Written by Alessandra Amin
Laila Shawa was born in 1940 to a wealthy Gaza family. As a child, she was curious about art, but per her own description, her career as an artist started with a happy coincidence. In the mid-1950s, she was enrolled in the American University of Cairo as a student of political science and sociology when she had tea with her father and a family friend. When he found out that Shawa was not enjoying her studies, the friend, an architect, expressed confusion as to why she wasn’t studying art, given her exceptional drawing skills. He suggested she enroll at the Leonardo Da Vinci School of Art in Cairo, where he was a professor; her father agreed, and the rest is history.
Following a year at Leonardo Da Vinci, Shawa transferred to the School of Fine Arts in Rome, where she earned a BA with honors in 1960. From 1960 to 1964, she remained in Rome to study at the Scuola di Arti Ornamentali San Giacomo, where she earned a degree in plastic and decorative arts. During this time, she traveled to Salzburg for summer courses with the Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka. Following her graduation, she returned to Gaza, where from 1965 to 1967, she served as a supervisor for the UNRWA arts and crafts education division. She was also a lecturer with the UNESCO Institute of Education during this time. In 1968, she moved to Beirut, where she lived as a full-time artist until the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. For the next twelve years, Shawa lived between London and Gaza, dedicating the bulk of her time to the design of the Rashad Shawa Cultural Center in Gaza, named after her father. The cultural center bore stained-glass windows that Shawa herself designed, and was intended to house art exhibitions and theatrical productions. The artist dreamed of expanding the center to house an arts college and a museum of contemporary Palestinian art, but unfortunately, the project did not go as planned. Occupied by Arafat for a time, the building was bombed during multiple Israeli assaults on Gaza and has been requisitioned by Hamas in recent years; tragically, it has never fulfilled its intended purpose. Though she has lost the “great and misplaced optimism” with which she began the project, Shawa still hopes to one day return to Gaza and restore the building as the arts hub it was destined to be.
Throughout her career, Laila Shawa has experimented with a wide variety of materials, boasting an oeuvre consisting of everything from oil paintings to fashion mannequins covered in intricately arranged plastic rhinestones. Though her corpus of work is diverse, two factors are consistent through time and across media: color and commitment. Shawa’s painting, photography, and sculpture practices are all characterized by the use of bright, vibrant colors, whose jovial connotations often clash with the subject matter of the work. This stark juxtaposition is perhaps most evident in AKA Peace (2012), a decommissioned Kalashnikov machine gun (AK-47) that Shawa covered in gold paint, glittering rhinestones and Day-Glo plastic butterflies. AKA Peace is indicative of her work’s other unifying factor, which is a commitment to social and political engagement. Among her most famous works, for example, is the satirical Impossible Dream series (1987-88), which comprises characteristically colorful paintings of women in niqab holding ice cream cones in front of their veiled faces. The women are presented with a “catch-22”; they can eat the ice cream or keep their faces covered, but they cannot do both.
This work speaks to Shawa’s longstanding stance on the veil, to which the Muslim artist is staunchly opposed. Like many Muslim feminists of her generation, Shawa argues that the practice of veiling has no real basis in religion and is instead a social phenomenon designed to control and subdue the so-called “weaker sex.” The need to oppress women, Shawa says, stems from the insecurity of Arab men who have “lost control of their lives due to Western hegemony and complicit and corrupt dictatorships in their various forms.” The Impossible Dream was inspired by the specific circumstances of the First Intifada in Gaza, during which women played a pivotal role. Shawa attributes the widespread veiling of women during this period to the wounded pride of men, who were threatened by the newfound political agency of their wives and daughters. Nevertheless, Shawa insists that her paintings are not meant to critique men, but rather address women who “accept their fate” as second-class citizens. “My critique is more of the women themselves,” Shawa states, and “their complicity in reducing their status to an invisible state, while at the same time yearning silently for the freedom Western women seem to enjoy… the message [of The Impossible Dream] is that they should give themselves more value and certainly more respect.”
Laila Shawa currently lives and works between London, UK, and Vermont, USA.
Samina Ali, “The Political is Personal: An Interview with Palestinian Artist Laila Shawa,” Muslima online, http://muslima.globalfundforwomen.org/content/political-personal
“Laila Shawa,” October Gallery website, http://www.octobergallery.co.uk/artists/shawa/index.shtml
Helen Khal, The Woman Artist in Lebanon,Catholic Press, Lebanon, 1987
Wijdan Ali, Contemporary Art from the Islamic World, Scorpion Books, London, UK, 1988 Shammout, Ismail. Art in Palestine, AI Qabbas Press, Kuwait 1989
Laila Shawa, Works 1965- 1994 AI-Hani Books, 1994
Forces of Change, Artists of the Arab World, Washington D.C., USA, 1994
Bahnasi, Dr. Afif, Pioneers of Modern Art in the Arab Countries,Dar Al-Raed Al-Arabi, Beirut. Shawa and Wijdan, October Gallery,1994, Amica Press.
The Right to Hope,Earthscan Publications Ltd., 1996, London
Impressions,H. Aschehoug & Co., 1996, Norway.
The Right to Write,Agnes Scott College, Atlanta, USA.
Artistes Palestiniens Contemporains,Institute Du Monde Arabe, 1997, Paris, France.
The Space Between Our Footsteps,Simon & Schuster, 1998.
Dialogue of the Present,Woman’s Art Library, 1999.
Mediterranea,Art Life 1998, Brussels, Belgium.
Twelve Arab Artists,The Werled Museum, 2001, Netherlands.
Between Legend and Reality, Aurora Art Museum, Reykjavik Art Museum Iceland 2002.
From the Ocean to the Gulf and Beyond: Arab Modern Art, The Royal Society of Fine Arts, 2002, Amman, Jordan.
Breaking the Veil,The Jordan National Gallery and FAM, 2002 Rhodes, Greece.
Word into Art, The British Museum 2006/.2008
Meditarraneo, A Sea that Unites,The Italian Cultural Institute, London 2008.
Sarab,DIFC, Dubai 2008.
Impossible Dreams: the Qork and Art of Laila Shawa,SkIRA Books, Milano, 2009
Contemporary Art in The Middle East, ArtWorld, Black Dog Publishing, London, UK, 2009.