Mustafa al-Hallaj (1938-2003) was a Palestinian artist, a pioneer of Arab contemporary art, and a true icon when it comes to graphic arts in general. After the 1948 war, Hallaj’s family moved to Damascus, and he spent most of his life in between Syria and Lebanon. He lost 25,000 of his prints in Israeli attacks on Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon war but managed to save the wood and masonry cuts he used to make them. In 2003, Al-Hallaj successfully rescued his famous work Self-portrait as Man, God, the Devil from an electrical fire in his home studio, but died after running in to save other works. He was buried in Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.
Tex Kerschen describes Self-Portrait as Man, God, the Devil as a master work of fantastic and folkloric imagery:
“Mustafa Al Hallaj’s masonite-cut print Self-portrait as Man, God, the Devil is a fable in which he cast himself as man, god and devil, released from the boundaries of political regimes. It is a master work, a continuum of fantastic and folkloric imagery that spans ancient and modern times. He juxtaposes a vast and often idiosyncratic menagerie of symbols —bulls, camel men, birds, lizard-like creatures and fish, with fantastic landscapes and episodes of ancient and modern Palestinian life. The animal hybrids of Hallaj are remniscient of Hieronymous Bosch. It reads cinematically, frame by frame, and is over 100 yards long. It is intricate, outlandish, and epic, full of figures from ancient mythology– bulls, birds, fish, and hybrids. Scenes from Al Nakba and the universal history of human oppression, such as mass hangings and forced marches, spill into representations that draw from his extensive erudition and his own syncretic imagination.”
Hallaj was a founding member of the trade union committee of the General Union of Palestinian Writers and Journalists and helped establish an art gallery in Damascus dedicated to Naji al-Ali, famous Palestinian cartoonist (Handala, the Palestinian defiance symbol, is one of Ali’s most famous characters).
Remembering the first encounter with al-Hallaj in the article for Jadaliyya, Samia Hallaby writes:
“We ran into Mustafa one afternoon on Hamra Street, and he invited us to drop in later that evening to his tiny, humble abode. After several artists had arrived, Mustafa went out to bring food, alcohol, and cigarettes; as he was the exquisite master of ceremonies, the salon began when he returned. My impressions from our brief visit are confirmed by artist Samir Salameh, who lived and worked in Beirut from 1972 through 1979. He describes Mustafa’s Hamra Street studio as an open salon where artists congregated, and where food, drink, and conversation were enjoyed. Salameh remembers that ‘All the artists felt tied to the cause . . . We talked about sincerity in art and a commitment to our subject matter . . . If an artist was concerned with politics and did poor work we would help him improve . . . Many of us liked Picasso and felt he was the master of modern art. We always talked about Diego Rivera and the Mexicans . . . We loved the Futurists and the Cubists.’ Throughout the revolutionary artistic and intellectual flowering in Beirut of the 1970s, Palestinian liberation artists engaged in a spirited dialogue on aesthetics; and Mustafa was at its inspired center.”
In the interviews, al-Hallaj talked about the symbols in his artworks saying: “I get my symbols from literature. I made a reading plan for myself in 1952 and I am still on schedule. I read everything but I concentrate on literature and folklore of the world, with the guideline that one of the mind’s eyes is a telescope and the other a microscope.”
His artworks and all the details they carry within them, serve as notes and reminders, as mirrors and reflections – of Palestinian history, Palestinian struggles, and Palestinian life throughout time. It was his revolution, his great act against oblivion and that is why Hallaj’s contribution to the art of resistance remains indispensable. As Samia Halaby writes:
“‘As one peruses the print, each part is called forth by the previous image,’ he affirmed. In one section is a figure bent at right angles from the waist, holding up a graveyard on his back. A bird that the artist called a ‘Hodhod,’ the Afro-Eurasian Hoopoe or ‘Stink bird,’ precedes the man. Because the bird has a smelly bump on its head, according to Mustafa, in folktales it is said that it carries its dead mother buried in its head. About the man in this particular section of his frieze he revealed:
‘Our friends when they die are buried in us . . . Their bodies go to the graveyard but their personalities stay with us. We Palestinian artists are an orchestra. We are one choir… We have many friends and many died. We are a walking graveyard of these personalities who left.’
Mustafa was honoring lost comrades in struggle as he poured decades of his experiences into this work.“
For more on Mustafa al-Hallaj, read the full article by Samia Hallaby on Jadaliyya.
//all the images © the artist’s estate. I found them on Mustafa al-Hallaj facebook page//