“You Cannot Take Palestine Out of a Man”: Interview with Artist Jeffar Khaldi

Last Cigarette (2010) - oil on canvas.

So, one question I often start with: What is your connection to Palestine?

Palestine is my blood. My parents and grandparents are all Palestinian. Whether we’re first, second or third generation, we all still maintain our Palestinian identity. My parents are from the north of Palestine.  My maternal grandmother is Jewish and she’s also from Palestine. That’s what it means to be Palestinian, I suppose… to be many things.

You Can Take a Man Out of Palestine, But You Cannot Take Palestine Out of a Man (2010) - oil on canvas.
You Can Take a Man Out of Palestine, But You Cannot Take Palestine Out of a Man (2010) – oil on canvas.

I never really think about my Jewish heritage, but I certainly don’t think I should be ashamed of it. I have nothing against Judaism but I have issues with Zionism. My grandmother is still alive, currently living in Dubai. I visit her often and ask her questions about her life and how she met my grandfather. I know she eloped with him!

Can you tell us about your experience of the Lebanese civil war? On your website, it says that you moved to the U.S. at 16 in order to avoid being coerced into a militia. How did you handle that move? Was your family with you?

Beirut Glamour 2 (2010) - oil on canvas.
Beirut Glamour 2 (2010) – oil on canvas.

The experience of the civil war is completely embedded in my psyche. It was very strange to witness the war as a child: it was like the Wild West, everyone walking around with a gun or rifle. I was never scared, even at the height of the war. Despite the gunfire and the few run-ins and close calls that I personally experienced, I enjoyed the chaotic aspects of the war. Maybe that’s why I’m a bit of an anarchist in a way. I don’t like to follow rules. Any rules … The war was horrible because people were killed based on their identity; it wasn’t simply whether you were Christian or Muslim, but whether you were Sunni or Shia’a.  I think that was a massive problem, to try and break down the identity of the Lebanese according to religion and sect. It was a scary time.

But the experience shaped my life. It made me strong, and growing up amidst the bombing and gunfire, I lost my sense of fear. I became immune to the sound of gunfire. Later on, in the U.S., I was held at gunpoint. I was painting some graffiti and a guy came up behind me armed with a gun. I was totally cool and mentally in control. I think that’s what helped me talk him out of shooting my friend and me. When my friend said I saved his life, I thought to myself, “Wow! That’s quite the statement!”

Hammas Mickey (2007) - oil on canvas.
Hammas Mickey (2007) – oil on canvas.

Moving to the States at 16 was hard because I moved there without my parents.  I went to live with my uncle and cried often because I missed my parents very much. I didn’t see them for years. Missing my parents was the hardest part of it. In terms of getting accustomed to life in the United States, it happened really quickly.  Because I lived in Texas, I became a Palestinian cowboy. All my friends were cowboys, and as I wore Levis and didn’t appear to be a typical Arab they accepted me quickly and I in turn accepted them.

Being a Palestinian in Texas, did you feel alienated? And was art a refugee from social isolation?

By Way of Deception (2012) - oil on canvas.
By Way of Deception (2012) – oil on canvas.

One thing about me is that I can get accustomed to any environment, like a chameleon. I’m a survivor. Initially, I was accepted in college to study Interior Design. I met someone at school who was studying painting and he in turn introduced me to all his friends. I began painting with them while continuing to meet all the rigorous demands of my own program. I would do my own coursework in the morning, and paint with them at night. I learned a lot from what they were learning; it was almost like I was studying what they were studying because I was getting a lot of information about artistic techniques, methods, history, and who the artists of the time were: all the things that I learned from them I hadn’t previously known anything about.

Why did you make the move to Dubai instead of, say, New York, or another Western capital or even Beirut? Is the market for your art mainly in the Middle East or the West?

It was a series of unfortunate events that led me to consider moving. After graduating, I had many problems in Texas, including another incident when I was held at gunpoint by two guys who cornered me while I was doing graffiti work. After surviving that, my studio burned to the ground. It was in an old warehouse, and it started from the freight elevator shaft at one in the morning. I’m almost sure the owner of the building was involved to try and claim insurance money. It was a large two-storey building, and the only tenants were a sculptor, his girlfriend and myself. Luckily when the fire broke out, I was awake, and it was spreading quickly and the area was getting full of thick, black toxic fumes. Thankfully I didn’t die from smoke inhalation; I managed to wake up the other artists who were in their studios and escape with my life. I tried to go back and grab stuff, but things started falling from the rafters as the smoke was getting thicker.

Slicks (2010) - oil on canvas.
Slicks (2010) – oil on canvas.

My mother had previously begged me to move closer to home.  After the fire, I woke up one day from a nightmare wishing that I had listened to my mother’s advice to move to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). So that’s what I did.

It was hard moving to Sharjah twenty years ago where there was no underground art or music scene, like the one I was part of in Texas. It was a shock to move there and not experience new things every day, in the way I was used to. It was hard to set up a business and change my attitude about the UAE. I think it took me more than ten years to come to terms with my relocation and situation. Dubai is not an ideal place to be an artist for many reasons.Whenever I got frustrated, I would literally pack my bags hoping that I would be able to leave. But over time, as things progressed and changed, I was able to adjust and accept where I was.

I think people in the Gulf have not yet been able to develop their understanding enough to accept most art. In a way, the art market here is somewhat conservative; and I know that my stuff doesn’t really blend with local collectors’ tastes or aesthetics. People interested in my art are limited in number; but I think over time more collectors will “get” this style of art.

Your art work is quite layered—one picture over the other. For instance, in Special Report, there is a background explosion and students in a classroom upfront. In Good Stamp, we see Gulf sheikhs and a scantily-clad woman in the background and upfront a sheikh whose thowb dissolves into a bikini bottom and high boots. Similarly with Beirut Glamour and the plane crash in the background. I see such pieces as conveying clashing currents in the Arab world: enlightenment versus destruction; public piety versus moral debauchery; glamour versus violence. What are you attempting to achieve with this contrast?

Good Stamp (2009) - oil on canvas.
Good Stamp (2009) – oil on canvas.

I was trying to present the contradictions inherent in our society, to show how some of Gulf society’s religious personalities and ruling figures are weak because of the contradictions between their words and their actions, and thus the contradictory nature of their lifestyle.

There are a lot of historical references in your art: from pre-civil war Beirut, to the Munich Olympics, to Camp David. Why the focus on the past, particularly on events that appear to be distant from your own personal experience?

Munich Glamour 1 (2010) - oil on canvas.
Munich Glamour 1 (2010) – oil on canvas.

I define my artwork as contemporary work that presents social issues in a combination of storytelling and nostalgia. I feel that the current generation of young Arabs doesn’t know its history. I take some of my own experiences and try to create stories out of them.  So it’s almost a way of narrating the cool stories behind the events, some of whose aspects are James Bond-like. Sometimes I use historical events as prefaces to my own artwork. Viewers don’t always get it and so I unpack it for them, and historical events or cultural traditions sometimes become motifs in my work.  For example, I inserted the motif of the radish in one of my works to reference the Arabic idiom, “They’re not even worth a radish!”

Beirut Glamour 1 (2010) - oil on canvas.
Beirut Glamour 1 (2010) – oil on canvas.

By placing King Kong in the middle of Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square, I also tried to capture the nostalgia of the civil war era in my painting Beirut Glamour. When I was a kid, there would be fierce fighting in downtown Beirut and people would simply close their shops for a few hours and then reopen them a few hours later as if nothing had happened. I remember we would be somewhere nearby at a disco party and have to be careful to avoid snipers on the road to get there.  It was during the disco era, there was an underground disco scene, and we simply didn’t care. We just continued with our lives, business as usual. King Kong is the motif to suggest, really to represent, how the civil war that was at the center of things was ignored by people simply concerned with getting on with their lives.

How do you relate to Lebanon’s civil war as a Palestinian from Lebanon? I ask because the civil war figures in much of your artwork.

Middle Class Palestinian Family (2010) - oil on canvas.
Middle Class Palestinian Family (2010) – oil on canvas.

For a short period of time, Palestinians in Lebanon were some of the most highly educated professionals in the country and they were always seeking opportunities to better themselves and travel. It is precisely because of such intellectual abilities and accomplishments that Israel has targeted a lot of cultural figures and assassinated them. Thus, in my painting Special Report, I depicted the Gaza War of 2009 (dubbed Operation Cast Lead) to express how war won’t stop us Palestinians.

Special Report (2009) - oil on canvas.
Special Report (2009) – oil on canvas.

As an artist, the Lebanese civil war itself hasn’t figured in many of my works. I didn’t want to exaggerate my trauma or belabor my experience but I tried to capture that period of history and of my life in a few works. I did a family portrait, Fade Away, which was exhibited at the group show Told, Untold, Retold in Qatar. It depicted my parents during the heyday of Beirut’s Parisian-like glamour out at Lebanon’s famous casino one night.

Casino du Liban (2010) - oil on canvas.
Casino du Liban (2010) – oil on canvas.

My father was a Palestinian refugee who was born in a camp. I wanted to capture his accomplishment of making it out of that camp and all of their 1970s coolness, with my mother in her big glasses and my father with his cigarette jauntily dangling out of his mouth at the gambling tables. I used my parents’ photographs from the period, taken by commercial photographers, as the basis for the images I created.  I consider this painting to be one of four in a series entitled Fade Away referencing how memories fade away.

Frozen (2007) - oil on canvas.
Frozen (2007) – oil on canvas.

Frozen is another painting and it was part of the 2009 Saatchi Gallery exhibition in London held to showcase emerging Arab contemporary artists. It depicts a broken rope that I am attempting to climb, based on a true story about a rock-climbing experience when my rope actually broke. It’s also meant to symbolize the Palestinian condition. I take my own experiences and the experiences of Palestinians living in refugee camps to express a sense of hopelessness and despair at being caught in a moment where you have no way out, and like me, were hanging onto dear life by a broken rope.

Your colors are very vivid and, at times, life-like. Can you give us an insight into how you achieve such a technique?

Happy Ending 1 (2009) - oil on canvas.
Happy Ending 1 (2009) – oil on canvas.

My work is always evolving, and I’m not the kind of guy who repeats himself. I always try to further develop my technique, my ideas, and concepts. I like work that’s thick and washy, layered with a sense of transparency; or else rich and opaque. I try to use cheerful colors to paint intense subject-matter to make it easier for the viewer to look at what I’ve painted, to absorb just what is on the canvas. I think of myself as a colorist, and it’s really important for me to use colors and to experiment with them.

Temporary Emotional State (2007) - oil on canvas.
Temporary Emotional State (2007) – oil on canvas.

Your artwork reflects two cultures: one Middle Eastern and the other American/Texan, with the latter well represented by pieces such as Horse People Are Horse People, Wrong Chair, and Slicks. Do you consider yourself an American artist as well? And, either way, what is your perception of American life?

Horse People are Horse People (2011) - oil on canvas.
Horse People are Horse People (2011) – oil on canvas.

I am definitely not a Middle Eastern artist because I developed and became who I am from living in the States. Although my core sensibility is Middle Eastern it is meshed with my American training and education and that is what has influenced my aesthetics.  I am very Americanized, I have my American quirks which have made me what I am. I lived there from the age of 16 to my early thirties during a very formative period of my life. I wasn’t aware of any Middle Eastern art or of Middle Eastern artists, I only knew of American life.

Wrong Chair (2010) - oil on canvas.
Wrong Chair (2010) – oil on canvas.

Your work does not shy away from social commentary and some may term it political. For instance, Predators series is an unmistakable comment on today’s global reality. Some of your other works address the issue of women and veiling—Happy Feet, for example, which I interpreted as an ironic comment on the covering of women so that only their feet and face show. As an artist, do you believe you have a responsibility be critical toward power structures? Do you embrace the idea of the political artist and do you have a sense of mission?

Karma (From the Predators Series) (2013) - overlay Printing, Spray Paint, Air Brush and Lacquer on paper.
Karma (From the Predators Series) (2013)
– overlay Printing, Spray Paint, Air Brush and Lacquer on paper.

I’m not scared about what people think. I don’t like to offend people, but I speak my mind in a certain way, like in Predators, a series on Arab dictators and their families that preyed on their respective societies … People such as Gaddafi and the Assads, for example.  I did six paintings on the topic of the Arab Spring, mostly in black and white with some splashes of color. Predators is cool because it’s spray-painted. It looks almost like a photograph. In the painting of Hosni Mubarak, I’ve attached an American pin to his lapel; for Assad I put an Iranian pin. People accuse me of having unsophisticated political ideas with this sort of work, but I tell them you need to study and learn about what these people have done to their nations. It’s not about attacking power or people in power, as much as it is about highlighting the atrocities and the crimes they’ve committed against the people they are meant to be leading. I see myself as an international artist. True, I am Palestinian but I don’t like the labeling. My dream is to become an internationally renowned artist so that people can reconsider their generally negative views of Palestine and Palestinians.

Wipeout (2011) - oil on canvas.
Wipeout (2011) – oil on canvas.

True, I am Palestinian but I don’t like the labeling. My dream is to become an internationally renowned artist so that people can reconsider their generally negative views of Palestine and Palestinians.

Banana Time (2008) - oil on canvas.
Banana Time (2008) – oil on canvas.

In that vein, many Palestinian artists resent the expectation that they must produce ‘resistance art.’ But it seems as if you actually seek the association,  and here I’m thinking of pieces like Balls, Banana Time, F**k Them And Their Moses (which is, of course, based on a famous photograph), et cetera.

Balls 1 (2012) - Mixed media on paper.
Balls 1 (2012) – Mixed media on paper.

So, simply, do you feel a sense of responsibility regarding Palestine? And, also, do you believe the current upheavals in the Arab world foreshadow better long-term prospects for free and creative art?

F*** Them and Their Moses (2009) - oil on canvas.
F*** Them and Their Moses (2009) – oil on canvas.

I don’t paint keffiyehs and I don’t paint peace signs. I paint about Palestine in my own way. If you consider my Arab Spring series, it’s clear that I look at things from a different perspective. I thought the scenes coming out of Libya looked like something out of Mad Max, so I took that idea and ran with it, and I called the series Mad Rebels. As a viewer you can’t distinguish between the rebels and the Mad Max characters. I used to attend punk rock shows a lot when I was younger and I thought the scenes in Mad Max looked like something out of these shows. The anger of punk rock concerts was reflected in the images of the protests we witnessed during the Arab Spring.

Mad Rebels (2011) - Mixed media works on paper.
Mad Rebels (2011) – Mixed media works on paper.

My painting Happy Feet is about hypocrisy in the Gulf, about how women dress up in beautiful clothes and beautiful shoes and look so seductive despite being traditionally covered.

My issue with politics is based on my need to work and paint.  I didn’t choose art, it chose me. I’m done with political undertones in my art though. My last political painting, The Cockroach, is of [Anwar el-] Sadat during the 1979 Peace Accords. I used that title because I believe that he and people like him are cockroaches for making peace with Israel.  The only state solution is a “No Israel” solution. It’s funny in a way. If people get offended, I don’t care.

Cockroaches in Disguise (2010) - oil on canvas.
Cockroaches in Disguise (2010) – oil on canvas.

Much of your most recent work is quite personal, with an emphasis on individual portraits.  Your canvas is much more intimate now. Do you see yourself developing a more focused lens, so to speak, and abandoning the broader more collective images of individuals and objects?

The Pain of Confession, The Confession of Pain (2013-14) - oil on canvas.
The Pain of Confession, The Confession of Pain (2013-14) – oil on canvas.

Every artist goes through a phase where they want to make more personal stuff; it’s an urge that pops up every now and then. I always like to work on different ideas be it a portrait or still from a movie that I then paint. I choose different subjects and try to keep things exciting. I’m working on a series now called Lust that portrays people who “fall” so much into lust, rather than love, that it overshadows everything in their lives, making them lose track of their everyday responsibilities.

Nicole (2013) - oil on canvas.
Nicole (2013) – oil on canvas.

I also do portraits of people that I admire. They don’t always have to be portraits of heroes. I try to vary my portraits and move on to different ideas or subjects.

Emergency (2013) - oil on canvas.
Emergency (2013) – oil on canvas.

Lastly, any plans for a U.S. exhibition?

I don’t have plans for anything now because I’ve been so busy, and I’m no longer in a hurry.  I am happy as an artist and not desperate to exhibit. I want to take my time and work on my art. If I die today, it would be a huge responsibility for my ex-wife and my son to go through all the work that I have in my studio! But I’m in no rush to show or exhibit my stuff. I don’t mind showing my work to eager collectors but I don’t feel so compelled to show my work for the sake of being out there.

There Goes The Spirit (2009) - oil on canvas.
There Goes The Spirit (2009) – oil on canvas.

Interview conducted by Khelil Bouarrouj.