Laila Shawa: Still Shaking People Up: Lawrence Joffe Talks to the Palestine-Born Artist Whose Work Forms Part of the British Museums Collection, Laila Shawa. (Mosaic)
Joffe, Lawrence, The Middle East
Born the daughter of a wealthy family in Gaza, Laila Shawa was eight years old when the state of Israel was declared. Gaza's population quadrupled virtually overnight. Cramped refugee camps were established which eventually became permanent fixtures. Farmers lost access to grazing lands in the Negev. Gaza's new Egyptian rulers imposed martial law, and deposed Laila's Cambridge-educated uncle as mayor. Her father, Rashad, an active nationalist and former deputy high commissioner for Haifa, was jailed for `high treason' because of his ties with Jordan, while Egypt's President Nasser exacerbated tensions between the pre-1948 elite and the impoverished masses.
Now based in London, Laila Shawa is one of only a few Arab artists to successfully break through barriers in the West, according to Dr Venetia Porter, curator for the Oriental Department of the British Museum, who has purchased several of Laila's creations for the museum's collection. "Good art should really shake people up. When I first saw Laila's work, it jumped straight out at me", she says.
Young and rebellious, Laila strove to find her own path. Six weeks after enrolling to study philosophy and sociology at the American University of Cairo, she returned home disconsolate and disillusioned. Luckily, she found an advocate in Victor Delborgo, an Egyptian of Italian Jewish extraction, an architect and close family friend. He had noticed Laila's creative talent, and strongly recommended to her father that she study at the Leonardo da Vinci School of Art, in Cairo.
It was an unusual choice for a girl raised in a traditional Muslim society. But her father was persuaded, and in 1957 Laila began her new life. "I had a ball", she recalls. "I loved the teachers and enjoyed being with such a variety of people from different nationalities: Swiss, Italian, Greek and Egyptian."
After a year she transferred to the Academia de Belle Arte in Rome, in 1958. For six years she studied under Renato Guttuso, gaining a BA with honours in fine arts, and a further Diploma in Plastic and Decorative Arts from the Academia St Giacomo. Between 1960 and 1963 she also frequently travelled to Salzburg, Austria, where she collaborated with the famously fiery Expressionist, Oskar Kokoschka.
At the time Laila fell under the spell of the western idiom. Her hero was the 16th century Flemish master, Pieter Breughel. "He knew how to depict the human condition within the dimensions of the universe. And, while he was critical of people, he always maintained a sense of humour", says Laila. In time Laila would put her burgeoning artistic career on hold to render service to those less fortunate. Between 1965 and 1967 she worked as a supervisor for arts and crafts in UNRWA refugee schools. For another year she instructed art teachers at the UNESCO Institute of Education
Returning to Gaza in 1965, she began to incorporate indigenous elements into her work. Passionate abstractions gave way to a more narrative style. She held her first solo exhibition at Marna House in Gaza, and visited Jerusalem, which left a great impact. "The walls and architecture of the Old City have influenced my work ever since. For years, I painted nothing but cityscapes. I am fascinated by form, and what people leave behind as a sign of their presence."
In early 1967 she left Gaza and UNRWA to set up anew in Beirut, her mother's birthplace. She revelled in the city's cosmopolitan atmosphere, enjoyed four solo exhibitions, and found work as an illustrator of children's books. But another great change was just around the corner. Over six days in June, Israel conquered the Sinai Desert, Golan Heights, West Bank and Gaza Strip.
For Palestinians, defeat came as a second nakba (catastrophe). Paradoxically, though, occupation allowed West Bankers and Gazans to revisit their lost land. Says Laila: "I had no real recollection of physical Palestine. It was a shock going back to a place that you have only heard of. …