They say a picture is worth a thousand words. How very right they are.
Art reflects life, and life inspires art. For the Palestinian artists living in an occupied land, the powerful use of symbols is not only a way for them to express meaning and traditional heritage in their work, but it is also a necessary device to evade detection when creating provocative, revolutionary, and even illegal messages with their art.
After the Nakba (meaning ‘catastrophe’) in 1948, the rise of symbolism in Palestinian art took a prominent position in the work coming from the region. Gone were the religious symbols and beautiful imagery of the past. In their place were barbed wire, keys, prison bars, doves, watermelons, and more.
Palestinian artists were furiously rebelling against the occupation, expressing their pain, suffering, patriotism, and hope while using their art as a plea to the world for help and a unifying cry for their people to never lose sight of who they are. For too long, we haven’t listened and we haven’t heard what they have been desperately begging us to understand.
Savoir Flair has compiled a list of important symbols reflected in Palestinian art so that the next time you have the privilege of seeing a piece of work by a Palestinian artist, perhaps you will find it easier to hear their voice and understand their human experience. Perhaps a better understanding of their symbols will help educate the world of the suffering and longing that the Palestinian people have too long endured.
The watermelon has evolved into a symbol of resistance in occupied Palestine, reflecting its colors that resemble the Palestinian flag. In response to the Israeli government's ban on displaying the flag's colors, Palestinians subtly expressed their national pride through watermelon imagery, even turning the act of holding a slice into a form of protest. Over time, Palestinian artists have harnessed the fruit's symbolism, using it as a powerful motif in their artworks to convey the struggle against Israeli apartheid and showcase cultural pride.
The Jaffa Orange
Once Palestine’s largest export, Jaffa oranges symbolize the prosperity and wealth that their people once enjoyed. The lush, ripe oranges, bursting with color that you can almost taste, are used in art to symbolize an optimistic future for the people of Palestine when they return home. The faithful trees continue to fruit and flower as it is in their nature, signifying prosperity and abundance.
During the Nakba, many families kept the keys to their original homes they were forced to leave to symbolize that they would return. As such, the key became a prominent symbol for the Palestinian refugees as they waited for the day they were given the right to return home. Sometimes, a key is not the only symbol held in the hands of a figure in a work of art. Often, a key is in the hand to signify the waiting to return, while the rosary is held to mean the failing hope and a cigarette represents the distracted or lost refugee who has all but given up.
The cactus is an indigenous and sturdy plant that lives and thrives in harsh environments that no other plant could withstand. Since 1948, cacti have been a symbol of resistance for the Palestinian people and artists. It is a symbol expressing the strength of the Palestinian people to not only thrive and survive (despite all odds, like the prickly plant itself), but also to resist. But the word for cactus in Arabic – saber – is also the same as the word for patience. Therefore, the cactus takes on a multi-layer meaning of resistance and patience together.
The Olive Tree
Olive trees are extremely important to the Palestinian people. Much like the cactus, they are a hearty and resilient plant that can send deep roots into the earth and live for centuries. Family olive trees are passed down from generation to generation and tended and cared for by the same family for hundreds of years. In art worldwide, they have long been a symbol of peace, and this is no less true for the Palestinian artist. But it has become more than peace. It is a longing for peace and prosperity once again, a resistance to the occupation, and an unfaltering connection of the people to their homeland.
The Barbed Wire
For obvious reasons, barbed wire has been used heavily post-1948 in Palestinian art. Refugee camps are surrounded by barbed wire and uncrossable borders, barring entry for people in exile. A symbol of oppression, Palestinian artists use barbed wire to contain once beautiful images, like a mother nursing a baby, but with both wrapped tightly in barbed wire. The image is meant to be jarring and visceral. You can feel the spikes as they dig into what should be an image of peace, thereby warping it into something that screams pain, martyrdom, and suffering and perhaps inspires revolution.
The Dove is a universal symbol of peace. A gentle, white bird that flies freely through the skies, the dove has become the symbol of hope and freedom that the Palestinian people hold onto. Banksy famously painted an armored dove on the wall of Bethlehem, holding an olive branch with its wings outstretched as a red target was aimed at its chest. The haunting image uses Palestinian symbols of hope and peace yet contradicts them with the reality that should they attempt to fly above the wall to offer peace, they fly with a target aimed at their life source.
'Handala' is a cartoon character created by the political cartoonist Naji al-Ali. The image of Handala has been painted over and over on walls, paintings, murals, and tattoos, and it lives to this day as a profound symbol of defiance and identity for all Palestinians, long after al-Ali was assassinated in 1987. He is a ten-year-old child – because that was the age al-Ali was when he left his homeland – and will remain ten years old until he is allowed to return home, at which point he will begin to grow up.
Of Handala, al-Ali said: "I drew him as a child who is not beautiful; his hair is like the hair of a hedgehog who uses his thorns as a weapon. Handala is not a fat, happy, relaxed, or pampered child. He is barefooted like the refugee camp children… his hands are clasped behind his back as a sign of rejection at a time when solutions are presented to us the American way... He was the arrow of the compass, pointing steadily towards Palestine."
Al-Ali would be 85 years old today had he lived. Handala is still 10 years old.