An exclusive interview conducted via email correspondence (translated from Arabic to English by Nada Audii*)
DANNA: At what moment in your life did you first know you were meant to become an artist?
MJ: My artistic beginnings were vague because my childhood was connected with the first Intifada. In that period selfish worries were almost absent, while group worries were so strong. During that time I wrote quite a bit but hid my work away in my school bag until the Peace treaty of 1993, when I began to consider my own dreams. I continued writing but also began experimenting with drawing. In school we never drew. Art period was just a waste of time for us. I graduated from Al Najah University in Nablus with a degree in History and by absolute chance discovered that there was a Fine Arts degree program at Naples University. I quit History and began to study art.
DANNA: What is it like to be an artist in Ramallah on the West Bank and how has your home influenced your work?
MJ: It was not easy to prove myself in the West Bank. People were always busy with politics and the Occupation and it wasn’t easy to convince them that art is important in their lives.
DANNA: I was first drawn to your work when I came across your series “As Once Was Known,” including one striking painting of a tall, thin Palestinian man with his face wrapped in a kheffiyah (traditional Palestinian scarf), reading a book. What went through your mind when you created this series and how do you hope they might change people’s perceptions of the Palestinian freedom fighter?
MJ: In the first Intifada, the sight of the scarf worn as a mask was a daily scene that people watched. It represented a social law that the people respected. Palestinians hid their faces fearing that the Israeli troops will arrest them, so it became a symbol and a mythology of resistance.
The project “The Wanted ” began in 2009, the first work being “Stone.” it is a study about the political transformation that the Oslo treaty created. I wore the keffiyeh on my face and went to the streets, as a performance to see what people think about it. The audience came up with different explanations—some of them thought I was on Candid Camera, others thought I had been arrested and questioned.
At the end of the performance I distributed 250 stones to the public.
DANNA: How did the audience respond when you handed out the stones?
MJ: They responded in three different ways:
1) I don’t know what this means
2) I will keep the stone as a memory
3) I will throw the stone at the Israelis
Their reaction taught me that Oslo didn’t change anything, it didn’t stop resistance and it didn’t create peace.
DANNA: In 2012 you brought “Stone” to the German cities of Berlin and Cologne. Why did you choose Germany and how did the European audience interpret the meaning of the performance?
MJ: I chose Germany because aspects of the situation with Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall were so similar to the Separation Wall we experience in the West Bank. I sourced real stones from WWII and distributed them to the audiences and facilitated many talks about the meaning of the mask.
I discovered that across cultures and experiences, the masked man is a symbol of an ordinary man, a human being with emotions who sleeps, plays cards, and reads just like any other person. I try to represent this man as someone who has sacrificed so much but is depressed and has no real role now. His efforts did not produce the government of his ideals.
The project is ongoing, and now I am preparing an exhibition of the masked, involving 300 participants who will represent this work in the streets. My problem at the moment is securing the funding required for four cameras, photographers, and renting space.
DANNA: Tell me about Intajiah, your new project in Bethlehem
MJ: I returned to Bethlehem to found Intajiah, a fashion design line that will be the first to introduce traditional Palestinian embroidery to young men’s fashion, as until now it has only been found on ladies’ clothing. Ultimately the project will expand to the rest of the region. I dream of establishing a permanent space in Bethlehem for local and international artists to meet and work, that would make my city a major arts destination.
You can learn more about Monther Jawabreh here.
Image Credits: All images provided courtesy of the artist Monther Jawabreh
*A Special Note of Gratitude: This interview was translated from Arabic to English courtesy of Danna Writes reader Nada Audii. Special thanks go to Nada for supporting Palestinian art by making Monther’s profound message accessible to a wider audience with your translation skills!