Two Arab artists from same hometown but different generations win prestigious prize

Carving a path in the Israeli art world, Hannan Abu-Hussein and Maria Salah Mahameed are recognized for their trailblazing feminist work

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Artist Hannan Abu Hussein, originally from Umm al Fahm like her fellow prizewinner, Maria Salah Mahameed, both winners of the 2023 Rapaport Art Prize for established artist and young promising artist (Courtesy Sigal Galil)
Artist Hannan Abu Hussein, originally from Umm al Fahm like her fellow prizewinner, Maria Salah Mahameed, both winners of the 2023 Rapaport Art Prize for established artist and young promising artist (Courtesy Sigal Galil)

There are more than a few similarities between the two recipients of this year’s Rappaport Prize for Israeli Artists, awarded to an established artist and to a young and promising artist.

Both Hannan Abu-Hussein and Maria Salah Mahameed were born in Umm al-Fahm, a northern Arab city that has become something of a hub for emerging Arab art. Both have been creating art since they can remember, both attended art school, both earned degrees and both are finding their complicated way as Arab women artists in the mostly Jewish Israeli art world.

Both artists will contribute a work to the Ruth and Baruch Rappaport Collection of Israeli Art at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, receive a cash prize and have a solo exhibit at the museum.

Their paths, however, reflect their different backgrounds in local Arab society.

Abu-Hussein’s talent was never acknowledged by her very traditional family. Now 51, she is the youngest and the only girl in an Arab home where rules for women were strictly followed, and she spent much of her childhood at home with her mother or drawing in her bedroom.

It wasn’t until her favorite brother, Amar, attended the nearby Emek Yezreel College and saw there was an art program that she even entertained the idea of studying art.

But once she got there, everything changed.

2023 Rappaport Artist prize winner Hannan Abu-Hussein and her installation, ‘Dough’ 2019 (Courtesy Hadas Golan)

Abu-Hussein studied with sculptor Dalia Meiri, a Bezalel-trained, Galilee-based sculptor known for her monumental outdoor works in stone, wood and iron.

“Dalia taught me about Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design],” said Abu-Hussein.

While her brothers earned degrees at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa, she didn’t think she would be accepted at the prestigious art school.

And even after she was, she was heavily criticized by her brothers and kept her distance from her family in the months prior to moving to Jerusalem.

Abu Hussein eventually spent seven years at Bezalel, studying drawing and ceramics, and then earned a master’s in art history at Hebrew University. She found a  place in the Israeli art world for her installations that combine everyday objects in unexpected ways. She teaches at Shenkar College and the Kibbutz Seminary.

Artist Maria Salah Mahameed, winner of the 2023 Rappaport Art Prize (Courtesy Ethan Mikutski)

Salah Mahameed, 33, is the daughter of an Arab father and Ukrainian mother from Kyiv, who has been winning awards since her studies at Oranim College.

She describes herself as someone who was always visual, and her works were clearly influenced by her family and the two different cultures in which she was raised.

“I understood at some point that I’m both, Arab and Ukrainian, never just one,” said Saleh Mahameed. “I love the two sides of me, and it interests me that each side of me lives within me in its own way. I love when I can bring both worlds to my art.”

For Saleh Mahameed, art is the method in which she addresses that complex national and religious identity. She often works with charcoal on canvas that she spreads on the floor to draw on, eschewing preliminary sketches.

She puts it all on the table, or, in her case, on the canvas.

‘Monitor’ by artist Maria Salah Mahameed, winner of the 2023 Rappaport Art Prize for a young promising artist (Courtesy Lena Gomon)

Even now, as a young mother of a toddler and a baby, still creating art while nursing, she describes the challenge of being covered with charcoal as a byproduct of her work and always having to clean up in order to feed her child.

“That’s who I am as well,” said Saleh Mahameed, “the feminist Maria who continues to create and raise my family, raising my children in the way that I want them to be raised.”

She feels able to accomplish all that because of her background as a young woman who was always supported by her family.

“We’re from the same city,” said Saleh Mahameed of Abu-Hussein and their joint Umm al-Fahm upbringing, “but we experienced it differently. I see the world differently than Hannan does and vice versa. There are differences between us, and that’s important. That’s the power of art.”

She’s found it hard that her family wasn’t interested in her art, said Abu-Hussein.

“Maria comes to all the events with her family, they’re there for her,” she said.

‘Vagina’ by artist Hannan Abu-Hussein, winner of the Rappaport Artist Prize 2023 for established artist (Courtesy Abu-Hussein)

For Abu-Hussein, art has been the trajectory of her life as a single woman living on her own in Jerusalem who must find a balance between caring for her mother, now widowed and still in Umm al-Fahm, and her own place in Israel’s artistic community.

“I live in Israel and I didn’t move to Ramallah,” said Abu-Hussein. She lives in Beit Safafa, a middle-class Arab neighborhood at the southern end of Jerusalem. She finds she can live alone there while still surrounded by fellow Arabic speakers.

In her world, said Abu-Hussein, everyone knows she is Palestinian, just as they may easily identify someone else as Ethiopian or Russian or Yemenite.

“These are the realities,” she said.

‘My Body Doesn’t Belong to Anyone’ by artist Hannan Abu-Hussein, winner of the Rappaport Artist Prize 2023 for established artist (Courtesy Abu-Hussein)

Her installations take up space in her Jerusalem studio in the Artists’ Studios at Teddy Stadium, including a rug of pigeon spikes spray-painted gold and bags full of rolled-up stockings, originally stretched to resemble rows of woman’s genitalia.

An installation at the Eretz Israel Museum included a colorful pile of mattresses and a dowry blanket, for an encounter loaded with memories from Arabic and Jewish homes.

Abu-Hussein said she chose to be a Palestinian artist in the Israeli art world. She holds an Israeli identification card, and exhibits and teaches in the Israeli art world, but much of her art deals with politics.

She sees herself as part of the Israeli state, but as an Arab.

At the same time, said Abu-Hussein, she attends the current anti-judicial overhaul rallies as an Israeli.

Much of her art deals with violence against women, an issue that’s become more prominent in the last few years. She feels a responsibility to address the topic, even when she’s often told by fellow Palestinians not to air their society’s “dirty laundry” in public.

She remembers the names her brothers called her, the terms that boys would use against her when she’d wait at the bus or train station.

“I don’t ignore the elephant in the room, ever,” she said. “I take my art and recall this history.”

And while Saleh Mahameed grew up a generation later, in art classes where half of the students were Arab, and with parents who supported her dreams, she also creates art that deals with violence in the Arab sector.

“I choose to deal with sensitive subjects,” she said, pointing out the recent killing of a young Arab father as unintended victim of a criminal hit in Ein Mahil, where she also lives. “We live this all the time.”

For both, the Rappaport is a big honor, although it’s not the first award that either has received.

“This one is a big responsibility for me,” said Saleh Mahameed. “I need to represent my community, to show what happens there, to show it differently than the media portrays it.”

For Abu Hussein, it’s another in a long line of honors, and it pushes her to think about other goals, like a solo exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art or winning a Turner.

“No Israeli has won a Turner yet, so that’s still on the list,” she said.

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