A Personal Statement by Sari Khoury (1996)

My family lived in the new sector of Jerusalem, Palestine until 1948 when we were all forced to leave our homes under a hail of bullets and explosions during the war. We left everything behind including all our family albums. I was seven years at the time, and the ensuing years were extremely difficult for a family that had been accustomed to a comfortable cultured way of life. My father was a headmaster of an idealistic private school that he had founded with educator Khalil Sakakini. He had invested a lifetime of hard earned savings and an unrelenting dedication for liberal education only to have them crushed but continued to teach and enlighten others for the rest of his life.

My upbringing was mainly in Ramallah, at the time, a beautiful resort village with inhabitants from time immemorial, very industrious and bent on education. Having lost everything and not being able to return, life was a bitter economic struggle for my family of eight children. My parents worked so hard to keep us together as a family unit. Due to economic difficulties my older siblings were forced to leave home at an early age to seek work and education. Thus our family was being dispersed gradually— each of us ending up in some corner of the world or another, like all the rest of the Palestinians.

The dispossession of a homeland took its toll on our entire family. As an impressionable child I witnessed all kinds of upheavals and painful situations and learned to internalize the agony of our impoverished status. My therapy from all this was in drawing. I drew figures, and tormented faces, old wrinkled people. From an early age, I rejected bourgeois values, pretty objects of art, and political deception. Even then, I knew that to pursue art would be a lonely voyage. Why? Because art was not foremost on the minds of the people of the Diaspora. And my quest was not to make pretty pictures, but to meet the intellectual and emotional challenges I had to face. I was then starting from square one as all the Palestinian people had to do. I had to find out who I was- my identity. I had to face the humiliation of the defeated and corrupt Arab nations. I had to deal with the distorted images of my culture, and attempted to defend my identity to my Western friends whom were duped by the media. I had to rise above that humiliation.

My early encounter with painting was in watching my older sisters create in watercolors and color pencils. It was a tradition among school girls to exchange autographs with each other and to fill them with drawings and poems. Those little images appealed to me. I also took interest in comic books. To me, they exemplified a sense of justice as in the old American West where the bad guys always got put away. The Israelis who took our homeland, to me, were the bad guys, and would eventually be put away. So I created my own comics dealing with themes of justice. I also spent countless hours at the American Council library looking at works of art of the masters, and in many instances the work of American artists. When I started school in a small liberal arts college in Ohio, my art professor was stunned I had already known more about the American painters than the entire Freshman class.

My youthful associations included a friendship with the artist Kamal Boullata. He and I met at the Orthodox club in Jerusalem in the mid fifties where we exhibited at the annual juried exhibitions. That was an extremely nourishing friendship that included various discourses on art that helped crystallize my sense of esthetics. We discussed topics such as art for art's sake, cubism, expressionism, symbolism, and social realism. Social realism was the style that appealed mostly to young Palestinian artists then. I experimented with it for a while, but felt then, as I do now, that as a style, it was a dead end. Even though it had it's place in a bourgeoning society and specifically in an oppressed society, I felt political graffiti proved more effective in communicating social and political messages. Art always suffered when it became the mouthpiece of political ideology. It then became apparent that art's place was more universal than nationalistic, and to serve my culture best I had to prove myself on the world's arena. My idiom was the best way to serve one's nation was to do one's best in what one can do best.

Nationalistic and cultural influences are for the most part intrinsic to everything we do. In art, symbols, images and historical precedents always make themselves apparent unconsciously. I.e. if they mean anything at all to the artist. So there is no reason to force feed those issues into one's art. In my case, having learned to write in Arabic meant the cursive line was important to me, and hence I always include the cursive whiplash line. My sense of space is also based on the importance of negative space to Arabic writing where emptiness equalizes written space. Also the sense of rhythm that is inherent to Arabic writing.

As a youngster, I spent a lot of time studying the designs in our oriental rug to see how all the units interlocked in a rhythmical figure-ground relationship. But there is more to cultural influences that can be hidden and inherent. Nature has its influences in subtle ways- such as an abundance of blue where blue skies abound in ones childhood. Mannerisms and customs such as associated with native Jerusalemites, which were characterized by gentleness and civility, somehow manifest themselves in methods of expression. I had also spent time observing religious icons. While for the most part crude, naive, and lacking in drawing skills, they seemed to exude with emotional intensity hidden under the flat golds, blues and reds.

My work evolved in many directions over the years. The teacher in me is always dictating something new for me to strive for. I have tried an a.e. style, hard edge, geometric, organic, flat and textured. Most recently I have settled on a freer style working in acrylics and pastels on paper. The activity of drawing is important to me even as I paint. So there is always the presence of the line either used independently or as it describes the edge of a shape. I have learned that it could be spontaneous or restrained or awkward or jagged or fluent thus expressing my emotional state of mind much as a jazz musician chooses to fluctuate with the mood of the moment.

Color meant more to me earlier, but recently I have given it less importance in avoidance of what can become decorative. Paint application is also becoming important to me. Not as a fixed style, but in exploring various mark-making and layering effects. I have for most of my career avoided falling a victim to a single process. In this respect, I am an avid follower of the painter Paul Klee, and admire very much his innovative spirit. I also had a great admiration for Kandinsky, Ben Nicholson, and Arshile Gorky.

As for the Abstract Expressionist, I still subscribe to the gutsy fatalistic nature of that movement, but recently find myself bored with the likes of Motherwell who was hero to all the art students when I was at Cranbrook in the mid sixties. Now, I realize one can only go so far with iconoclasm, and one can hence paint oneself into a corner. The need to paint imagery is taking even a greater hold of the artist nowadays. Artists like Clemente, Cuchi, Chia, and Guston all have done wonderful things with the figure, and it would be tempting to follow their lead, but they are the exception to a lot of bad figurative art being done today. In my work, I choose to imply the figure but not dwell on it. And I can never subscribe to using the figure in a literal or a literary manner.

In this day and age, after so much exposure to a variety of art styles and after witnessing a breakdown in artistic and cultural barriers, the playing field has become more open for us as artists. Whether it is technology as in computer art, or conceptual art, or through retroactive discoveries, there is a wealth of possibilities within the reach of the artist, but they must be characterized with freshness and integrity, and that is the hardest thing to do. That realization comes from the academic world that I am a part of. This has never been a worse time for imitative art where in our perception and understanding of our world we have become, in Plato's words, thrice (or many more times) removed from reality.