All that is beautiful and painful – Mondoweiss
A version of this article first appeared in Arabic at the Institute for Palestine Studies. It has been translated by Basel Farraj, and republished with permission.
Out of their overcrowdedness and misery, and the injustices lived by their inhabitants, Abdul Rahman Katanani has managed to highlight with creativity and inspiration all that is beautiful and humane about the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, specifically in Shatila camp and the adjacent neighborhood of Sabra in the heart of Beirut.
Abdul Rahman Katanani, an artist who was born in Sabra and Shatila in 1983, began his artistic career in the camp’s alleys and neighborhoods. Katanani’s primary art materials were leftover or expired construction materials that represent the camp’s poor economic context. Katanani used these materials to represent an image that differs from the stereotypical conception of refugee camps. His art invites people to imagine, to dream of joy, anger, life, children’s toys, dancing, flowers, education, resistance, everyday difficulties, barbed wire, and other conceptions of life inside besieged spaces that are rejected, to an extent, from their neighborhoods, where expansion is prohibited.
Katanani does not express these images through painting, but through collecting and fashioning installations out of materials that make up the space of the camp, including barbed wires, rags of worn-out clothes, electric wires, damaged corrugated steel plates that cover the camp’s rooftops.
The metal plates have been, and remain, a central symbol of the Palestinian refugee camp, and hence became an important artistic component for Katanani’s work. Upon beginning to collect the refugee camp’s “garbage” and transforming it into artwork, he commented: “my friends in the camp asked if I had started working as a garbage collector; I was collecting steel plates from the camp in order to transform and construct them, so as to portray the camp and its inhabitants through these plates; but I was portraying the camps’ boys and girls, the elderly, the olive trees, the waves of the sea, the birds, and the gas tanks.”
In addition to corrugated steel, Katanani uses barbed wire as a primary art material to portray nature. He constructed a “wave” from a piece of wire extracted from the Lebanese-Palestinian border, meant to evoke the country’s coast that knows no borders that separate him from his ancestors’ homeland — particularly between him and Jaffa. It is the same wire that wraps itself around Palestine’s olive trees to protect them from the Israeli occupation’s bulldozers that seek to uproot them.
Katanani’s paternal and maternal family members were forced to leave their homes in Jaffa and Haifa, respectively, towards Lebanon. They lived underneath the refugee camp’s poor and overcrowded houses with steel plate roofs, the same camp where the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre took place in September 1982. Of course, Sabra and Shatila is not the only refugee camp in Lebanon, as 12 other camps were constructed following the Nakba, in addition to tens of other camps located in Syria, Jordan, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Refugees fled to these camps according to the cities from which they were expelled, or depending on the kinship ties that connected them to one another. The camp is therefore not only a place where people live, but a place that reflects its inhabitants’ cultural, social, and political identity, safeguarding their hope of returning to their original homes one day.
By writing this, I do not intend to offer an artistic critique or a sociological analysis of the Palestinian refugee camp. I am simply interested in the experience of the artist who tries to highlight all that is beautiful and painful about the camp, through works that have become well-known across the globe.
Katanani extracted light from the misery of the camp, one that narrates the lives of the camp residents — who not only dream of return, but of a dignified life despite the alley’s darkness. In doing so, he reorganizes his relationship with Palestine, strengthening it through its residents’ memories as captured by his artwork.
But Katanani’s art is not an identification with misery. It is a humble attempt to extract the camp from its context so that others can witness it, including those who cannot enter it, those who do not want to enter it, and those who fear it. His 2019 art exhibition in Beirut’s Salah Barakat Gallery, for example, used mirrors to reflect the camp’s alleys and its livelihood, and also the extent of the crime committed against the Palestinian people.
Yet he uses materials from the camp’s environment to also show the camp’s exceptional beauty, and therefore to take it out of its isolation. His work tells the world that a place exists where people had been living as refugees for over 75 years, reminding the world of the ongoing Nakba, and the atrocity committed against the Palestinian people.
Some might think that Katanani’s work does not escape the space of Sabra and Shatila, or other refugee camps, because his art discusses a location about which seemingly nobody cares. The reality, however, is different. The impact of his work has extended beyond the camp, reaching multiple global capitals and cities, featured in France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Malaysia, Brazil, the United States, and Arab capitals and cities.
Yet the biggest contradiction is that the place most deserving of Katanani’s work — Palestine and its cities — is a place he cannot enter.
Khaled Farraj is the Director General of the Institute for Palestine Studies.