Written by Wafa Roz
Born in Birzeit, Palestine, in 1947, Sliman Mansour is a painter, sculptor, and cartoonist who played a pivotal role in shaping Palestinian modern art and in building an infrastructure for the arts in the West Bank. The fourth son in a family of six, Mansour lost his father at the age of four and moved to Bethlehem, where he studied and boarded at the Evangelical Lutheran School. Mansour showed a profound interest in art at an early age, mentored by Felix Theis, a German art teacher who introduced him to European art history. He enrolled at the Bezalel Art Academy in West Jerusalem in 1967, where he studied drawing and painting under Yossi Stern and Joseph Hirsch. One of the few Palestinians at Bezalel, Mansour earned his BFA in 1970, after which the artist co-founded the League of Palestinian Artists (1973). He was the head of the league from 1979 to 1982 and 1986 to 1990, and founded the Al Wasiti Art Center in Jerusalem in 1994, serving as director from 1995 to 1996. In addition to teaching at Al Quds University, he participated in the establishment of the Palestinian Association for Contemporary Art in 2004 and the International Academy of Art in 2006, both in Ramallah.
Mansour was born at the dawn of the Nakba, and as a young adult, he lived through the Naksa, which marks Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War and subsequent seizure of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. Between 1967 and 1970, he lived in East Jerusalem, which had been occupied during the war, while studying in West Jerusalem, already formally a part of the Israeli state. As a result, his work during this period related to his experiences of estrangement, distress, and oppression, expressed in an idealistic style that reflected triumph amidst melancholy.
During his early career, Mansour took on portrait commissions and built an oeuvre inspired by Christian icons he encountered at church with his grandfather, the priest Boulos Khoury. He used charcoal and pastel to express his disappointment following the Naksa, as seen in Torso or Reclining Nude (1968). Along with many of his contemporaries, Mansour focused on developing Palestinian national art throughout the 1970s and 1980s, working to promote and preserve the history and identity of his people. In conversation with the work of his predecessor, Ismail Shammout, and his contemporary, Nabil Anani, Mansour chose to show his homeland as a paradise lost, creating dreamlike, iconic works that later became part of the Palestinian visual vernacular.
His celebrated painting Jamal al Mahamel, or The Camel of Hardships (1973), portrays exile from within occupied Palestine: burdened by longing and loss, a fatigued old porter is shown carrying Jerusalem on his back from within an endless void. Mansour illustrated Jerusalem as a glowing, utopian city with meticulous architecture, the Dome of the Rock disproportionately large behind the porter’s head. This painting and many others by Mansour were reproduced as posters or postcards for ease of acquisition and circulation, serving the cause and preserving visual history. Reproduce their artworks in prints was especially crucial for the Palestinian artists at this time because there were virtually no permanent galleries or art centers in occupied Palestine until the mid-1990s.
Mansour choose not to represent the urbanization that took place in Occupied Palestine, instead prioritizing the nostalgia of pastoral landscapes. With oil or acrylic on canvas, he produced idealized scenes of Palestinian villages, harvesting, and peasantry to reflect on labor and group harmony. To preserve collective memory and celebrate the importance of steadfastness, he adopted symbols such as the dove of hope and key of return, as well as orange and olive groves suggestive of harmony before the Nakba and resilience after the Naksa, respectively. Resonating assurance and grace, a female figure wearing an embroidered thobe became the centerpiece of his paintings. She epitomized the motherland as caretaker and nation-builder, as seen in Carrying Jerusalem (1979) and The Village Awakens (1988).
In Bride of the Homeland (1976), the central female figure is not wearing traditional dress, nor does she radiate the pride and determination of Mansour’s other heroines. Instead, the somber composition shows her lying dead on the ground, blood pooling beneath her young head. This painting commemorates Lina Nabulsi, a teenage girl killed by Israeli forces in 1976, who Mansour honors as a martyr and “bride” of Palestine. He revisits this tragic theme in Lina’s 58th Birthday (2017), paying tribute to the life the young woman should have lived. The 1976 and 2017 compositions mirror each other, and in both iterations, Mansour’s wife served as the figure model.
Suleiman Mansour co-established Along with artists Nabil Anani, Vera Tamari, and Tayseer Barakat, the New Vision Movement in the 1990s. During the First Intifada (1987-1993), they boycotted Israeli art supplies utilizing local materials instead. Mansour created abstract paintings on slabs of mud and straw, a technique he learned from his maternal grandmother. Using the names of destroyed and depopulated Palestinian villages as titles and illustrating their shapes with natural dyes and henna, Mansour conveyed his idea of home by elevating indigenous craftsmanship to the level of fine art.
Drawing on ancient history, Mansour created works inspired by Canaanite, Sumerian, Islamic art, as well as Arabic calligraphy. He saw cracks in mud as a metaphor for the fragmentation of Palestine and produced related sculptural works and self-portraits in bas-relief. In his seminal installation I Ishmael (1996), which earned him the Grand Nile Prize at the 1998 Cairo Biennial, Mansour used cracked clay to shape a male figure onto a wooden panel. The work was reminiscent of ancient tombs and commemorated Ismail, son of Hagar, who, like Mansour, was doomed to exile.
By the turn of the millennium, Mansour’s utopic enthusiasm waned and was replaced by a more complex, muted aesthetic, which introduces elements of hopelessness and resignation in depictions of the homeland. The woman that once represented triumph and glory is soberly portrayed beside an olive tree with a cup of coffee in Quiet Morning (2009). Separation walls and military checkpoints appear in works such as Homeland, 2010, part of a recurring gray color scheme showing figures trapped in oppressive concrete.
Nevertheless, Mansour’s work continues to embody the hope and resilience at the heart of Palestinian resistance. The artist lives and works in Jerusalem.
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