LAILA SHAWA, Palestine(1940 – 2022)

15 mins read

Laila Shawa, a prominent artist born in 1940 into a wealthy Gazan family, embarked on a remarkable journey that intertwined her passion for art with a fervent commitment to social and political engagement. Her artistic career, marked by colorful experimentation and unwavering advocacy, serves as a testament to her resilience and determination in navigating the complexities of her identity and environment.

Shawa’s artistic odyssey commenced in the mid-1950s amidst a fortuitous encounter over tea with her father and a family friend. Despite being enrolled in political science and sociology at the American University of Cairo, Shawa’s exceptional drawing skills caught the attention of an architect friend, prompting a pivotal suggestion to pursue art education at the Leonardo Da Vinci School of Art in Cairo. With her father’s support, Shawa embarked on a transformative path that would shape her future as an artist.

Following her initial year at the Leonardo Da Vinci School, Shawa further honed her skills at the School of Fine Arts in Rome, earning a BA with honors in 1960. Her quest for artistic mastery led her to the Scuola di Arti Ornamentali San Giacomo in Rome, where she delved into plastic and decorative arts, enriching her repertoire. Notably, she sought inspiration from summer courses with Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka in Salzburg, further enriching her artistic vision.

Returning to Gaza in 1965, Shawa assumed a pivotal role as a supervisor for the UNRWA arts and crafts education division, advocating for artistic expression amidst tumultuous times. Her dedication extended to lecturing at the UNESCO Institute of Education, underscoring her commitment to nurturing creativity and knowledge dissemination.

In 1968, Shawa relocated to Beirut, embracing a full-time artistic pursuit until the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. Amidst the ensuing turmoil, she navigated between London and Gaza over the next twelve years, devoting herself to realizing the Rashad Shawa Cultural Center’s vision in Gaza, named after her father. Despite facing numerous setbacks, including occupation and bombardment, Shawa’s unwavering determination to establish a haven for artistic expression underscores her enduring optimism and resilience.

Throughout her illustrious career, Shawa’s artistic endeavors transcended conventional boundaries, encompassing diverse mediums ranging from oil paintings to fashion mannequins adorned with intricately arranged rhinestones. Central to her artistic expression is the vibrant utilization of color, juxtaposing jovial tones with thought-provoking subject matters.

One of Shawa’s seminal works, “AKA Peace” (2012), epitomizes her commitment to social and political engagement. Transforming a decommissioned Kalashnikov machine gun into a symbol of peace adorned with gold paint, rhinestones, and plastic butterflies, Shawa challenges conventional narratives surrounding conflict and violence.

Notably, Shawa’s “Impossible Dream” series (1987-88) encapsulates her steadfast opposition to the veil’s imposition on women. Through satirical depictions of veiled women holding ice cream cones, she critiques societal norms and patriarchal structures, urging women to reclaim their agency and demand respect.

Shawa’s advocacy extends beyond artistic expression, as she vehemently denounces the veiling practice’s socio-political underpinnings. Drawing from her experiences during the First Intifada in Gaza, she underscores the intersectionality of gender and political agency, urging women to resist societal constraints and assert their worth.

Despite residing between London, UK, and Vermont, USA, Shawa’s connection to her Palestinian roots remains palpable in her artistic oeuvre. Her relentless pursuit of justice and empowerment resonates globally, transcending geographical boundaries and inspiring countless individuals to confront societal injustices.

In essence, Laila Shawa’s artistic journey exemplifies the transformative power of creativity and advocacy, forging a path towards social change and empowerment. Her legacy serves as a beacon of hope, illuminating the transformative potential of art in challenging oppressive systems and fostering a more equitable world.

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SAMIA HALABY, Palestine (1936)

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