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Bashir Makhoul

Born, 1963 in Galilee, Israel

Artist Bashir Makhoul, a Palestinian, was born in Galilee, Israel, in 1963. One of his most substantial exhibitions in the United Kingdom was Al-Hejara, which contained an impressive body of work utilising a diverse range of motifs, drawn from the artist’s identity and background.

Within this exhibition, the viewer recognised instantly the familiar colours of many of the Arab Gulf State flags (red, green, black and white). Al-Hejara audiences also saw the consistent and extensive use of visual devices derived from Islamic design and calligraphy.

Perhaps Makhoul’s most polemical or didactic works were his 1990 canvases, including Al-Hejara and Atfal. These paintings consist of seemingly eclectic geometric formations of the Pan-Arab colours of red, green, black and white. But what may appear to us as being simply abstracted shapes and colours are, in Makhoul’s native environment, profoundly politicised works. Because within Israel, the use of these colours is said to be regarded as an almost seditious act. The Israeli authorities view the colours as representing the Palestinian flag and, by immediate implication, the Palestinian struggle; and all other meanings and readings are evacuated from this colour combination. Yet the use of such colours within an art gallery context appears no less charged.

Similarly, a piece such as Zigzag, 1992, shows us that Makhoul’s art constantly plays out, and references, his understandings of what forces have shaped, and continue to shape, his native environment. The influence of Islamic design and calligraphy is never absent from Makhoul’s work, and many of his canvases adjust and interfere with regimented symmetry. So, in the case of Zigzag, a six-pointed Shield of David is instantly apparent within the upper left corner of the canvas. Across the canvas, however, Makhoul interferes with the star, elongating and distorting it one moment, then compressing it back into a reluctant and awkward formality the next moment. By employing this device, Makhoul’s treatment of the star carries with it profound and awesome readings. And yet Makhoul stays one step ahead: because the star motifs in Zigzag are displaced by the decisive placing of something that looks remarkably like the famous international symbol of the Shell oil company. And so Zigzag takes on a whole new set of readings.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Makhoul created a haunting and melancholy installation, which largely consists of enlarged reproductions of old, Islamic coinage and numerous clay vessels, such as those commonly found in domestic use throughout the Arab world, systematically cut in two down the middle. But despite this dissection, the pots refused to yield their secrets, leaving the viewer frustrated. The pots show only that notions of memory, identity, history, belonging and loss are indeed elusive and vexing concerns.

Curiously, perhaps, given the broad scope of the readings available to us within Makhoul’s work, his work has a refreshing clarity and sense of purpose. Within the Al-Hejara catalogue Makhoul himself made some interesting statements. In one such statement, he alluded to the marginalised status of Palestinian artists within Israel, although he was not tempted to draw parallels with the make-up and condition of marginalised artists within Britain.