The Occupation of Rasha Eleyan: Pop Art and Palestine

Artist: Rasha Eleyan

The Palestinian Sunbird stands out against the landscape of Palestine. In jewel colours of royal blue and emerald green, its colours are as rich and dense as an oil painting against the watercolour-like terrain of its home. But its passerine cousin, the Crimson Sunbird, is the species that reminds Palestinian artist, Rasha Eleyan, of home. It’s the national bird of Singapore, where she’s been based for 19 years, and a regular visitor outside her window, free to come and go as it pleases. Unlike one of the muses that serves as inspiration for Rasha’s upcoming political pop art series focusing on the occupation of Palestine, Ahed Tamimi. Until recently, the 17-year-old, unusually golden-haired girl, had been imprisoned for kicking at an Israeli soldier. A caged bird burning bright and fighting to protect her home outside. Indeed, as well as vibrant colours and a jingling song, the Palestinian Sunbird possesses a harsh alarm call to attract attention when things go wrong.

But the women of Palestine are like that. They have been boldly flocking to the streets with fire in their bellies to protest domestic issues and international ones for generations. “Palestine is an old woman. She’s a mother with a big stick whipping everyone in to shape,” explains Rasha. “Women are always the ones out on the street protesting things and raising the alarm. Not just about seizing land and Israeli settlements, but things like taxes and education too. That’s why I want to feature Ahed in a painting. I don’t come from somewhere bright and colourful. But these beautiful, fragile women are using their voices to resist. It’s all we can do.”

“195th Member (Zaghrouta)”, Acrylic on canvas, 2012

Arty-Fact: “My 195th Member (Zaghrouta) depicts a memory from my childhood in Dubai. My father, the painter Nasr Abel Aziz Eleyan,who at the time worked as a creative director for Dubai television, had set up a small working studio in our home where he spent the majority of his time when there. It was in this studio where he would create paintings depicting the traditional Palestinian way of life.

“His paintings captured beautiful women with long, dark hair, wearing Palestinian Thobe (traditional dress) carrying out tasks from daily rural life, with a pensive, distant look on their face — as if they are suspended in time in quiet mourning.” — Rasha Eleyan

Rasha is adding her voice to a cause that has had a bearing on who she is her whole life. And she does it in her own unique style. It may seem a long way from her Disney beginnings — more on that later — but when you see her large format pop art pieces in primary colours, featuring superbly executed photo realism elements, you can trace the journey. “I’m born to refugees. I come from a place without bright colours or hope. So I was drawn to material that my father had laying around, like the movie Fantasia. Disney became a part of my life. I began to copy the drawings in these animation books that my father had and I became a good cartoonist. But it was Roger Rabbit that really affected me. I became obsessed with the play between humans and cartoon characters and you can now see that in my work. I combine cartoon or pop art with the hyper real.”

The absurdity of this contrast makes the message all the more poignant when you realise the pop art you’re viewing, on closer inspection, is actually a depiction of blood flowing through the streets. “People are baffled by my work sometimes,” Rasha says. “They don’t always know what they’re looking at.” It’s easy to understand what she means. Her pop art pieces are so cheerful that they belie a dark subject that gradually appears like one of those trick eye images. And her photo realism is so real that people think they’re looking at photographs that have been superimposed digitally onto the canvas. “I sometimes imagine that my artwork is purchased by people unaware of the paintings subtext and these subversive messages might be hanging on important walls all around the world unknowingly influencing people. Wouldn’t that be great?”

“The Gardens of Death”, Acrylic and oil on canvas, 2011

Arty-Fact: “From a shockingly inappropriate young age I was exposed to the idea of torture and I can confidently say that for a child with my vivid imagination it was, and remains to be my single scariest haunting thought until this day.

“Overhearing adults recalling stories of torture in the Arab world from the 60s, 70s and 80s, or maybe in films like in the scene where you only hear the screams of Mahmoud Abdel Aziz as the betrayed and angry drug dealers pull out his nails in the movie “Kitkat” (which sadly remains one of my absolute favourite movies), I suffered great anxiety as a child of 7 or 8 years old from these thoughts. So, when the Arab Spring unleashed a wave of torture and abuse as authoritarian regimes clamped down to cling to power, that fear once again surfaced and I became obsessed with the idea of torture.

“While alone in my studio in Singapore, I listened to online radio reporting the events from the Middle East during all my waking hours, and I would make notes and research techniques such as “The Fying Carpet” and “The German Chair” used against the brave protestors in a renewed absolute horror.” — Rasha Eleyan

Rasha made this step in her artwork — using pop art as a device — after serendipity brought her a job at Disney. It was uncanny that she should wind up working for the company that so influenced her view on the confluence between fairy-tale and real-life drama. “Working for Disney, I felt I accomplished something that rounded out my early fascination with it. It’s a big company that keeps its people focused on the brand, and the right mood. They do it incredibly well and it was a rewarding experience. But in the end I wanted to create my own original work, not be an animator.” Her job as an Associate Producer brought her to Singapore in 2001 and ironically, she was responsible for the content broadcast by the channel to the Middle East, as well as Asia.

It’s worth pointing out that Rasha’s biggest influence is the father that owned the Disney material she found at home. Nasr Abdel Aziz Eleyan, is a well-known, Jordan-based, Palestinian artist and TV Director, known for his paintings that depict Palestinian village life and culture. “Of course my father and I have very different styles. But there is a feeling we both share. You can see birds in my father’s paintings and I find them incredibly sweet. But I noticed he is saying something about us in his own way. About what it means to be trapped, threatened, forgotten, frightened. The birds are sitting on barbed wire.”

Left: “Portrait of Rasha” by Nasr Abdel Aziz Eleyan, oil on canvas, 1999; Right: “Untitled” by Nasr Abdel Aziz Eleyan, oil on canvas, 1991

Arty-Fact: “My father and I have very different styles. But there is a feeling we both share. You can see birds in my father’s paintings and I find them incredibly sweet. But I noticed he is saying something about us in his own way. About what it means to be trapped, threatened, forgotten, frightened.” ~ Rasha Eleyan

Living distanced from her homeland, in addition to her pop art and photo realism still-life paintings, Rasha has also become popular for her beautiful watercolours depicting Singapore’s Crimson Sunbird, by people wanting a little bit of national identity to admire on their walls. The irony.

“Crimson Sunbird and Tea Cups”, Giclée and watercolour on paper, 2017

Rasha is currently gathering elements and ideas for her latest series, to protect and explore the identity of a culture that is overshadowed by border trouble reduced to media sound bytes. She aptly mentions a quote by Daniel Quinn, posted recently on Addicted Art Gallery’s social media platforms, in relation to photographer Fred Stichnoth’s work documenting the disappearing tribes of the East Indies: “Every time the Takers stamp out a Leaver culture, a wisdom ultimately tested since the birth of mankind disappears from the world beyond recall.” Unlike her depiction of the settlements in Jerusalem for the Cradle of Civilisation exhibition in Amman, Jordan, her Palestine series has bigger fish to fry. Like, how to survive in a world where Jerusalem is bestowed the title of the capital of Israel by an American head of state. “We continue to open our mouths in Palestine knowing we’ll get locked up. There are countless people incarcerated without fair reason. Many are children. And they stay there forever because no one can hear them. But Ahed Tamimi got out. She was noticed.”

And we’re taking notice of Rasha too. Addicted Art Gallery are going to be covering the development of Rasha’s latest project in a series of blog posts and videos. We’ll look at how she generates her ideas, what influences her, the planning that goes into her pieces and how they are executed, until her 100 Years of Frustration series launches. Keep reading and watching!

“Dubai — The Pearl”, Acrylic on canvas, 2016

Arty-Fact: “In my Middle East collection of paintings, I wanted to capture cities that are closer to my heart so I started with Dubai where I was born and lived the first 18 years of my life. When I think of Dubai, I am mostly fascinated by the loyalty to its traditions, the way Emirati women elevated the shayla scarf and the over-garment, robe-like Abaya. Accessorized with high-end luxury-branded over-sized sunglasses, big heels and big bouffant hair partly hidden by the shayla.

“Since painting this a couple of years ago, I have been asked repeatedly about my idea behind the veiled woman and unfortunately more than once I was asked if it was about the oppression of women in the Middle East — which is an upsetting stereotype. National dress is a matter of deep-rooted pride for Emiratis, they elevate and make it luxurious and contemporary while remaining immediately recognisable for what it is, so it’s a cool inspiration for me to paint.” — Rasha Eleyan

Written for Addicted Art Gallery by Skye Wellington, Lens & Pen Projects

Our aim at Addicted Art Gallery is to connect you to art in a friendly, posh-less, non-highbrow kind of way. Check out our portfolio at www.addictedgallery.com

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