The Exodus and the Odyssey - a Summary



For most of their adult life, Ismail Shammout together with his wife and lifelong partner Tamam, have produced hundreds of paintings and drawings and staged numerous exhibitions locally and abroad. They wrote books and pamphlets, held art educational classes and dedicated themselves, almost exclusively, to the pursuit of art. From the beginning of their productive life and up to this day, the overriding theme of their work has been Palestine – the people, the land, and the drama. In brush and color, they vividly related and portrayed the story of the Palestinian people; their tragedy; their painful struggle for existence; their dreams and their aspirations.

In an endeavor, which may constitute the crowning of their rich and eventful careers, Ismail and Tamam have embarked on a major project. For the last four years they have been producing numerous wall-sized paintings – murals if you like – albeit on framed canvas, relating once again the Palestinian drama, from exodus and destitution to reconstruction, struggle and reassertion of right. When completed and hopefully housed in a fitting home these murals will demonstrate a graphic record, impressive and poignant, of the Palestinian saga, as witnessed and personally endured by the Artists themselves.

Theirs was no exercise in the abstract. They had the distinction of being unsolicited players in the drama. A dubious distinction perhaps, but one which rendered them able to impart a sense of realism in their work. No models were needed to draw the terrified throngs in the infamous "To the Unknown" as the painter was physically one of those forced into exile. The Artist was his own model. No overlooking vista was required to scan the cramped and inhuman concentrations of refugees in their "Palestinians … Refugees" since the Shammouts, children and adults alike, were part of that pitiful landscape. All the painters needed was to unfold the wraps of their own memory and the images would come readily alive, their colors and hues indelibly engrained, their lines and shadows forever etched.

Ismail’s path to his present standing as a pioneer Palestinian artist was not flower strewn. As soon as he realized that his "temporary" exodus was developing into a permanent and cruel reality, he went to work. To help sustain his family, Ismail took up a daytime job as a teacher in a makeshift UNRWA school and sold home made sweets in the afternoon. Throughout this period however, Ismail held tight to his dream of becoming a noted painter, a dream which he later fulfilled and which would provide the theme for the mural "The Nightmare and the Dream".

  Other murals depict the various episodes of the Palestinian epic story. " For Survival" portrays the movement to the Gulf countries in quest of jobs. In "Life Prevails" we witness the Palestinian community’s attachment to their heritage. The popular uprising against the Israeli occupier is the subject of "Intifada" while "Homage to the Martyrs" stands as a powerful reminder of carnages perpetrated by the Israelis against defenseless refugee masses.

This huge undertaking, as in all other Shammout works, is the product of a joint effort. Tamam Al-Akhal Shammout, an established painter in her own right, has made several valuable contributions to the collection. Her images place more emphasis on the brighter sides of her countrymen life, their popular locales, their folklore and ritual festivities. A native of Jaffa, "Jaffa the Bride of the sea" figures prominently in her work. Her portrayal of her ancestral home, the produce markets, the wedding caravans, the union between sea and town, serve to resurrect to the posterity the pleasant images denied to them in true life. And while Ismail’s paintings generate serene responses and powerful emotions, Tamam’s works invite strong yearnings and nostalgic feelings.

Not that Tamam lacked the horrific experiences and brutal uprooting suffered by her husband. For while Ismail was enduring thirst and fatigue in his trek to the east, Tamam was braving the rough seas in her westward trip to the unknown – an ordeal vividly expressed in her mural "Uprooting". The heart rending agony of family separation was brilliantly mirrored in her mural "The Divide" showing a bride and her groom exchanging nuptial vows across a steel mesh barrier dividing their ancestral village. She laments in "Don’t Forsake the Steed" the sorry fate of the white steed, the symbol of Arab bravado and ambition as it is reined and subdued in painful despair. Subsequently the steed becomes her signature.

Ismail and Tamam may have adopted different routes in their style and approach to this topic or that theme. However, they both remain ensconced under the common umbrella of the Palestinian drama, thus rendering their varying works all the more complemental, all the more unified.

Ismail and Tamam, having brought this monumental task to fruition, should be congratulated and applauded. We, the Palestinians, must however feel hugely indebted and amply rewarded by this work, which stands as a fitting legacy to a remarkable couple.

Abdul - Qader Daher