AAI Remembers Kamal Boullata

Posted by Tess Waggoner on August 07, 2019 at 10:01 AM

Born in Jerusalem in 1942, Kamal Boullata was a pioneer in both the practice of and scholarship on contemporary Arabic art, renown for evocative works across a variety of artistic mediums in addition to his steadfast dedication to the people, history and rich culture of Palestine. Through his visionary artistic, cultural and humanitarian expressions, Kamal Boullata will be remembered for his art works ability to offer a glimpse of the peace and bonds of common humanity that remain unseen, unrealized in our political landscape still today. A dear friend of the Arab American Institute, we mourn and remember him, sending condolences to his family and those whose lives he touched with thoughtful scholarship, tremendous contributions to modern Arab art, and by directing his talents to protect and defend human rights.   

Kamal Boullata reimagined the possibilities of color, geometry, language, and artistic expression of the universal human desires for self-expression and self-governance. As a child Kamal Boullata studied iconography in the studio of Khalil Al-Halaby, a first apprenticeship, encouraged by his father. He sketched the Dome of the Rock and its magnificent geometric patterns in what were the first etchings that left an impression that would later add immense social historical weight to the calligraphic motifs he would paint. As a young man, his promise was recognized with a scholarship that took him to Europe where he graduated from the Academia di Belle Arte (The Academy of Art) in Rome. Upon returning home he was at the forefront of a general art awakening in the region; however, the 1967 war forced Boullata to leave Jerusalem. 

Immigrating to the United States in 1968, Boullata continued his studies at the Corcoran Academy for the Fine Arts in Washington, D.C., from 1968 to 1971 (now known as the Corocoran School of Art and Design at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.).  During this time, in addition to teaching fine art in Georgetown, Boullata made significant contributions to the cause of Palestinian activism and the Arab American sociopolitical awakening occurring in this period. He designed a wide range of posters highlighting the Palestinian struggle for justice and designed the logos of several Arab American institutions and Palestinian aid organizations. His work in this early period made an indelible impression on the visual identity of Arab American and Palestinian human rights activism. 



Kamal Boullata began his career as a visual artist, but his impact in Arab American art criticism, cultural production and overarching work to disseminate the culture and history of Arab and Palestinian poetry and art were also deeply profound. In 1976 he published Women of the Fertile Crescent: An Anthology of Modern Poetry by Arab Women, and co-edited with Mirène Ghossein The World of Rashid Hussein. By 1982, his art works had been exhibited in Jerusalem, Amman, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Tunis, Tehran, Rome, London, Moscow, Zurich, New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. The iconic line drawings were quickly integrated into publications by significant male Arab authors of the twentieth century, including Adonis, Yusuf Idris, Elias Khouri, Halim Barakat, Naguib Mahfouz, and Ghassan Kanafani. as well as a number of groundbreaking anthologies, The Palestinian Wedding: A Bilingual Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Poetrycollected and translated by A.M. Elmessiri and dedicated to Ghassan Khanafani

But 1982 was a significant year for another reason. Seven years before the term “intersectional” was first coined by Dr. Kimberlé CrenshawBoullata was a leader in fostering such solidarity among artists and activists in Washington, D.C. He led the organizing of a reading, first in New York in partnership with PEN to raise funds for UNICEF alongside prominent Black and American Jewish poets. Rep. John Conyers emceed the event, and they later staged readings on Capitol Hill and in Detroit, raising awareness of the humanitarian crisis resulting from Israel’s 1982 war on Lebanon. The first publication which resulted from these collaborative efforts was, And not surrender: American poets on Lebanon, which Boullata edited.  

In 1988, Kamal Boullata co-curated the first exhibition of works by Israeli and Palestinian artists. On this occasion, an Israeli-Palestinian Peace Treaty, the first of its kind, was signed by more than one hundred Israeli and Palestinian writers, artists and academics. It called for a just solution for Palestinian refugees, and the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. Following the first Palestinian Intifada, Boullata authored Faithful Witnesses: Palestinian Children Recreate Their World, a collection of paintings from Palestinian children. 


Kamal Boullata created new possibilities of employing sociopolitical heritage in visual culture. In addition to his tremendous and varied outputs as a visual artist, Kamal Boullata must also be remembered for his profound impact on scholarship of Arab art and culture. He was the recipient of a Fulbright Senior Scholar Award in the 1993-1994 academic year, where he researched Islamic art in Morocco, and in 2001 he received a Ford Foundation grant to pursue research on the influence of post-Byzantine art on Palestinian painting. One of his foremost Arabic language publications was Recovery of Place: A Study of Contemporary Palestinian Art, published in 2000; in 2007 he returned to his collaboration with Cathy Engel to revise and re-release their anthology, co-editing, We Begin Here: Poems for Palestine and Lebanon, a compendium of outstanding American writing on conflicts in those places. The following year Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present was released; this volume is sure to be remembered as one of the greatest contributions to the study of the history and culture of Palestine, and has been described as his magnum opus. Also in 2008, he edited, Belonging and Globalization: Critical Essays in Contemporary Art & CultureIn 2012-13, Kamal Boullata was elected as a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, during which time he published Between Exits, the first monograph to trace the career of Palestinian artist Hani Zurob. We eagerly anticipate two new collections forthcoming from Hirmer Press; There Where You Are Not: Selected Writings of Kamal Boullata, and Uninterrupted Fugue: The Art of Kamal Boullata, edited and with an introduction by Burcu Dogramaci. 



When in 2017 the Arab American Institute Foundation honored Mr. Boullata with an award of special recognition, Executive Director Maya Berry said, “For Palestinians, art is a source of optimism, courage and steadfastness. It’s a statement of determination, human endurance and celebration of the human spirit. Kamal Boullata is one of the great artists breathing life into this ideal. He has given so much, not only to Palestinians and Arab Americans but to humanity which is why we are honored to give him this special recognition.” Next month, AAI will come together with the Washington, D.C. community to remember Mr. Boullata's profound legacy. 

There's one more thing we have to say about Kamal Boullata: at the Arab American Institute, his art works hang all over our office. We are always delighted anew by those struck by his works when visiting our space. We hang Kamal Boullata’s art works in our office to remind us: where we come from, where we’ve been, and the coalitions we must build to get where we must go. We are proud every time a new guest gets to experience the beauty of his vision: The power of art to speak to those things that make us human, like a sense of home, dignity, freedom...sumud. The power of bringing people together to tell the stories not just that others can’t or won’t tell, but that only they, we, can.