Skip to Main Content
    Ground view of the National Gallery's glass pyramids looking towards the East Building

    Research Reports

    Nisa Ari
    Center 43

    Nisa Ari

    Before Palestinian Art: Creative Work and Welfare Politics, 1840–1936

    “Jerusalem at St. Saviour’s Painters’ Workshop—One friar teaches painting to a certain number of pupils, who are sent to the different Churches according to requirement,” in Album Missionis Terrae Sanctae Pars Prima: Judaea et Galilaea, Album of the Mission of Franciscans in the Holy Land, 1893

    During my second year as the Beinecke Postdoctoral Fellow, my research has focused on excavating the discourse of “welfare” that guided the development of artistic practices and art institutions in late 19th- and early 20th-century Palestine. As the central node of my book project, currently titled “Before Palestinian Art: Creative Work and Welfare Politics, 1840–1936,” that theorizes the origins of modern Palestinian art, I have been tracing how art and social welfare became intertwined in Palestine against a political backdrop in near constant transition, including the opening of the Holy Land to outside markets, the end of Ottoman rule, World War I, British colonial occupation (in the form of the British Mandate from 1920 to 1948), and the growth of Arab nationalism and Zionism. Palestinian artists in this period experimented with novel material technologies and media—from photographic prints to synthetic embroidery threads and pressed wildflowers—at a time when the arts came to be seen as both a productive industry contributing to socioeconomic welfare and a powerful tool in the struggle for political agency. Through this lens, my research critically reevaluates the work of canonical early 20th-century Palestinian artists such as Nicola Saig (1863–1942), Sophie Halaby (1906–1997), Zulfa al-Saʿdī (1910–1988), and Jamal Badran (1909–1999) as they interacted with Palestine’s new welfare institutions, including, among others, the Anglican House of Industry at Christ Church, the Zionist-sponsored Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, the British military government’s short-lived Pro-Jerusalem Society, and the Supreme Muslim Council’s First National Arab Exhibition. Interweaving Palestinian, Zionist, and British aspirations in the arts and crafts for the first time, I consider the collective impact of these efforts on Palestinian art and artists.

    As part of my effort this year to better understand the intersection between social welfare initiatives and Palestinian artistic developments, I mapped out a network of Christian emissaries who arrived in Palestine in the mid-19th century with the belief that the religious colonization of the Ottoman Holy Land could best be achieved by offering vocational training in the arts. Through this framework, artisanal crafts became conceived as products for Palestine, for sustaining the people and the holy place in which they lived. At the same time, Palestine saw a substantial rise in tourism due to the loosening of Ottoman laws on trade and travel and the parallel growth of a robust religious souvenir market predicated on the desire for products made in the Holy Land from local materials, objects valued for their sacred connection to the place. It is my contention that Palestinian artists such as Saig, Khalil Halaby (1889–1964), Bishara (1863–1934) and Yousef (1878–1964) Zoughbi, and some of the first Palestinian photographers—Garabed Krikorian (1847–1920), Khalil Raad (1854–1957), and Karimeh Abboud (1893–1940)—experimented with new forms of art, such as photo-based oil paintings and mother-of-pearl models of Palestine’s religious architectural icons, to navigate the dual demands of making art for and from Palestine, and not, as previous scholars have suggested, to primarily (or only) express a rising Palestinian nationalist sentiment.

    Arab Women’s Union of Ramallah: Group at work in the Ramallah work rooms of the A.W.U.R., c. 1934–1939. Photo: American Colony Photo Department, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-matpc-17778

    Understanding the role of social welfare initiatives in shaping Palestine’s cultural sector also helps recontextualize Jewish-led art initiatives that emerged during this period. The Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, for example, was the first purpose-built art school to open in Palestine in 1906 and would create a legacy as the birthplace for a Jewish (later, “Israeli”) national art. However, it first expressed its mission through the lens of welfare (“to improve the social and economic situation of the poor Jewish population Eretz Israel”) and was but one of several religious charitable institutions focusing on artisanal craft production. Similar to Christian- and Muslim-sponsored institutions supporting artistic production at the time, the Bezalel School consistently framed its efforts as being for the welfare of Palestine, even as ideas of what “Palestine” was and whose “welfare” these activities would ultimately benefit were in flux and differed according to each institution’s religious and political stance.

    In researching how the field of Palestinian (and also Israeli) modern art was embedded in and responsive to international welfare efforts in the post-Ottoman Middle East, I am finding a new way to narrate the origins of modern art in this region and offering a view on Palestinian art history that neither hinges solely on the nakba (the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the concomitant dispossession of Palestinians) nor relies on subsequent touchstones in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition, I hope this research will generate future scholarship that assesses the rise of modern art in the Middle East in light of the Ottoman Empire’s long collapse over the 19th century, rather than primarily in relation to histories of nationalism, colonialism, and postcolonialism in the 20th century. This topic formed the basis of an upper-level seminar I taught at Georgetown University in spring 2023, “Modernism and the Islamic World,” as part of my Center fellowship.

    Beinecke Postdoctoral Fellow, 2021–2023

    In fall 2023, Nisa Ari will join the faculty of Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Massachusetts, as associate professor of art history.