Resistance Through Art: An Interview with Palestinian Artist Rehab Nazzal


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// Tala Al-Ramahi

Resistance. Opposition. Struggle.

These are feelings that are all too familiar to people of oppressed populations. Often, these feelings can erupt in violence. That’s not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in ways to take these feelings and funnel them into other outlets. Art is one that stands out: it offers a meaningful way for oppressed populations to express their frustrations, their cultural history, and their collective anxieties.

I spoke to contemporary artist Rehab Nazzal, who displayed her exhibition titled Choreographies of Resistance at McIntosh Gallery over the summer. We talked about the difficulties and benefits of political art, particularly within the context of Palestinian resistance and the volatility surrounding the subject.


In your own words, what do you do and what is the subject of your work?

I mainly work art connected to decolonization and reclamation of history. My major focus is the Palestinian struggle for freedom, dignity, and rights. That is why I often face attacks and attempts to silence me. Every exhibition I had in this country, I faced opposition, many of which I dealt with openly because I believe in debate, so let’s debate. I respect the diversity of opinions that reflect the diversity of the society we live in. It reached an unprecedented level in 2014 when the Israeli ambassador to Canada Raphael Barak attacked my exhibition Invisible and along with Zionist pressure groups attempted to censor the show.

Have you faced similar opposition to displaying your work at Western?

Yes, this time Zionist pressure groups attacked the exhibition. They had nothing to say about the merit of the artwork.

Is it your identity as a Palestinian artist that breeds opposition?

I would certainly not be targeted if I was a Palestinian artist making art about flowers and trees. It is the subject of my artwork that cause hostility. My work deals with the suppressed narratives of Israel’s human rights violations and its non-compliance with international law. In desperate attempts to prevent Canadians from seeing my artworks, pressure groups level at me accusations of glorifying “terrorism”. That is not surprising, settler-colonial oppression anywhere is similar: denial of the rights of indigenous people to exist and to resist is manifested throughout the New World, which was built on the suffering of the native people including here in Canada.

Has this opposition ever made you doubt your work, or think “maybe I shouldn’t go forward”?

Never. I actually become more determined after each attack. My work is about who I am and about my experience. No one has the right to silence me.  

What inspired you to switch to political art?

I left Palestine in the 1980s to pursue my university education. When I finished I was denied my right to return to my home and family. After 20 years in exile, I visited my country with a visa, like a foreigner. When I walked through the country… the shock was indescribable. The change that I witnessed in the community: segregation, tormented landscapes, illegal colonies, checkpoints, military zones. That visit made me decide to leave the bubble of my studio where I used to work with painting and drawing. I turned to media art: photography, video and sound. Media art is less subjective, more effective, and more socially engaging.

What is the main message you’re trying to show through your art?

Choreographies of Resistance is the result of a year-long research trip in Palestine. While I was there it happened that a third uprising erupted. The daily scenes of unarmed civilians facing heavily armed soldiers were shocking but the resilience of the Palestinian people was inspiring too. Symbols of resistance, the youth message: “We’re here. We resist your occupation and colonization, and we will continue our resistance”.  It was amazing and terrifying at the same time. Two people lost their lives in front of me. I myself was shot intentionally, in the leg, by an Israeli sniper. What if the sniper was aimed at my heart? Suppression and dehumanization of the Palestinians by the occupying forces is hard to imagine. Protesters throw stones at the soldiers; rarely reaching them, and the soldiers shoot to kill.

Yeah. There’s kind of a preconception, I guess, that art isn’t really a brave or true form of resistance. That isn’t true though is it?

Well, the cultural field is so significant in resistance to oppression anywhere. In the Palestinian struggle, art played a great role in the resistance to colonization. For example: music. When I was there, when someone would be killed, within a few days a song would appear in his name. It just pierces your body, how effective. Socially engaged art is committed to social justice and human rights. And this is universal. If you are against Israel’s settler-colonialism, you are against any form of colonialism, oppression, exploitation, and discrimination including Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

When I think of the Palestinian resistance, I think of so many artists. In a way, they keep hope alive amongst the people.

Exactly.  You identify any society through their culture. Art resists obliteration. Poetry, literature, music, visual arts, all of those expressions defy suppression and persist in history, beyond human mortality.

On the opposite side, have you received any responses of support that have reaffirmed your dedication?

Of course. It’s tremendous. The support from across the country was amazing, because every artist and activist themselves felt insulted by such interference and attempt to censor an art form. When there’s an attempt to limit the freedom of expression, it’s not a threat to me only- it’s everyone. So the artist community and the activists mobilized across the country. During Choreographies of Resistance there was pressure on Western University to shut down the exhibition but the exhibition continued as planned. There was nothing they could do.

It leaves a powerful impact, this type of art. Political art.

I believe so. “Thank you for your art” and “thank you for informing us” are responses I often receive. Simply put, now the Palestinian narrative is emerging. I don’t want to say dominating, because there are so many obstacles, but it’s emerging and forcing its presence.

Do you think your work, or work like it, will ever be something you’d see in the mainstream?

It never ever would be a concern for me. I’m not aiming for the mainstream. Our institutions are corrupt anyways. Many mainstream art institutions are either tied up to the governing powers or to private donors, dictating their politics and ideology. I don’t care. I’m making art for the people about the people.

Is there anything you would say to someone who doesn’t believe in art as a form of resistance?

Simple advice: see the art. Experience it. Don’t judge it without seeing its effect. Everyone is entitled to think what they want, as long as they are informed.

Alternatively, do you have any advice for someone who would want to create resistance art?

My advice: be authentic. Start with your own space, represent your experiences. Don’t fear judgment of any form.  Educate yourself, see and research political art.


You can see more of Rehab’s work in a group exhibition titled Silence Pressure Noise, at Western’s McIntosh Gallery. It runs from November 10, 2017 – January 13, 2018.

* The interview has been edited and condensed to fit spatial restrictions

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