Jumana El Husseini was a painter and sculptor who dedicated most of her career to painting Jerusalem, the city of her birth, from which her family was exiled in 1947.
Jumana El Husseini
Jumana El Husseini was born in Jerusalem on April 2, 1932, to Jamal El Husseini and Nimati al-Alami, members of two prominent Jerusalem families. On her father’s side, her links to Jerusalem extended back to at least the 13th century. She had six brothers and five sisters, including Serene Husseini Shahid, and they grew up in their grandfather’s home, the first house built outside the Old City of Jerusalem, in the Musrara neighborhood, about a 20-minutes walk uphill from the Damascus Gate.1
El Husseini attended the Friends Girls’ School, a Quaker school in Ramallah.2 She continued her education in Lebanon, which became her home after the 1948 War for more than three decades. When she made art her life focus, she used various media—oils, watercolors mixed with sand, ceramics, sculpture—to explore her memories of her birth city, which had become largely inaccessible to her.
War, the Loss of Jerusalem, and Exile in Lebanon
The struggle to defend Palestine from Zionist and British colonization, which escalated dramatically throughout the 1930s and 1940s, was not an abstraction for young El Husseini. Her father was a prominent figure in the Palestinian national movement, which put him in the crosshairs of British Mandate authorities. He was imprisoned by the British twice, first in Acre in 1933 and again in Rhodesia from 1942 to 1946.3 Many of her immediate relatives were also Palestinian political leaders and as such were targeted by the authorities in similar ways. These and other political events and upheavals had profound effects on El Husseini and her family.
Witnessing her father’s tumultuous political career and the destruction of her and her family’s life in Jerusalem, it is small wonder that Jerusalem remained indelibly imprinted in her memory following her and her family’s exile from their city.
In 1947, El Husseini went to visit her married sister in Lebanon, and what was intended as a short visit soon turned into a protracted stay. The outbreak of the 1948 War made it impossible for her and her family to return to Jerusalem,4 like tens of thousands of others. She remained in Lebanon, and when in 1950 she married Orfan Bayazid, she made Lebanon her second home. The couple had three sons.
An Artist in Lebanon, Reclaiming Jerusalem
In 1953, El Husseini enrolled in Beirut College for Women (today’s Lebanese American University) and studied political science for three years; she also took electives in painting, sculpture, and ceramics. She transferred to the American University of Beirut (AUB) and graduated in 1957. At AUB, she took art courses in its newly opened Department of Fine Arts, the first academic art and art history department in a Lebanese institution.5 These art classes opened up a new world for her. Encouraged by an art professor to pursue art, she did just that.
Three years after graduating, she participated in a group exhibit at the Sursock Museum in Beirut. Within five years, her reach extended beyond Lebanon and her art was displayed at Lebanon’s most prestigious art events. Over the next several decades, El Husseini participated in group and solo exhibitions in prestigious venues in no fewer than 30 countries throughout Europe, the United States, the Arab world, the former Soviet Union, China, Japan, and Canada.6
In Lebanon, El Husseini was not part of the elite, cosmopolitan art community, nor could she be counted among the artists in the Palestinian refugee camps who were supported by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). That is, her art “was politically motivated yet experimental aesthetically and visually.”7 Her theme was Palestine, whose loss would continue to impact the entire region and its inhabitants to this day.
El Husseini described art as helping her deal with the loss of her homeland:
I found Palestine again on canvas. I live my youth, my early days there—all the memories, the birds, the flowers, the butterflies, the greenery, the Dead Sea, the windows, the doors, the skies of Palestine. This is where I found myself.8
She described Palestine as her inspiration, giving sadness but also strength. An interviewer who was shown canvas after canvas by the artist noted: “each one represent[ed] a step in her artistic and emotional odyssey, each one capturing aspects of the Palestine she still misses daily, still returns to daily in her imagination.”9
Her first paintings were square, with borders framing them. Inside the frames were the sorts of scenes one might see through a window: trees, flowers, minarets, and faces—all in bright colors. The settings were stylized, the art almost lyrical; they seemed to depict a mythical past. The absence of human figures also gave the images a dreamlike quality.10
In 1967, El Husseini returned to Jerusalem for a visit. She began to sketch the city, its architecture, and its folklore, in part as a way of preserving the city she knew: “I felt I was preserving a way of life that was threatened.”11 She devoted most of her career to painting the city of her birth.
Husseini elaborated with childlike freshness geometric representations of her city of birth, which seemed to emerge from a fairy tale free from any concrete reference to the experience of a real place. And besides the legendary buildings she composed, hardly any other human trace is detectable in what appeared to represent her personal dreamscape. . . . Crowned with blue and golden domes and surrounded by towering belfries and minarets, Husseini’s imaginary Jerusalem looked like an impregnable fortress. . . . What is most striking in Husseini’s Jerusalem paintings is the way the stylized forms and embellished patterns are executed with the quaint skill of the nameless village women who preserved the tradition of Palestinian embroidery . . . an eclectic affiliation that enhances the appeal of her cityscapes.12
Her symbolism is personal: horses, which always find their way home; butterflies, which are never caged; and pomegranates, symbols of fertility and good luck.
El Husseini’s body of work consisted of paintings, ceramics, sculptures, and embroidery. She experimented with media and technique. She mixed oil paint with sand or other materials to create texture on her canvases, using gold or silver leaves for highlights. In the early 1970s, she combined oil paint and embroidery, a combination that has been interpreted as rejecting a distinction between fine art and crafts.13 Her interest in expanding her craft led her to study stained glass art at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1991.
One writer had this to say about her work:
Some of the most beautiful and evocative city paintings are symphonies of white on white, where the texture and gold leaf create subtle interplays of light and shadow. “Jerusalem” (1980) and other paintings in this series show her evolution from a busy, detailed style to simpler, more painterly renditions. The effect is to imbue the subjects with a serene, spiritual quality that brings to mind Wordsworth’s description of his poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility.”14
Another highlighted the centrality of Jerusalem in her work:
Jumana’s roots in Jerusalem and her belonging to the city, spiritually and artistically, made of Jerusalem a major icon holding the primary position in her artistic creation. What attracts attention most in much of her works is her reliance on what her memory collected to express the past and to look forward to the future, keeping the present in parentheses, insisting on her attachment to the world of birds and brides flying over her beloved city. No wonder the dreaming state played such a role in what was happening in the young girl’s evolution and imagination. She became a sensitive young woman open to life, with a big dream and true hope. place of her first secrets, her city that witnessed the forms of her first love.15
Changes in El Husseini’s artistic style were prompted by political events. The outbreak of civil war in Lebanon in 1975 was so distressing to her that she stopped painting altogether for a while. She turned to embroidery instead, drawing on family history and childhood images. Names and events are embroidered in the borders of the fabric. The art—wearable, transportable—reminds one of a way of life that no longer exists.
When oil paint became hard to secure in war-torn Lebanon, she turned to watercolor. By chance, she found that she could use both, separated by a layer of glue, to achieve the effect of something seen under glass, like a museum piece.
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to destroy the PLO, which had established its headquarters in Beirut. For the second time in 34 years, war deprived El Husseini of a safe home. She moved to Paris. The geographic move was matched by an artistic shift away from figurative representation. She began incorporating Arabic script into her work, which she described as “letters to my mother who is buried in Jerusalem.”16
The revolt of the children made me drop everything and become completely abstract . . . The paintings are black, but I am in my happiest period. I feel there is resurgence in everything I am doing now.17
In the 1990s, she traveled throughout the Middle East, during which she jotted down the different written forms of native languages she heard. She found a way to incorporate this into her art:
. . . she took the texts and wrote them on a large monochrome oil surface and painted over them. She proceeded to repeat these steps with different writings for months until an almost metallic surface resulted which concealed thousands of years of Middle Eastern history in the form of the written languages of the native people.18
In her view, she was still painting Jerusalem, but now as an archeologist; she was brushing aside layers of sand to see what she could still find from the ancestors. As she put it: “So this really gives me hope. . . . I go back to the earth to see what we had in the past . . . to give me energy . . . [a] feeling for living.”19 The loss of Jerusalem, and the realization of ongoing and permanent exile, developed into a search for ancestral pasts. Experimenting with the written word in her artwork while focusing on the historical elements of the region seemed to provide an enduring connection to the land.
Exhibits, Collections, and Awards
El Husseini’s work was exhibited over four decades in the Middle East, Europe, North America, Asia, and beyond, as is evident from this online CV. She participated in a number of group exhibits such as the Venice Biennial of 1979, the Barbican Centre (London, UK), the Museum of Modern Art (Tokyo, Japan), and the Museum of Women in the Arts of Washington in 1994. She participated in the French Palestinian spring exhibit at the Paris Institut du Monde Arabe in 1996, and in the 1998 Stockholm Fine Arts Academy “Palestinian Art” exhibit.
Her works are found in numerous private collections around the world.
In 1999, she was awarded the Palestine Award for the Visual Arts.
Jumana El Husseini died on April 11, 2018, at her home in Paris. She was 86 years old.
Amin, Alessandra. “Jumana El Husseini, Palestine (1932–2018).” Dalloul Art Foundation.
Boullata, Kamal. Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present. London: Saqi Books, 2009.
Burnham, Anne Mullin. “Three From Jerusalem.” Aramco World 41, no. 4 (July/August 1990).
“Jamal al-Husseini.” Interactive Encyclopedia of the Palestine Question.
Jumana El Husseini website.
“Jumana El Husseini: Painter.” This Week in Palestine, November 2007.
Nouh, Dalya. “FAAH Collection, 1952-Present.” American University of Beirut, 2018.
Sairanen, Elina. “Jumana El Husseini.” December 2, 2020.
Shahid, Serene Husseini. “A Jerusalem Childhood: ‘The Early Life of Serene Husseini.’” Jerusalem Quarterly 37 (5–13).
Soumi, Nasser. “Jumana El Husseini and Jerusalem.” Jerusalem Forever.
Serene Husseini Shahid, “A Jerusalem Childhood: ‘The Early Life of Serene Husseini,’” Jerusalem Quarterly 37 (5–13).
Boullata claims that the whole family left (temporarily, they thought) in 1948 for Beirut when a bomb hit the family home. Kamal Boullata, Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present (London: Saqi Books, 2009), 146.
According to Nouh, the department “was most remembered for its very popular ‘Art Seminars’ program in the 1950s that was free and open to the public. The program, which included drawing, painting, and ceramics courses and special Saturday morning classes for children, attracted participants from all segments of the Lebanese society and brought together both Lebanese and foreign nationals who were interested in, and dedicated to, the promotion of the arts in Lebanon.” Dalya Nouh, “FAAH Collection, 1952-Present,” American University of Beirut, 2018.
Burnham, “Three from Jerusalem.”
Burnham, “Three from Jerusalem.”
Burnham, “Three from Jerusalem”; Alessandra Amin, “Jumana El Husseini, Palestine (1932–2018),” Dalloul Art Foundation.
Burnham, “Three from Jerusalem.”
Kamal Boullata, Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present (London: Saqi Books, 2009), 149.
Sairanen, “Jumana El Husseini.”
Burnham, “Three from Jerusalem.”
Boullata, Palestinian Art, 150.
Burnham, “Three from Jerusalem.”
“Joumana El Husseini: Painter.”