, who were expelled from Wadi Hunayn in 1948 and forced to relocate to Gaza. One of seven children, Zurob, graduated from Al-Samaw’al Secondary School in the camp and earned a BA in Fine Arts in 1999 from Al-Najah National University in Nablus. In 2006, he moved to Paris, where he remains exiled to this day.
For most of his life, Zurob felt trapped. Growing up in the increasingly crowded Gaza Strip, his movement was always limited, but he experienced the acute sensation of entrapment for the first time in 1987, at the age of twelve; in response to the outbreak of the First Intifada, Israeli authorities imposed a curfew that left the restless boy stuck at home for days on end. During this time, Hani spent hours illustrating images from his father’s books and periodicals, developing his skills as a draughtsman, and soon, he applied these talents to making posters in support of the Intifada. Known for his remarkable Arabic calligraphy as well as his proficiency in drawing, he contributed to the resistance as a graffiti artist, participating in demonstrations and plastering his surroundings with nationalist slogans. Influenced by his formative years as a teenager during the uprising, his art has continued to reflect upon the Palestinian narrative as a whole, in addition to his personal experiences.
Hani left Gaza in 1994 to pursue a college education in Nablus. Like most Palestinians seeking to leave Gaza, Zurob did not have an easy time of it, as the Israeli authorities refused him an exit permit. The determined artist nevertheless found his way to Nablus after being smuggled into East Jerusalem; he completed his degree as an illegal resident, facing the constant threat of deportation. After graduating, he worked in graphic design in Nablus and taught art in the district of Jenin, ultimately landing a job as an instructor at a women’s college in Ramallah. When Zurob moved to Ramallah to start work in 2000, he was excited to be based in a hub of Palestinian art and culture, but his life was yet again disrupted by civil unrest. During the Second Intifada, which erupted that same year, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) invaded the West Bank. When, in 2002, Ramallah fell under siege, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon imposed curfews on its residents, and troops detained any individuals they deemed suspicious. That year, Israeli soldiers raided Zurob’s apartment, destroyed his paintings and art supplies, and arrested him as an illegal resident in Ramallah. The artist was detained at Ofer prison for 53 days, enduring torture when he allegedly refused to cooperate with Israeli intelligence; an interrogator broke his hand in a deliberate attempt to end his career as an artist. When Israeli prosecution failed to indict him on serious charges, he was eventually released from prison, but ultimately received a notice of deportation from Ramallah.
Before his detention, Zurob had entered the AM Qattan Foundation’s 2002 Young Artist of the Year Award (YAYA). Having lost his tools and work, and having sustained a severe injury to his hand, he tried to withdraw upon leaving prison. Given the circumstances, however, the foundation granted him a two-month extension, during which he created a body of work entitled When I Say No, I Mean No (2002). The work reflected on his brutal incarceration and was later selected for an exhibition of the ten award finalists.
Having returned to living illegally to Ramallah, Zurob found himself between a rock and a hard place, yet he was able to attend exhibitions and cultural events that were rare in Nablus and unthinkable in Gaza. For the first time, he was exposed to contemporary artwork by international artists such as Aurore Millet Reinecke and Thomas Kilpper, whose work inspired him and connected him to an international community. It was in Ramallah that Zurob met his mentors, Muhammad Saleh Khalil and Samir Salameh, who granted Zurob access to their libraries and thus opened his eyes to a broader global sphere of artwork. On the other hand, the artist felt alienated in Ramallah, and his precarious legal status made traveling impossible. Anxious to avoid deportation, he limited his movement to an area of five square kilometers within the city.
The marriage of these circumstances led to one of Zurob’s best-known series, Siege (2004-2006). Lonely and isolated, the artist moved away from Palestinian nationalist themes and imagery, looking inward instead to confront his sense of entrapment. The compositions show vibrant, primary colors of acrylic on canvas, applied in loose, dynamic brushstrokes to buzzing swaths of color and large central figures. The artist based these figures on himself, using two mirrors to help him realize their warped perspective, and his use of bold charcoal lines provides a solid, grounded contrast to the fluid motion of the paint. The graphic contours of his lines and the expressive contortions of his figures evoke the self-portraits of Austrian painter Egon Schiele, with whom the artist grew fascinated through the books he borrowed from Salameh and Khalil.
Hani Zurob created Siege No. 4 in 2004, during a workshop organized by the newly-founded Palestinian Association for Contemporary Art. The large-scale canvas reflects on Zurob’s experience of incarceration two years prior, showing the naked artist crouching against an abstract, indeterminate background. The painting is executed in shades of blue from indigo to aquamarine, lashed with whites and the dull black of charcoal; these melancholy colors deepen the sense of vulnerability that exudes from the hunched figure. Though the fourth of the series, it is the first to show the artist’s face frontally. With one hand resting on the floor and the other grasping a drawing tool, the artist announces his presence by meeting the eyes of the viewer, his gaze at once defiant and exhausted.
In February 2006, the Cite Internationale des Arts offered Zurob a grant to study in Paris. There, he produced a series entitled Sortie (2006), inspired by his early experiences in the city; Sortie, which means “exit,” was the first word the artist learned in French, committed to memory as a result of using the metro. His use of French, though playful, reflects the dual state of mind through which Zurob operated in Paris. As he had escaped Gaza only to feel alienated in the West Bank, he had traded the challenges and traumas of occupied Palestine for the estrangement of living in a foreign environment. The Sortie paintings exemplify how, during this period, Zurob straddled boundaries between figuration and abstraction, favoring sober colors like black, white, umber, and olive. Their wide, gestural brushstrokes and abstract compositions are punctuated with found objects, and foreign textures applied directly to the canvas, including metro tickets, coins, fiber mesh, and metal rods.
Having been issued an eviction notice from the city years ago, Zurob could not return to Ramallah and found himself stuck in Paris. By the end of 2006, his wife Sabreen Daoud joined him there, and as the couple began their life abroad, Zurob returned to Palestine through his work. In series of sixty paintings, Standby (2007-2008), Zurob reflected on the sixty years that had passed since the Palestinian nakba –sixty years during which these same Palestinians were guaranteed the right of return by international law, yet were never able to claim it. The works feature black-outlined figures based on nude photographs of the artist seated in eight different positions. The figures are painted dynamically, with some lines bearing the measured lucidity of Siege and others erupting into looser, more chaotic forms, and the canvases are spattered in acrylic blues, reds, browns, and ochres that are muddied by the inclusion of henna and black tar. During this period, Zurob was inspired by a memory of Gaza to start using black tar as a principal medium (see, for example, Standby nos. 10-19).
Tar has significance for Zurob, who recalls a day during the first Intifada (1987-1993) when he left his house in Gaza after 40 consecutive days of isolation imposed by the Israeli curfew. “I will never forget that morning,” the artist has stated, “when I stepped outside to discover that Israeli soldiers had covered everything in bitumen. The streets, shop windows, façades of houses, everything was in bitumen, including the trunk of the palm tree in my neighborhood.” Zurob has also linked the use of the black substance to his time in a West Bank detention center during the second Intifada (2000-2003). At the time, Israel was arresting so many Palestinians that it ran out of space in its prisons, and placed recent detainees in newly-made tent-like structures surrounded by barbed wire. The floors of these spaces were made of asphalt; forced to sleep on one, Zurob grew accustomed to the smell of freshly-poured bitumen.
Building upon the formal qualities he explored in Standby, the series Zeft (2017) represents the hardship and stagnancy of life in Palestine. Zeft means tar in colloquial Arabic, and it is used to describe misfortune or worthlessness. To mitigate the thick and sticky nature of tar, Zurob created his own mix with the help of a chemist in France by diluting the substance with an acrylic binder. This technique is responsible for the shiny, waxy quality of the finished abstract works. In another series Zeft Land (2019), he mixed tar with paint and incorporated gold leaf and earthy materials such as tree branches, twigs, and dry flower petals into his paintings.
In addition to reflecting on the conditions of Palestinian life, Hani Zurob’s art tackles more mundane, universal subject matter. For example, a 2015 solo exhibition entitled Low Quality Love addressed another type of alienation, namely communication in the digital age. To this, the artist commented that “we live in a heartless world defined by injustice.” In this exhibition, Zurob responded to Peter Doig’s eerie 1997 painting Canoe Lake with Excuse me Peter Doig: this is Canoe-Sea (2015). While Doig’s original features a female figure in a canoe and is painted in bright, almost phosphorescent greens, Zurob’s shows an oversized human heart, rendered in deep, cool reds, in an ochre canoe against a muted, tranquil sage green background. Lacking both oars and arms to row them, the heart is adrift in an unidentifiable sea, unable to move itself towards or away from anything.
Hani Zurob’s wife, Sabreen, and son, Qudsi, travel back and forth to Jerusalem to renew their identity cards and visit family. Because the artist is unable to return to Palestine for fear of deportation, he remains in France, and in 2009 began an ongoing series of paintings entitled Flying Lessons. Though these works still make expressive use of tar, they depart from his previous works in that his gestural, expressive forms have given way to hard-edged, minimal shapes, sharp planes painted in neat, opaque acrylics, and realistic depictions of Qudsi, who appears in each one. The boy, who was two when his father began the series, appears playing with his toys, climbing ladders, and otherwise occupying expansive, varied spaces, most of which are undefined. In Flying Lesson no. 12 (2013), for example, the boy’s image appears on the upper right side of the painting, seated on a bouncer chair that appears to have sprung into the air as if to propel him over a massive purple wall –the apartheid wall. Toying with notions of space and distance, the artist merges two worlds into one: that of Qudsi back home and that of himself in exile.
Flying Lessons is so named because of a question two-year-old Qudsi asked his father when he dropped his family off at Charles De Gaulle for a trip back to Palestine. “Why don’t you travel with us to Jerusalem?” he asked. “I am learning how to fly!” the artist responded. The painter from Gaza still lives in Paris, waiting to fly home.