Homesickness, or perhaps more a yearning for a lost home, is a significant theme in the burgeoning oeuvre of Samah Shihadi.
She uses graphite and charcoal to paint subjects including vegetables, fruit and herbs. Motifs such as thyme and fig leaves are not selected by chance: these are common products in Palestine. At first glance, the works appear to be exquisite botanical renderings. But closer inspection is accompanied by a rising sense of nostalgia. This sensation is intensified by Shihadi’s sombre use of colour, which is reminiscent of old black-and-white photographs. And with photographic precision, Shihadi raises cooking and eating together to ritual heights. The dinner table serves as an anchor for families as they reminisce, using food, fragrances and tastes to keep their history alive. Away from the kitchen, Shihadi also draws narratives of the present and past.
Shihadi’s landscapes pay homage to birthplaces of generations ago. The artist took photographs of what she encountered as she travelled through deserted regions, and these images are transformed into monumental drawings, occasionally featuring members of her family. And sometimes only stony ruins, relics of old buildings. Shihadi’s (grand)parents were from Mi’ar, and could never return to their village after it was destroyed in circa 1948. The native cactus, prickly but strong, is a recurring subject in Shihadi’s work. The plant grows where the houses once stood of a community now scattered around the world. And for many Palestinians, the cactus is linked to their identity; symbolic of patience and resistance.
Nevertheless, Palestinian traditions are at risk of being forgotten in the diaspora. Shihadi appears to want to use her art to enrich the collective memory. She preserves cultural customs for the future, reserving a lead role for women as bearers of family traditions and cultural heritage. In some of her works, Shihadi portrays her mother and sister in the domestic domain, sovereign in a patriarchal society controlled by men. These women’s activities appear practical and earthly, guided by the everyday.
There is also a feminist slant to Shihadi’s drawings. She uses metaphorical symbols to enshroud other – visibly independent – female figures in her work in surreal atmospheres. In part inspired by classical tarot cards and astrology, Shihadi mythologises the woman in a series of mystical self-portraits. The artist portrays herself as Lady Justice, a high priestess or an empress. Stately and powerful. With attributes such as a sword and scales, borrowed from Western legal symbology dating back to Roman times. Or with a Coptic cross, the sign of life stemming from Ancient Egypt. The woman here has an inviolable, almost supernatural status. She has a magical identity, which transcends religion and background. Which transcends history itself. Without a home, suspended in an empty universe, she was always destined to assume her rightful position.