Born in Jerusalem, Vera Tamari is a visual artist, Islamic art historian, art educator and curator. She received her undergraduate degree in Fine Arts from the Beirut College for Women (now LAU) in 1966 and specialized in ceramics at the Istituto Statale d’Arte per la Ceramica in Florence, Italy in 1974. In 1984 she obtained an M.Phil. Degree in Islamic Art and Architecture from the University of Oxford and served for more than two decades as professor of Islamic Art and Architecture and Art History at Birzeit University, where she also founded and directed the Birzeit University Museum between 2005 and 2010. Tamari is actively involved in the promotion of art and culture in Palestine and serves as advisor and member to numerous institutions and cultural boards. As an artist she specializes in ceramic sculpture and conceptual art and has exhibited widely in Palestine, the Arab World and internationally. Intimate Reflections: The Art of Vera Tamari, featuring her art and career, was published by the A.M. Qattan Foundation in 2021. She published in 2022, Returning: Palestinian Family Memories in Clay Reliefs, Photographs and Text.
This month, Vera Tamari spoke to Fobzu about her extensive experience in the art world and the importance of art education in Palestine.
Tell us a little about yourself and when it was you realised you were passionate about visual art and wanted to pursue this as a career?
My parents are originally from the coastal city of Yaffa. We are a family of art lovers. My mother was extremely passionate about and interested in art. She had studied in a convent school in Jerusalem and took art and painting lessons with a nun. When she finished school, she created a small atelier and alongside her sister, would make crafts and sell them for charitable bazaars. On the other hand, my father was a great lover of antiques and objects. He too instilled in us a kind of love for art and collectables. My older sister, Tania, is a singer, critic and translator. My late brother Vladimir, was a prominent painter and inventor. He lived for his art. The whole family had instilled within us a real love for nature, for the land and for the people around us.
I myself wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after high school. I was inspired by my brother’s art, his drawing and sketching at home. Unlike him, I wasn’t a ‘born artist’. I was a little shy. When I went to college I enrolled as a student of Fine Arts at the Beirut College for Women. After graduating, I became a teacher at a women’s teacher training college run by UNRWA in Ramallah. My students and I were of a similar age and they were to become art teachers. Teaching for me was an eye-opening and a moving experience. I started realising what it means to be involved in the arts. I wanted my students to look at things perceptively, to think about them, to observe, explore and analyse. I pursued an experimental approach in teaching. What I wanted to relay to my students is that one doesn’t have to be an artist to teach art. A teacher needs to inspire and stimulate and to be sensitive to children’s individual needs, to the environment and surroundings. This teaching experience was extremely inspiring for me. I did it for 2 or 3 years before I went to Italy and specialised in ceramics.
You were the first artist to establish a ceramics art studio in the West Bank. How was your work received at home and how has your practise evolved in Palestine?
I started a small ceramics workshop when I returned from Italy. At the time, as a studio potter, there were very few people to whom I could relate professionally, since studio pottery was still a new practice in Palestine. It was also unusual for this craft, specially working on the wheel, to be undertaken by a woman – this was traditionally something that men did. People were thrilled in some ways but I also faced many challenges. Even so, when I had my first show everything sold. I didn’t have a single piece to keep after that show. From there, I slowly developed my practice. I worked on sculptural ceramics and incorporated in my work pottery shards and design from archaeological digs. This was my way of incorporating memory and history into my work. I did a lot of work around the themes of occupation in the late 70s and early 80s, especially the fractured landscape of Palestine.
My work also came with the rise of a new visual language in Palestine, one which expressed the struggle against the occupation and the search for liberation and freedom. Many artists were honouring in their works some politically charged themes such as Land Day and Prisoner Day, I myself wasn’t using the commonly used political symbols which other artists used such as the white dove, the rooted olive tree, or the shackled hands. I felt more driven by the deep connection that Palestinian peasants hold with their land. I visited with my students in many villages and even refugee camps to study and document the traditional village crafts still practiced then – many of which have sadly since died. We covered crafts like pottery making by women in Sinjel and carpet weaving in Hebron. I learned a lot through that. When I came back, I became mesmerised by the authenticity of the villages and the work taking place there. As a city person, this was all new to me. I observed village life and learned from it. My work and my experience were direct, not ideological.
You recently published a book, Returning: Palestinian Family Memories in Clay Reliefs, Photographs and Texts, in collaboration with Birzeit University. Can you tell us a bit about the book, what art and memory mean to you, and what led you to publish it?
Returning is almost exclusively about art and memory. The terra cotta relief images in the book were inspired by old family photographs from my father’s photographic archive. I started writing about the people in those photographs. I selected 10 reliefs which I had created in the 1980s and 1990s and wrote 10 stories about them. Even though I am not a writer myself, the fluidity of writing the narrative came naturally. The underlying theme for the book is all about remembrance. Some of the pictures representing my father allowed me to construct a story about his life as a young man and the social life he engaged in with other young men of his social milieu in Jaffa and later as a clerk with the British Mandate Government, in Hebron. I wrote a very special chapter on my mother, describing her, her dreams and the urban life of Palestinian families, my grandparents and others. The book is not fictional. It is a factual account and a story, the story of those who were forcibly removed from their towns and villages: my grandparents, how they left Jaffa in a panic and how my aunts had to run out of their house in al-Moscobiyeh (the Russian Compound) where they lived in Jerusalem, when it was shelled by the Zionist militias. We too as a family were forced to leave to Lebanon. This in essence is what the book is all about. It was intended to narrate our stories of memories and of loss.
You studied at a number of prominent universities outside Palestine. How did you experience these institutions as a Palestinian student and artist?
I didn’t feel I needed to prove myself as a Palestinian student. But, having chosen to study Islamic art at Oxford, I did have my own challenges. I studied alongside a Moroccan student. We had two professors working with us. We were somewhat spoiled in that way. Yet, in many ways it was so difficult for me. I thought I would be supported by my background, and that me being from the Arab world, I would know enough to make the process easier. But this was not the case. I quickly realised I knew very little about the history of the Islamic world! I had to do a lot of reading and it was an amazing experience. Yet, in the end, I was never tempted to stay abroad. I was particularly connected to the landscape of Palestine, the light, the people and the land. So, I came back and I started teaching at Birzeit University.
You have made a number of incredible contributions to art education in Palestine, including founding the Ethnographic and Art Museum and the Virtual Gallery at Birzeit. Can you tell us about your experience establishing these institutions and what you hoped to achieve?
I went to Oxford having received a grant from UNESCO through Birzeit University. When I came back, Birzeit University didn’t have any courses in art or art history that I could teach, so I was asked to build the curriculum for an arts programme. I also started teaching a course on ancient Palestinian pottery in the archaeology department. For many years I taught an art history course in the department of architecture as well as the visual Communications course – a practical course which I found most inspiring. My students were incredibly talented and I never stopped learning from them. This allowed me to work with them, experimenting with new concepts, projects and installations.
Then, Birzeit started getting precious art gifts, amongst which unique and prestigious Tawfiq Cannan Amulet Collection from the Canaan family. It comprised of some 1500 amulets collected by the late physician Dr. Tawfiq Canaan from 1905 up until the Nakba. He had registered every single piece and documented their origins. Then Birzeit received further gifts from Marwan Kassab-Bachi, who donated 75 of his paintings and from Samia Halaby who also offered some of her works. I worked alongside a young graduate of archaeology and we started from scratch. We learned as we went along how to register and preserve these pieces. We invited people from abroad to support us through this process. This was all very elementary and yet so important. After that Birzeit offered us the annex of the library, some 400 square meters, and that’s where we started The Birzeit University Museum. I had somehow unknowingly become a curator and a museologist in the process.
Birzeit was one of the very first academic institutions curating professionally mounted exhibitions. Hundreds of people attended our openings. We then established the Birzeit University Virtual Gallery, a platform to spread art electronically, especially because access to art and culture faced endless challenges because of issues of mobility and checkpoints, with Palestine also in isolation from the outside world. We worked on exhibitions and libraries as well as the provision of art resources for schools. This was all pioneering work. We were able to deliver a beautiful pilot programme and a manual for teachers. We hosted teachers for three days in a very active space. The museum and the virtual gallery became a point of reference both within Palestine and abroad. We were also trying to establish 3D visits inside the space. We needed some more funding and eventually I retired from this work and others took it over.
In your eyes, what is the importance of keeping visual art at the heart of capacity building in Palestine, in light of the limitations facing Palestinian academia generally today?
Art and its practice have evolved so much in Palestine since I started as an artist and teacher. There are now different challenges with the introduction of contemporary practice. However, conceptual art today and the practices associated with it are an amazing way to tell the story of our political situation in a creative, very deep and analytical way. Looking at the world and interacting with it helps us to understand it better. Contemporary art requires engaged audiences, not just placid observers in front of the artwork presented to them. I would hope that the issue of Palestine and of other places in the Arab world can be brought to life through art and that people would be receptive to and engaged in it. We need to dig deeper, conduct research and find the answers to questions we are yet to raise. Techniques need to be adapted to the contemporary mode of practice so that the art itself can move forward. We also need to develop an audience, beyond the elite and intellectuals. School students and children must be able to access these resources. They will need to be guided. I used to jump from my desk to be able to engage with young people and students. They need to be able to absorb the experience. For this to happen, we have to bring art closer to people. In Ramallah you find an active art scene, similar to cities like Beirut and Cairo. These places have existing and active arts and culture scenes, but go to Nablus and Hebron and these scenes disappear. Such initiatives for growth must be supported by institutions. Artists alone cannot do it.
Vera Tamari will be discussing her career further and art education in Palestine in the next Education, Occupation and Liberation webinar, 'Land, Memory & Belonging: A conversation about art and education with Vera Tamari' on 4th of July 2023.
Register for Land, Memory & Belonging on 4th July with Vera Tamari