“Hungry for Home”: the voices of two Palestinian women artists – in conversation

Dubai-based Tabari Artspace features a collaborative exhibition of hyperrealist artist Samah Shihadi and New York best-seller author Ranya Tabari Idilbly.

Art Radar obtains an exclusive interview with the Palestinian artist and writer, on the occasion of their exhibition “Hungry for Home”.

Samah Shihadi, 'Untitled 3', 2016. Pencil on paper, 50 x 65 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Tabari Artspace.

Samah Shihadi, ‘Untitled’, 2016. Pencil on paper, 50 x 65 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Tabari Artspace.

In a tacit lapse of time, a lady on her knees toils away at what appears to be a generous feast. Detailed patterned garments surround her, a graceful display of generations of female tradition. There is a calm look of resolve in her eyes as her vindication is clear. She knows what she must do.

This is the possible depiction of the work of Palestinian artist Samah Shihadi, stemming from a series of powerful realistic charcoal and pencil drawings. This artwork, along with other compelling pieces from an enchanting collection, will be displayed in an exhibition in collaboration with well-known Palestinian author Ranya Tabari Idilbly. The exhibition, boldly titled “Hungry for Home”, opened at Tabari Artspace in Dubai on 27 November 2018 and showcases both the artist’s and the author’s work simultaneously, exploring how deeply rooted cultural codes can powerfully impact the body and the memory.  

Samah Shihadi, 'Lunch in nature', 2018, charcoal on paper, 150 x 210 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Tabari ArtSpace.

Samah Shihadi, ‘Lunch in nature’, 2018, charcoal on paper, 150 x 210 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Tabari ArtSpace.

Samah Shihadi, now an Israel-based artist, was born in 1987 and graduated with a BA in art from Oranim College, Israel in 2012 and a MFA from Haifa University, Israel in 2015. Shihadi began her career as an artist at an early age and, having spent seven years studying art, she became a keen draughtsman, which has gained her numerous awards and has allowed her to be exhibited consistently around the world. She now uses her hyperrealistic skills to capture touching and thought-provoking collective memories of lost identity and displacement.

Ranya Tabari Idilbly, a New York-based author, was born in 1965 in Kuwait to Palestinian parents. She graduated with a BS in International Relations from Georgetown University, USA  in 1987; a MS in International Relations from London School of Economics, UK also in 1987 and was a PHD candidate at the London School of Economics later in 1994. She is the co-author of The Faith Club published in 2006, a New York Times best-seller currently in its twelfth edition. She also wrote Burqas, Baseball, and Apple Pie: Being Muslim in America published in 2014.

Art Radar interviewed both women a few weeks prior to the exhibition’s opening. First talking with Samah Shihadi, we find out about the exhibition, the artist’s progress as an artist and the cultural, symbolic ties within her work. Talking with Ranya Tabari Idilbly, we find out more about her collaboration in the exhibition and her intercultural connections as a writer.

Samah Shihadi, 'Untitled 2', 2016, pencil on paper, 65 x 50 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Tabari ArtSpace.

Samah Shihadi, ‘Untitled 2’, 2016, pencil on paper, 65 x 50 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Tabari ArtSpace.

Samah, could you tell us what viewers can expect from the exhibition “Hungry for Home” held at Tabari ArtSpace?

There will be a display of about 18 pieces of artwork, varying in different sizes. Some are large and some are small. The main subject will be about food and its connection to our social tradition. Food is an integral part of our social heritage and tradition, where every occasion is accompanied by its own special dishes.

In the January 2018 Jerusalem Post, you mentioned that “Everyone is dealing with identity, but as Palestinians who don’t experience the occupation [being a professional artist] on a first-hand level; we have an opportunity to look at things from a different perspective.” Then what can you say has shaped you into being the artist that you are today?

Most Palestinian artists living under occupation are expected to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through their artistic work. Palestinian artists who live within Israel do not suffer directly from the occupation and therefore have the freedom to choose to deal with other issues that are not purely political.

Samah Shihadi, 'Untitled', 2018, charcoal and pencil on paper, 42.5 x 65 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Samah Shihadi, ‘Untitled’, 2018, charcoal and pencil on paper, 42.5 x 65 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Would you say that you have become an inspirational figure for other female artists in Israel or in the Arabic community today?

I do not know, maybe … Recently, I saw artworks similar to my style that I had produced years ago.

Many artists use a variety of colours, textures, shapes and symbols to express their ideas. However, you have concentrated particularly on pencil and charcoal. Why did you choose such mediums to depict your artistic thoughts?

During my studies, I experimented with all the materials in art. The pencil and charcoal materials are among the most important one I have felt. These are the materials that are most expressive to me.

The pencil has also accompanied me all my life. I remember I was drawing all the time with it as a hobby since I was a little girl, five (5) years old, up until high school. So, I grew up using it.

Although this exhibition exudes the themes of identity and Palestinian culture, there are other pieces of work that you did that show a deep underlying message between food and common items. Could you explain a bit about that?  

Sometimes fruits or vegetables are used as symbols in my artworks. For example, in the work of the apples on the scale, it symbolises that there is no justice between people, that is, man and woman, woman and woman or man and man. The fruit themselves, one that is bitten and the other which is whole, emphasise the contradiction on the heavy or light ‘weight’ of people in society. This speaks well on social, personal and political matters.  

What can you expect in the future for you as an artist? What creative approach do you wish to explore?

I want to become a well-known artist all over the world. So to achieve my dream, I work hard; go to the studio every day and work from 9-10 am until 7-8 pm. I do not know what will come after this exhibition. But I am always searching for new ideas. I’m always reading books and articles on the net, as well as visiting other exhibitions.

Ranya Tabari Idilbly. Image courtesy Tabari Artspace.

Ranya Tabari Idilbly. Image courtesy Tabari Artspace.

Ranya, having been exposed to Palestinian, Kuwaiti and American culture, and with an academic background in International Relations, you seemed like the ideal candidate to speak on all matters of interculturalism. Is this what lead you to writing?

I was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents exiled in 1948 from Tiberius and Ramleh. With the establishment of the state of Israel they would never be allowed to return home. In due time they would learn of the transience of the home in the life of refugees and the permanence of their transience as Palestinians. The most complicated question you could ask me when I was younger was, “ Where are you from?”, because of the reactions I have faced. Some have been challenging, especially in the west where I was often told, “but there is no such thing as Palestine.” Or on a more comical note, “you mean you’re form Pakistan?” The question of identity and home of culture and assimilation and patriotism have always plagued me even as a child. These became issues I could not ignore when I had to face them as a parent to two first generation American Muslim children of Palestinian and Syrian heritage in a post 9/11 world. Ultimately, my need to help my children navigate the challenges, stereotypes and politics of their identities led me to write. I needed to find my voice as their mother in order to help them find theirs.

In “Hungry for Home”, you will be partnering with Palestinian artist Samah Shihadi, displaying excerpts of your writings. How will that experience be like for you?

I met Samah first through her art when I took notice of her hyper detailed work at Art Dubai. When Maliha [the owner of Tabari Artspace] called, I was working on my manuscript Hungry for Home, which became the inspiration for Samah’s new exhibit. What is so interesting to me about this collaboration is how the three principals: Samah, Maliha and myself are all Palestinians who have had such radically different experiences. We have made homes in Israel, Dubai and New York. We have had to carve out identities as minorities in sometimes less than friendly environments. Our lives are a microcosm of the diversity of the Palestinian experience. Those who live in diaspora and those who are closer to home. However, no matter how radically different our physical homes have been, we are one and indistinguishable when it comes to hour emotional and cultural attachment to Palestine, our yearning hunger for home.

You once made a comment, “My family’s meals were often served in the shadow of loss.” Could you explain a bit about the role of food having an emphatic connection to human emotion and feelings?

We all know of Proust’s madeleine, we all have experienced the power of food to evoke. My father has been ill with dementia for some time. A disease that makes a person absent even as they are still present. I was overwhelmed with sadness at the changes in my father and was concerned that I would not remember him as he was. So I would close my eyes and visualise him. To my surprise I found that most of my memories, my most vivid and colorful of him at his prime, were around the table. There he was making hummus, or peeling a fig or sharing a bite. I will never be able to see a fig without thinking of my father. I will always be able to bring him back by making his famous hummus recipe that delivers a strong garlic punch.

Samah Shihadi, 'Untitled' (from the "anonymous" series), 2012, pencil on paper, 28 x 19 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Samah Shihadi, ‘Untitled’ (from the “anonymous” series), 2012, pencil on paper, 28 x 19 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

As a writer who has tackled sensitive topics of culture, displacement and faith, what struggles have you faced and what has inspired you to overcome them?

After 9/11, there were many friends of our similar background who packed and left. They could not take the pressure and pain of being in America at a time when people were suspicious of their culture and faith. I remember watching television at the time, listening to the so-called experts tell me how I needed to be saved from my religion and my culture. That’s when I hit the books. I started researching and reading and finding out answers for myself. That’s how I was able to find my voice. That’s when I started to write.

What would your message be to someone who will have to embrace two or more cultures simultaneously?

Many of us these days will have intercultural lives. Our connected and wired world demands a global existence. My advice is that we never forget where we came from but that we remain open to the diversity of the world. Let your new hyphenated identity hold its different components – culture, religion or nationalism – accountable to their higher ideals. Don’t vilify one and excuse the other. The world is a much more intimate place and our identities need to be fluid and open to growth.

What new projects can we expect of you in the coming year?

I am working on a cooking memoir, In The Palm of The Devil, which is a work that is evolving from the original manuscript Hungry for Home. It tells the story of how and why I started to cook.

Kenesha Julius

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