Twenty years after Naji al-Ali’s assassination by unidentified gunmen, his satirical and tragic depictions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue to be pertinent expressions of torture, fear and the global addiction to oil.
A man struggles with arms tied behind his back, writhing in pain as he looks away from a crescent moon enveloped in black. A woodpecker diligently pecks away at a series of hangman’s gallows. A man is choked by an oil drum clasped around his neck with the letters “US” inscribed on its side. A lecherous old man holding a bathing suit riddled with Stars of David leers at a Palestinian woman dressed in a traditional embroidered thobe.
Originally published in Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas from 1983 until al-Ali’s assassination in 1987, much of al-Ali’s audience was composed of Palestinian refugees. Judeo-Christian religious symbols and images of Israeli and American militarism in the cartoons put blame of the conflict on the West. But as both a Palestinian refugee and political cartoonist, al-Ali felt his role was to bring “critical reflection and rejection of the conditions that he and fellow refugees were subject to,” explains exhibition curator Haseeb Ahmed.
Pictures of legless Palestinians and corpulent Arab politicians show that al-Ali’s criticism is more broadly directed toward those in power, reflecting the reality of tight quarters in refugee camps, control by upper classes, and political calculation to the detriment of the powerless.
Al-Ali is most sympathetic to women, children and peasants, as he attempts to document their plight through the creation of the character Handala, an innocent witness who has come to symbolize Palestinian resistance. Often with his back toward the viewer, Handala observes the dystopian events before him, powerless to stop the atrocities of politicians and soldiers.
A woman cries behind barbed wire, with rose in hand. A farmer and his family wander at night, dismayed as he reaps his crops with a bayonet. His crops are hearts that come out of a desert ground covered with stars of David. A young girl cries as her pigtails are spread across a crucifix.
Jewish, Islamic and Christian symbols are used to suggest that the absurdity of the conflict is not race or religion specific. One scene depicts a woman who could be the Virgin Mary, whom Muslims and Christians revere. In her hands is a child who looks forebodingly at a floating word: it is the inscription “Palestine” featuring a crescent moon and a crucifix in place of the letter “t.” One wonders if this child is asking, “Why?” (Ben Broeren)
“On Naji al-Ali” shows at Around the Coyote, 1935 1/2 West North, through May 3.