Palestinian artist and scholar Kamal Boullata passed away in Berlin Wednesday. He was 77.
Boullata was born in Jerusalem in 1942 and the Palestinian capital’s visual culture was a primary inspiration for his work.
Having been forced into exile following Israel’s occupation of the city in 1967, identity became another key theme in Boullata’s work.
He spent the last five decades of his life moving between the U.S., Morocco and France before settling in Berlin in 2012. After studying fine art in Rome at the Accademia di Belle Arti in 1965, Boullata received a Master of Fine Arts from the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1971.
His essay “Art in the Time of the Palestinian Revolution,” published in the Lebanese journal Mawaqif in January 1971, sketches how authentic revolutionary Palestinian art should look: not the easily sold rehashing of Palestinian motifs, but artwork that moves forward into new forms and ideas. “There are two figures in society whose words are less important than their deeds,” the essay begins, “the politician and the artist. An Arab painter who sits holding forth about art instead of actually painting is much like the Arab politician who stands at a podium lecturing us about our future history as we lie in our beds.”
In the ’70s and ’80s, Boullata was part of the “hurufiyya movement,” in which Arab artists sought to infuse Arabic calligraphy with the spirit and practices of modernism.
While his earlier works evinced the influence of geometry he later acquired an interest in depicting light and transparency. Reflecting upon his paintings of natural light in a 2018 interview with Electronic Intifada, Boullata remarked, “Perhaps it was the light of Jerusalem that I have been seeking to recapture all along.”
Boullata studied Islamic art in Morocco in the 1990s, and in 2001 he began research into the origins of contemporary art in Palestine. His work led to the publication of four pioneering studies on Palestinian art and globalization, the first in Arabic and three more in English.
Early responses to Boullata’s passing included a tweet from PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi. “Palestine has just lost a truly exceptional pioneering artist & cultural trailblazer,” she wrote. “Kamal Boullata’s passing is a personal & collective tragedy. He occupied a special space in the universe of creative genius with a rich & myriad legacy rarely ever achieved. We mourn him deeply.”
“I am saddened by the sudden loss of the incredibly warm, optimistic and generous, Palestinian artist & intellectual Kamal Boullata,” tweeted Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFares, founding director of the Khatt Foundation, Center for Arabic Typography. “He was an inspiring creative force. I feel blessed to have known him and will greatly miss him as friend. My condolences to Lily, & his family.”