“I have come to believe that there are infinite passageways out of the shadows, infinite vehicles to transport us into the light.”
~ Martha Beck
hen we say a work of art moves us, that’s rather a powerful statement. Bordering on the absurd, really, when you consider that something as static and two-dimensional as a painting has the ability to erase all ordinary restrictions on time and space and take us where, by all other rights, we have no business traveling. Even dropping us smack inside a war zone if such be the agreement between artist and viewer.
Or deeper still: into the space inside the mind of one who by all outward appearances may have little in common with us.
It’s a sacred act then, isn’t it? Creating this thing we call art. A dance of trust, of honoring. Of willing to be seen and see. To step outside of the safe, the known, the comfortable. Free-falling into understanding.
INTERVIEW WITH MARWA ALNAJJAR
Amman, Jordan ~
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Marwa, gazing at your paintings, at these women and children you have brought to life for us, the souls you have gathered, one is overwhelmed with the pulse of their longing. Can you tell me about this?
Marwa Alnajjar: I studied art in Palestine during the time of the second Intifada in 2000. Specifically, in Nablus city some 50 kilometers north of Jerusalem. I saw people deprived of basic shelter, food, and medical attention. Women and Children injured, uprooted from their homes and communities, internally displaced or made refugees, orphaned or separated from their parents and families, even killed.
Marwa Alnajjar: This experience, and what I saw there, touched me deeply, both consciously and unconsciously, and it comes out in my work.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What are your portraits seeking to communicate to us, Marwa?
Marwa Alnajjar: I wanted to shed light on war victims, specifically women and children, who tend to get forgotten in all of this. As in all modern wars, the victims of the latest middle eastern war are mainly civilians. In patriarchal Palestinian, and in most middle eastern societies, women traditionally are caregivers while men typically are the main breadwinners, and as a result, when widows are thrust into this role, they’re often victimized by cultural, social, and economic discrimination and marginalization. In Gaza today it’s hard for women to get by alone, so widows must either live with family members or be forced to remarry. The alternative is a hard struggle alone, something most of the women try to avoid, but in post-conflict, many simply have no choice.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Tell me what painting does for you.
Marwa Alnajjar: Art for me is like the air I breathe. I paint to create. It also calms me. Therapy. Achievement.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Your definition of victim? Of survivor?
Marwa Alnajjar: The victim is someone who cannot create their life. When we shape our lives and ourselves then we are survivors.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What are some of the ways you have witnessed women taking back control over their lives?
Marwa Alnajjar: Proudly, women in my family are very distinctive. They are artists, engineers, lawyers, physicians, and entrepreneurs. They are decision-makers and in control of their lives and families along with their husbands.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Where do you yourself feel strongest? Where do you find your strength? As a painter? As a woman?
Marwa Alnajjar: A woman, painter and future mother all together define my character. I see myself as strong because I represent all that men have dominated.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: The temptation for us in the western world is to see a great distinction between the oppression of women in the middle east and the day-to-day, much more subtle sexism we experience in our own country. Do you yourself see the distinction as great?
Marwa Alnajjar: Countries in the Middle East vary a lot. for instance, there is a great difference between Dubai and Afghanistan, but professional women are oppressed all over the world in many ways. I myself have faced a lot of obstacles being a woman artist, yet I knew that women can do everything men could do. The more that men have told me, “you can’t do that,” the more I had to prove them wrong. I had to hold it up for all women who looked up to me to be brave and courageous. We defend our artworks with our fists and our crazy courage. When you have guys that disrespect you, you’re gonna have to teach them a lesson, otherwise, they are going to keep walking all over you. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is out there; it’s not easy. But this also reflects views of the art world in general.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How can our two cultures begin to bridge the gap of understanding between one another? What is something many Americans would be surprised to learn about life for women in Jordan?
Marwa Alnajjar: Nowadays social media networks have contributed a lot to bridge the gap between cultures. People understand more and know more about each other.
Jordan has one of the highest education rates in the region for both men and women. Queen Rania of Jordan has launched many initiatives to support and improve girls’ education levels in Jordan. In Jordan, enrollment rates of girls are equal to those of boys at all levels of schooling. Also, more women stay in education to advanced levels. As a result, women’s participation in the workforce has now increased.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What would be the ultimate compliment you could receive on your work?
Marwa Alnajjar: “Your paintings are full of feelings.” I like it when my work brings up conflicting feelings in others. I consider it a great compliment when I hear that I have made make me feel happy and sad.
Marwa Al-Najjar holds a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from An-Najah university in Nablus, Palestine, where she returned to lecture in 2006. The artist lives and works in Amman, Jordan.
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