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Biography

Biographical highlights

  • Born in Haifa (Palestine) in 1942.
  • Learned art at Avraham Yaskil (1894), Zvi Meirovich (1911), Mordecai Kafri (1925) and Shmuel Boneh workshops in Haifa (1959-1963).
  • Held his first exhibition in Tel Aviv in 1962.
  • Graduated in September 1971 from the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts in Germany.
  • Worked from 1972 as illustrator, graphic designer in literary publications.
  • Has been teaching fine arts in Colleges and community centers since the early 70’s.
  • Held number of public posts and established a number of art organizations keen on raising the next generation of Palestinian visual artists.
by Amir A. Abdi

The Wandering Museum in the Works of Abed Abdi

My father, Abed Abdi, was born on the 16th of February 1942, into a long standing Haifa family: His mother’s uncle, Abed el Rahman el Haj, was mayor of the city of Haifa in the years 1920–1927, at the time when Haifa was part of Palestine under British “mandate” rule. This, however, did not help the family in 1948. On  the 22nd of April that year, my father, his mother Khaiyrieh, his older brother Deeb and sisters Lutfiye, Suad and Zahra were uprooted from their home, while his father – my grandfather – decided to remain in Haifa, despite the hostilities and the horror. From Haifa the mother and her children traveled to Acre from where, two weeks later, they sailed on a decrepit boat to Lebanon. In Lebanon they were first housed in the transit camp in Beirut port, and later moved to the Mieh Mieh refugee camp near Sidon, from where they continued to Damascus. After three years of wandering between Palestinian refugee camps, my grandmother and her children were allowed back into Israel as part of the family reunification program. My father’s eldest sister, Lutfiye, was not allowed back, and was forced to reside until 2011 at the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, from where she was uprooted again to Damascus by fanatic terror groups.[1]

Abdi was lucky, he spent only three years as a refugee.

From First Exhibition in Tel Aviv to Academic Studies in Germany

In 1962 my father held his first exhibition in Tel Aviv initiated by left-wing activists such as Gila Balas and her husband Shimon along with the poet Issam Al-Abassi and others. This event provided great cultural feedback as he was also elected to membership of the Artists Committee. He was twenty years old at the time and was the youngest and the first Arab artist to become a member of the committee.   Reuven Rubin, Nahum Gutman and Yehoshua Grossbard were some of the well known artists who visited the exhibition, and Grossbard played a leading role in encouraging my father to study abroad. The poet Mahmoud Darwish published an interview he held with my father in the Al-Ittihad newspaper, in which he revealed the young artist’s desire and vision to enrich his cultural environment with artistic reality as he saw it. Mahmoud Darwish, Samih Al-Qasim, Emil Touma, Ibrahim Malik, Hanna Abou Hanna and Issam Al-Abasi all had a great influence on my father’s artistic life before his travels and after his return in 1971.

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Studying in Dresden was one of the most important stages in my father’s life, as it was his first encounter with a new culture. Dresden is characterized by its rich culture and tragic history, which are evident in the ruined buildings, the palaces of King Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony and Poland, the museums and churches, which were destroyed in the Allied bombing of February 1945. These scenes reminded my father of the Naqba and the exile of his family from Haifa to refugee camps in neighboring countries. Nevertheless, the  cultural and social situation in Germany’s history prior to World War I, and the political situation led by the Weimar Republic, poverty, economic crisis and the awakening of artistic movements such as “Die Brücke” (The Bridge) and “Der Blaue Reiter” (The Blue Rider) that emerged in Dresden, all played a significant role in enriching the young artist’s vision, as well as Käthe Kollwitz’s black and white prints dealing with motherhood and poverty, and the 16th century works of Albrecht Dürer and Grünewald. During his studies in Dresden, the young Abed Abdi was zealous and diligent in becoming acquainted with all aspects of the sculptural arts, including the baroque and neo-classical architectural arts.  

In addition to the student’s good relationship with his professors, a special relationship bound Abdi culturally with Lea Grundig, since both were on the side of the nations opposed to imperialism, Israeli aggression on the Arab lands, and the Palestinian people being subjected to an occupation that still exists. Also worthy of mention is his special relationship with a group of his professors, in particular his academic supervisor Prof. Gerhard Bondzin, who selected Abed Abdi, along with a group of other graduating students, to participate in the erection of a huge mural at the Cultural Palace ( Kulturpalast), built in 1968 in the center of Dresden, a mural which still remains a cultural landmark of this part of unified Germany.

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The achievement of erecting this creative work, done with a group of artists, as well as the prize awarded by the state, contributed to formulating the future vision of Abed Abdi’s creativity for the public good, whereby visual art can contribute to the creation of artistic climates, which in turn give expression to the hopes of society in achieving development and welfare. Consequently, he set out the final design for his master’s diploma, which entailed the erection of the first monument entitled “Solidarity”, part of which was actually built on the campus of the academic institute in Erfurt. This was accompanied by his degree thesis, entitled “Monuments and Their Relation to Architectural and Social Spaces”.

In the defense of his diploma thesis, which was equivalent to a master’s degree, the art student explained the stages of the work as well as his future vision which he would pursue on returning to his homeland, and defining his targeted creativity for the public good. In his reply to a question by one of the examining professors, he stated that   “the Palestinian minority in Israel does not have a museum, or an appropriate place to store our cultural and folk heritage, due to the policy of intentionally ignoring the Palestinian minority which has remained in its homeland. Additionally, the society of creative groups such as visual artists, musicians and actors, suffers from the lack of a supportive and encouraging public. Therefore my work will deal with the art of murals, the art of printing and posters, and will strive to transform the creative approach in the public sphere in order to create a cadre of young creative artists, as well as general consumers of art.

During the last part of my father’s studies in East Germany, he met Judit from Hungary, who was also studying in Dresden where my father had lived for six years. My parents were married in Budapest in the autumn of 1971. My mother followed him to Haifa, where I was born in May 1972. Subsequently my brother Attila was born on the very day of the unveiling of the monument commemorating the Land Day martyrs, on 30 March 1977. In 1985 my youngest brother Jünell was born during the period my father started work as an arts lecturer at the Academic Arab College for Education in Haifa. Besides these exciting events important for creating a small family, an interesting life ensued, combining civilizational and cultural elements from East and West alike, resulting in a disctinctive mix between what was and what will be. That mix was the reality in which I lived together with my brothers, and it comprised a multitude of languages, varieties of life styles, traditions and ways of pursuing knowledge – all of which had to be reconciled.

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In Abed Abdi’s cycle of illustrations entitled “The Refugees”, printed in black and white, which are part of the works he created towards the final stage of his studies, the figures playing their dramatic roles in the Palestinian landscape seem as if they are in the space of another world, taken perhaps from the German drama between 1905 and 1923 when Germany faced economic crisis and World War I, which led to the formation of the Weimar Republic. Also noteworthy is that Weimar was the birthplace of philosophers Goethe and Schiller. While the young artist worked with the art of printing driven by premises connected with the case of his people – their episode as Palestinian refugees and the Six-Day War – and while he employed this art as a public vehicle to publish the works so they would reach the general public, the “protocols” of the manifesto of the German artistic movements, in particular the expressionist movements, were the initiators of this approach since art must be impulsive and able to recruit people.

 

   

Illustrations for Newspapers and Literary Magazines

After returning to Haifa in 1971, my father began working as a graphic designer for a number of Arabic publications that appeared in Israel, like Al Ittihad , Al Jadid and Al Ghad. He  created illustrations and applied graphic art, posters and book covers. Among the books in which these illustrations were published are:

   

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His friend and colleague, Palestinian poet Samih Al Qasim stated that “Since he started out, Abdi’s brush has attracted my attention. He offered a unique approach. When I asked him for a print for the cover of my second collection of poems, Poems of the Roads, in 1964, he assented with loving enthusiasm. He recognized the harmony in our work: an array that is immersed in the national and human pain of the Palestinian people, and a poem inundated with that pain. His illustration constituted a sharp, deep and beautiful expression of the burning lyrical character of the poems of the time.”   During his years at Al-Ittihad newspaper in Haifa between the years 1972 to 1981,  Abdi created and published many caricatures, many of which touch upon politics and the Palestinian Israeli conflict.

Teaching Art 

Abed Abdi began teaching art ever since he came back from his studies in Germany. He taught arts in various Palestinian community centers and schools in the Galilee (eg. in Haifa, Nazareth, Kafr Yaseef, Acre, Jaffa and Shafa Amr). In addition, he has been teaching fine arts and the history of arts in the Arab Pedagogical College in Haifa since 1985, until his retirement in 2007.

He has been teaching art and ceramics in the workshop attached to his studio in Haifa since 2006, offering special courses for young children aged 8-14 from all religious denominations found in Haifa. The course focuses the attention on joint creativity, and ends with a joint exhibition for the pupils. The idea was to bring Muslims, Jews and Christian children together, and thereby promote tolerance and dialogue through the arts.

Abed Abdi believes that joint creativity can bridge between differences. His motivation is simple and rational: “Knowing the other is the first step to understanding him or her, and when pupils are being exposed to pupils from other religious denominations, then joint creativity is another way to let them start talking to each other, learning from each other, and eventually, they will come to respect each other, and possibly work on common themes jointly in during their mature life” – he states.

 

Veronica Sartore from the Oasis of Peace wrote that Abed Abdi often meets students all around the country, always bringing a series of his works with him and creating this way a ’traveling gallery’: “My purpose is to transform the classrooms into galleries, and to introduce the children into the world of art. It should be noted that generally most of the students have never met an artist; Arab children in particular have very few opportunities to come into contact with art, so the idea is that the galleries should come to the schools!”.[1] Gannit Ankori, discussing his contribution to Palestinian art, stated that “Abdi’s texts offer invaluable documentation about the Palestinian artists, his activities as a teacher and curator in Haifa, and his conscientious documentation of this information, make him an important source for the study of Palestinian art”.[2] Art critic Said Abu Shakra wrote that “There can be no doubt that Abed Abdi’s importance is in his being the first to cross the sea to study in the certain knowledge that the city of his birth needed him to return to act and lead in an unfamiliar sphere of endeavor, and in fact to create something ex nihilo in the complex reality… His importance is in the fact that he acknowledges and is conscious of this reality, and came back to it out of a sense of responsibility, mission and commitment….He is an artist whose name is etched on the Palestinian collective memory and the nascent Palestinian culture[3] both in Israel and beyond.” Notes:

  1.  Veronica Sartore, Meeting with Abed Abdi, Oasis of Peace site
  2.  Gannit Ankorti, Palestinian Art, 2006 at p.19
  3.  Said Abu Shakra, Preface, in: Abed Abdi: 50 Years of Creativity, published 2010, at p. 225.

   

In his introduction to the section on the underdeveloped state of Palestinian art in the Galilee, the artist Kamal Boullata, in a lecture he delivered at a convention of the Arab communities in the United States in 1975, which was published in a number of Arab newspapers and magazines, among them Al-Jadid published in Haifa, and which was translated by the late actress Bushra Karaman, stated: “What draws attention in the appearance of Palestinian art by the Palestinian minority in Israel is the endeavor of a small group of young artists to study art at the academic level, and these are: the late Ibrahim Ibrahim from Reineh village in the Galilee, Abed Yunes from ‘Ar’ara village in the Triangle, Khalil Rayyan from the town of Tamra, and Abed Abdi, who returned from Germany several years ago. The latter has contributed in a special way in activating and recruiting artistic paths and young artist cadres, who began their careers in painting murals in the city of Nazareth and Kafr Yasif, where the first arts course was initiated and led by Abed Abdi, a course which is active in the creative and public fields”. It is worthy of mention that this course was the nucleus from which well-known artists such as Ibrahim Nubani, Ilia Be’eni, Kamal Milhem, Samer Miari and others graduated. It also served as the catalyst for the establishment in Kafr Yasif of the first Arab artists’ association, “Ibda’a”, in 1994.

Social Activism Other Than Teaching Art

Abed Abdi is a member of the Haifa branch of the Israeli Association of Painters and Sculptors, and he has also been active in the Jewish-Arab Center of Beit Hagefen. This has enabled him to bring together Palestinian and Israeli artists, and organize joint exhibitions, bringing the prospects of peace closer. From 2004 to 2009 Abdi Served as President of the Al Midan Theater in Haifa, and from 1996 to 2000 was a member in the Committee for Arts and Culture in Israel. Abdi is the Founder of Ibdaa Association(1994) for the Advancement of Visual Arts among Israeli Arabs, and founder of Arabelle (2006), an association for deepening the dialogue between Arabs and Jews through Arts, and was one of the Founding Members of the Khalil el Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramalla (1998). Since 2008, Abdi is the co-curator of the open air art exhibition bringing together Israeli, Palestinian and foreign artists, attached to the “Holiday of Holidays” multicultural event, taking place in Haifa each year through the whole month of December, celebrating the Christian, the Muslim and the Jewish holidays.        

Painting Stories from Behind the Scenes

During my father’s work period at the Al-Ittihad newspaper, our small family lived together with my grandparents in their home, and this had a significant influence on my father’s works during the 1980s. There is one interesting painting, which was actually painted on the canvas twice: in the initial work, my father drew my brother Attila as a boy trapped between the buildings and narrow streets of Wadi Nisnas, surrounded by its houses. The idea of the painting and its outcome did not satisfy the artist, so he painted over it with white gesso and replaced it with the composition of the child flying towards the light, transcending the houses and soaring ever higher so as to break away from the siege.   The subject of Icarus, taken from Greek mythology, appears in more than one work by Abed Abdi.

In one he is seen without wings flying above the roofs of Haifa’s neighborhoods, extending the range of the carrier and its silver rope to far away, beyond the port and reaching Ras Al-Nakura, the point from which my father returned with his mother, brother and sisters to where they were born, after having to live in refugee camps in Lebanon and Damascus, a state of affairs which lasted for three years. Their return was facilitated by what is known as “family reunification on humanitarian grounds”. In the other works from the flying child cycle, Icarus is transformed into a handsome boy flying over the earth with his carrier, just as they appear in illustrations by Leonardo da Vinci. This painting was created by using net printing art, and was distributed in 30 copies, one of which was donated to Palestinian poet Ahmed Dahbour, a son of Haifa, who is also a refugee. In return, Dahbour wrote a poem dedicated to my father when he visited him in Haifa in 1997.

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My grandfather Qasem died in 1992 at the age of 94. In 1993 my uncle Deeb passed away when he was 54 due to a severe disease, and in 1996 my grandmother Khayriyeh also died. These events had a significant influence on my father’s works during these years. I was a witness to the scenes when my father kept asking my grandfather Qasem to be so kind and sit for him in his studio, so that he would be able to draw his face in a painting entitled “Ethnic Cleansing of the Arab Citizens on 22 April 1948”. Initially my grandfather repeatedly refused, but in the end consented. This is how this painting was created, which documents the scene of the flight from Haifa in 1948 through the port, into an “unknown world”, as my late uncle Deeb Abdi used to say before his death in 1992.

My grandfather died in 1992, but his wrinkled face and gray woolen hat remain at the center of the painting (above), which embodies the flight of the majority of the Arab citizens of Haifa, across the sea and along dusty roads, to unknown worlds in the Diaspora, and who die while eternally waiting to return. My grandfather Qasem was born in Haifa in 1900 (it is said that he was actually born in 1898) to a father named Deeb Abdi, who was also born in Haifa to a Palestinian Arab family, in 1860. My great-grandmother was named Zahra, and was descended from a Lebanese family named Al-Mukhtar, which originated from Tripoli and was nicknamed “The Family of the Virgin”. The family of my grandmother Khayriyeh Al-Haj originated from Lebanon and Egypt. My maternal great-grandmother, Fatima Al-Kalawi, had Lebanese roots, while the Al-Haj family is descended from Egyptian roots. Thus my father, Abed Al-Rahman Abdi, who was also born in Haifa, carries in his genes a cultural continuity stretching along the coast from Bur Fuad and the Kafr Lam estate near Caesarea, through Haifa, to Sidon and Tripoli in Lebanon. Furthermore, my aunt Lutfia Abdi Bedouan is still a refugee in the Al-Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus, together with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She is still awaiting her return to the place where she was born, Haifa, but in vain.

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My father’s works done during the 1990s brought his personal pain together with the violent impact of the Intifada and its projection onto his nation’s narrative. The paintings done by my father which were inspired by the first Intifada and the state of Palestinian affairs at the end of the 1990s, had a profound impact on his humanist and spiritual affectivity, particularly in the painting he did following the death of my grandmother Khayriyeh in 1996, in which she is depicted covered with a shroud, just like the young men who were killed in all the uprisings, bringing to mind the rituals of the Pharaohs at the scene of death, and in the eternal shroud which covers their deceased, or what is known in Jewish tradition as “Geniza”, of collecting Old Testament scripts and keeping them from burial until the funeral actually takes place.

A while ago when visiting Haifa, I was greatly humbled by two paintings I came across while documenting all my father’s paintings and illustrations for posting on his new website. The first was a photograph of my grandmother at a young age, wearing a black scarf from which delicate black hair tumbles, and around her neck the string of pearls which accompanied her for many long years.   That young lady seemed as if she were posing for the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, waiting for him to draw her at the end of the 19th century.

However, the background of this painting takes us to the worlds of the Palestinian refugee camps, where one sees parts of the hessian and the cloth used as sugar or flour bags, which were distributed to the refugee families by the aid agencies. The other painting: an image of my mother, first drawn, then carved on wood, and then printed, done by my father while he was a student. We mentioned earlier that his works in the first years of his studies in Germany were also influenced to a certain extent by the German painter of Hungarian origin, Albrecht Dürer. The face motif appears as if covered with Palestinian folk fabrics, wrapping a woman who appears to be European and who is expressing her solidarity with the core issues relating to this other nation, to our peoples.      

Land Day Monument

The “Land Day” incidents in 1976 that led to the death of six Galilee and “Triangle” area residents was a major trigger for the Land Protection Committee to ask my father to build the first Palestinian monument in Sakhnin, which was erected in 1977. As noted above, it is the first large-scale monument created in the Palestinian milieu, in the Galilean city of Sakhnin, by Abed Abdi and with the cooperation of his friend, the Israeli artist Gershon Knispel. The monument was erected to commemorate the six Land Day martyrs who were killed in defense of the land, honor and equality, as a result of Israeli expropriation of lands between the villages of Deir Hanna, Arrabeh and Sakhnin, and as a result of the politics of arbitrary oppression by successive Israeli governments against the Palestinian people that remained in their homeland.

The memorial, which was erected in the Muslim cemetery due to the refusal and threats by the regional construction and planning authority, that if it was erected in the flat architecture of the village, it would be destroyed. The monument was unveiled on 30 March 1977, on the second anniversary of the bloodbath, in the presence of thousands of Arab and progressive Jewish citizens. For the construction of this historical monument, the help of a cadre of builders was enlisted, who built its base from reinforced concrete, and then assisted with the assembly of the cast aluminum figures, which tell the story of the monument through presentation of the images of the mothers bereft of their martyr children, the defenders of the land and those remaining on it. The monument was built in the shape of a sarcophagus, a rectangular marble sepulcher, on which motifs of faces and ornaments were inscribed and which characterize classical Greek and Roman funerary art.

On the third anniversary of Land Day, Abed Abdi and his friend Gershon Knispel published the Land Day album, entitled “The Story of the Monument”, to which poet Samih al-Qassim, and writer Joshua Sobol also contributed. The album included photographs as well as the designs, which were inspired by the reality of the Palestinian situation and the struggle of people in general for a better society. The album was published in 1978 in numbered editions all signed by the artists.   In the Land Day album Abed Abdi stated: “Our common work with my friend Gershon Knispel is an embodiment of the idea of creative collaboration between the sons and daughters of these two peoples so that the tragedy will not to be repeated, and it is hoped that work for the present will give to the future monuments for peace and for our common existence on this land”.

Awards and Honors

  • 1973: The city of Haifa awarded Abdi the Hermann Struck Best Artist of the Year Prize in 1973.
  • 1999: Hermann Struck Best Artist of the Year Prize, municipality of the city of Haifa (for a second time).
  • 1999, 2001, 2002: A number of awards from local Rotary clubs in Haifa, Nazareth.
  • 2008: Abed Abdi became the first Arab artist living in Israel to win the Israeli Minister of Science, Culture and Sport Award for art and graphic art.[1]
  •  The Jury stated in their decision that “Abed Abdi’s Contribution in the making of collective visual culture among the Arab Israeli minority is unprecedented, and could be described as equivalent to Nahum Gutman‘s extent works.”[2]
  • see the official catalog of the winners, Ein Harod Museum of Art, at p.22-23
    Replying to a question from an interviewer regarding the excitement generated by the event in the Israeli media, Abdi said, “If I really am the first Arab artist, it is neither a compliment to me nor to 60 years of the State of Israel”.[3]
    Israeli curator Tal Ben Zvi commented that “Indeed, it seems that thus Abdi faithfully summed up the attitude of both the state and the Israeli art establishment towards Palestinian art inside the Green Line. Abdi, the prolific and groundbreaking artist in so many respects in the sphere of Palestinian art, was forced to wait until he was sixty-six to gain this recognition.”[Wa Ma Nasina (We Have Not Forgotten)]

 

  • In 2010, the mayor of the city of Haifa awarded him the title of notable citizen of Haifa .[6]

 

    • Art Collections:

      Public Collections:

    • Academy of Fine Arts, Dresden, Germany
    • Ministry of Culture, Sofia, Bulgaria
    • Archives of Israel Museum
    • Archives of the art collection of the Presidential Palace, Republic of Hungary
    • Her Royal Highness Princess Wijdan Ali, Amman
    • National Museum, Amman, Jordan
    • Ministry of Culture, Palestinian Authority
    • Municipality of Oldenburg,Germany
    • Municipal Museum of Gyor for Contemporary Arts, Gyor, Hungary
    • Hagar Gallery (Tel Aviv, Israel)
    • Um El Fahem Gallery (Um El Fahem, Israel)
    • Hajduboszormeny Varosi Museum (Hungary)
    • Collection of Amos Shoken (Haaretz, Tel Aviv, Israel)
    • Office of the Chief Archibishop of Hungary (Esztergom, Hungary)
    • The British Museum (London, UK)
    • Dar Alnimmer (Beirut, Lebanon)
    • DAF (Beirut, Lebanon)
    • International Art Colony

    Private Collections: Israel, Palestine, Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany, France, Russia, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, USA, UAE, Qatar, Australia, Belgium.

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