Joanna Barakat is an American Palestinian artist, born in Jerusalem and raised in California. She paints portraits exploring how we interpret our identity. By using alternative forms of communication, combining elements of photography, Palestinian embroidery and street art she challenges collective ideas and stereotypes. Joanna is forging a powerful contemporary Palestinian aesthetic. We sat together in her art studio. These are her words…
Art Offers Space — Breathing Room for the Spirit
Art has always been dominant in my life and I’ve always identified myself as an artist. When we weren’t spending time in my father’s gallery, whatever free time we had as a family was spent in museums and other galleries. I was creative kid who loved problem solving, painting and drawing. After studying Art and Design at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, my fascination with the media and interest in activism emerged. For my final project I made a film about the imposed borders both physically and psychologically in the West Bank, which was shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. I later did my MA in Global Media and Postnational Communication at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where my dissertation was about the role street art played in the public sphere in Palestine.
Working in my father’s galleries worldwide gave me in depth understanding of the art business and my education allowed me to construct the metaphors necessary to express my ideas through language and art. My father, who is an abstract artist and ancient art dealer, has had the greatest influence in my life. He created an environment filled with art and history from different civilizations and cultures for us to learn from and I attribute that to how my visual language and my worldview were shaped.
Art reflects the Tones & Textures of the Painters Imagination
After having my children, I felt disconnected when I had switched focus from the art world to home and family. By painting regularly again, the space I needed to create balance between my home life and my art appeared naturally. I realised that it was through art that I had always connected to my own truth. I started to take on private commissions and am currently building a body of work for a gallery exhibition.
Art is the Perennial Adventure
Someone may see my pieces and draw obvious conclusions from the symbols depicted. Upon closer inspection, other layers of meaning appear. I am interested in concepts that shape the way collectives think, for example how dehumanization allows one group of humans to view another group of humans as disposable. I seek to ask questions that challenge stereotypes and foster understanding around subjects like what it means to be Palestinian, or even what it means to be human. I’m fascinated with the story that emerges when we construct our identities. This may be part of the reason that I love portraiture, especially self-portraiture, as a way to explore the self and reconstruct the self.
When you hear the Soul Knocking — And YOU Answer…
Textile tradition is universal, so there is a cultural element that everyone can relate to. Palestinian embroidery, or tatreez, holds deep meaning to Palestinians: visually, culturally, and politically. I remember my mother had pillows that my aunt had embroidered and my father had some antique pillowcases from Khalil (Hebron), where my family is originally from. These always made me feel like we had a piece of Palestine in our house on the other side of the world. Though I always had an affinity for tatreez, I only started doing it a few years ago when my sister-in-law Ghada, who is an excellent embroiderer, showed me how to cross-stitch. I researched the history of Palestinian embroidery to gain a better understanding what the different motifs represented.
The significance of the embroidery to Palestinians in diaspora is something I find interesting and how it has evolved into a symbol of Palestinian identity. I started incorporating it into my artwork and it resonated with people from all different backgrounds. There is something in the tactile nature of embroidery that everyone can relate to and I love that. My friend, Dina Yazbak and I started a community called The Tatreez Circle, which is about preserving and promoting the practice of Palestinian embroidery. Through this group, we host workshops that teach about the history of Palestinian embroidery and how to cross-stitch Palestinian motifs. It’s funny to see how surprised people are when they discover how much time and energy goes into each little motif. We feel that there is urgency in keeping this tradition alive for Palestinians living in diaspora. Also, we encourage people who aren’t Palestinian to attend the workshops so we can share with them a beautiful and integral part of our cultural heritage.
Before 1948, village and farm women used tatreez stitched on cotton, silk and linen to express their identity and their environment to each other. By looking at someone’s dress, you knew which village or region she came from, her socio-economic status, and even if she was single, married or widowed. After 1948, when over 700,000 Palestinians became refugees the tatreez that later emerged from the camps were stitched on inferior fabrics, since people couldn’t afford and didn’t have access to the remaining weaving centers in Palestine, or to imported Syrian fabrics. Tatreez empowered women giving them a way to support their families if their husbands were imprisoned or worse. Motifs were no longer regional and were mixed creating a new identity for Palestinians. People still carried on the tradition of having cushions and other furnishings covered in tatreez.
Observing Reality is Necessary but Feeling Reality is Needed
Aside from embroidery, I use acrylic paint and spray paint in many of my paintings. I love how spray paint can be bold or soft depending on how you use it. I respect so many street artists because there is so much skill needed to master that medium. I also use photography, most of it manipulated to express an idea, like in the Imposter series, where I took old photos from my childhood outside of Palestine and placed myself in contemporary Palestinian backgrounds to create a new image and a new story.
It is not an Object, It’s a Way
Through my artwork, I create a space where people can question the way we understand and discuss what is happening in Palestine. I want to change the language we use since language plays such an important role in shaping the way we understand the world. It is time that we reclaim our narrative and rewrite it according to what really happened, not based on what the media is selling. It is time we start referring to ourselves as ‘indigenous’ because we are the indigenous people of our ‘native’ land of Palestine, no matter who is colonizing it.
My work is going in a more conceptual direction. I’d like to try different mediums, opening up new opportunities to express different ideas. I love the public element and the energy behind street art and murals so that is an avenue I would like to explore more. I am already experimenting with textiles and wearable art. I have some 3D pieces in the making and would like to incorporate more photography, video and sound. I will hopefully start exhibiting soon and am putting more energy and focus towards the career side of my art career.
As much as I love visiting Jerusalem, I don’t see myself living there while it is under Israeli occupation. If the occupation ended and they found a civilized way to live together, then I would definitely consider it.
I love Los Angeles and am so blessed and grateful that it is part of my story. I grew up in Beverly Hills in the 80s and 90s, where half of the students in my year at school were Jewish. I remember my mother once remarking to my dad that he had moved us from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv referring to her own feelings of isolation from the other mothers in the school. Most of my closest friends are Jewish, some born in Israel or have family living there. The school observed all the Jewish holidays and by the seventh grade we were celebrating someone’s bar/bat mitzvah every weekend.
For an Artist, Pain can be a Blessing
I was made aware of my being the ‘other’ by the time I was 8 years old and that growing sense of alienation led to years of adolescent rebellion. Although we had incidences of discrimination against us for being Palestinian, it wasn’t a daily occurrence. I would never support the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, but growing up in a Jewish community did give me the opportunity to learn and understand what shaped their ideas and beliefs, especially when it came to their blind allegiance to Israel.
Whenever anyone asked me where I was from I always proudly answered that I was a Palestinian born in Jerusalem. Though my family moved to the states when I was just a toddler, my father’s family still lives in Jerusalem keeping us connected to Palestine. The history behind my father’s business became our family’s story. The gallery started in the Old City of Jerusalem, then expanded to Bethlehem and the King David Hotel selling antiquities, numismatics and jewelry, later establishing itself as the Barakat Gallery in Beverly Hills. My mother was crucial in maintaining our Palestinian identity at home. She spoke to us in Arabic even though we responded in English, tried her best to teach us Islamic principles and cooked homemade Palestinian food everyday for the family. All week long I would look forward to ‘Arabic breakfast’ on the weekend, with fried eggs, hummus, labaneh, honey, jam, zaatar and olive oil served with mint tea. It was perfect in its simplicity and I loved the way it brought the whole family together to dip out of the same plates. My mother’s excellent cooking was renowned and she threw many dinner parties where we helped out and had to practice being good hosts. These memories around food and culture have created nostalgia for me that I try to recreate for my own children.
My absolute favorite dish is one my uncle Malek makes called lift mahshi or turnips stuffed with rice and lamb cooked in a delicious tamarind sauce which is a treat since turnips are difficult to empty for stuffing. My mom’s Sheikh al Mahshi, eggplants stuffed with lamb and pine nuts baked in tomato sauce, is another favorite. Her family left Jerusalem in 1948 and settled in Karak, Jordan where she lived until she moved to Jerusalem after marrying my father, so she also made amazing mansaf, which Karak was famous for. I love the freshly baked kaak bread that you get in the bakeries in Jerusalem and I never turn down Palestinian molokheyia. I love home cooked meals and remember how much I would crave my mother’s cooking when I was away at university. I always say that malooba (a rice and meat dish made with eggplant or cauliflower that is served flipped upside down) is our comfort food.
It was through food that my mother shared her love, her sense of purpose and her culture with us. Even though my mother passed away eight years ago, her recipes and her flavors live on everyday when I prepare Palestinian food for my family.
— Artist Statement —
My story is that of an indigenous Palestinian and of an American immigrant. To Palestinians, al Nakba, or the catastrophe, refers to the ethnic cleansing (including attacks, massacres, demolitions, and expulsions) that accompanied the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The Nakba of the Native Americans and of the slaves brought from Africa are dismissed so easily by Americans as part of the bigger picture that created the nation that we now so proudly identify ourselves with. This strange irony of living and identifying with a place that belonged to another group of people who are the true indigenous people of that land is represented with the image of the American flag made from spray paint and Palestinian embroidery motifs of stars, trees, and feathers. Brainwashed by our education, our media and our national rhetoric, we disregard the truth and the events that have actually occurred to allow us to create this identity we hold on to so tightly. How different is my being American to someone who claims to be Israeli?
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— Artist Statement —
I am an imposter. My cultural and national identities are woven from the threads of nostalgic stories, none of which are my own. Having left Palestine as an infant, I have always felt like a foreigner in my native land. I reconstructed my identity with snapshots of what my story could have been by inserting myself as a child into the backdrop of daily Palestinian life. Instead of another tale from the diaspora, a new narrative emerges from these manipulated photographs restoring a sense of indisputable belonging.
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No Place Like Home
— Artist Statement —
There is a collective desire amongst Palestinians living in the diaspora to return to a liberated Palestine. For some it is like an adopted child’s longing for their biological parent, for others it is a nostalgic dream that seems so close but the reality is that the right of return is continually denied. Here, the reference to Dorothy in ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz returning home to Kansas after the catastrophe of the tornado and her displacement in Oz is represented by the image of the Palestinian woman wearing the traditionally embroidered dress with the red shoes. The hand stitched embroidery of the Palestinian house motif intentionally left empty repeated in the background creates a representation of the yellow brick road that Dorothy follows with blind faith and hope for her return home.
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— Artist Statement —
I love the use of alternative forms of expression that create a space for the voice of the Palestinians, like graffiti and street art, despite that it stems from living under Israeli occupation. Palestinian embroidery, or tatreez, is another example of a distinctly Palestinian expression of identity and used as a subtle form of communication between women. Here I paint myself in front of Jerusalem poppies, wearing the traditional white headscarf, cross-stitching straight onto my skin. It’s more than a longing for my Palestinian culture and heritage; it’s a way of constructing my cultural identity and voice as a Palestinian who has lived outside of Palestine since I was a toddler. Here, every stitch is a letter in a cultural language that I am slowly becoming more and more fluent in, relieving the feeling of being a foreigner on my native land, in my skin and in my mind.
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Tanya knew that Palestine was her symbolic homeland. Always curious about her identity and connecting with her roots, she was eager to strengthen her ties to the Levant and traveled the region, desperate to learn more. It wasn’t until her first trip to Palestine that she became spiritually and emotionally connected.
She studied Political Science and Sociology at the University of Toronto. She then moved to the UAE, supporting numerous NGOs related to children’s welfare in the region. When she had her own family, she created the My Olive Roots platform in the hopes that her children and the Arabs diaspora would have a place to connect, learn and preserve their roots. Tanya enjoys discovering humanist stories and exploring the connection of food and art with culture.