About a year ago, Ahmad Yaseen, an artist on the faculty of An Najah University in the Palestinian city of Nablus, began using prickly cacti as canvases for his political artwork. This ingenuity, in an environment where artistic materials and education are not easily accessible, is a testament to the local spirit that he seeks to express through these portraits.
Ahmad Yaseen, “Patience” (2016), acrylic on cactus
Yaseen uses white and green acrylic to create portraits that exhibit impressive details despite the vivid, uneven surface. In one painting, he depicts a pair of newborn babies breastfeeding, with the mother’s bent arm forming a keyhole. Another painting shows an old woman wearing a keffiyah, eyes closed, forehead wrinkled and holding a skeleton key. Yaseen explains that the recurring key motif symbolizes hope and is often associated with the right of return, a political principle that advocates for all Palestinian refugees to have the opportunity to return to their pre-Nakba homes.
In one of his works, Yaseen embedded a stone in a cactus and painted a hand holding it. This piece is the most overt reference to violence among his cactus paintings. However, Yaseen deliberately avoids depicting knives, which are the most commonly used weapons in today’s infitada, or other weapons.
Ahmad Yaseen at work
Yaseen’s paintings aim to promote peace. In an interview with AI Monitor, he explained that it does not depict martyrs or scenes from the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, it includes elements that offer a glimmer of hope, rather than just despair. Despite the current atmosphere of fear on the ground for both Palestinians and Israelis, Yaseen has a big picture vision as an artist.
In photographs of his works, the surrounding dry, mountainous landscape provides a melancholic backdrop. For example, in one photograph, the antennas of Elon Moreh, which is the center of Israel’s settlement enterprise in the Palestinian Territories, are silhouetted against the sky.
Ahmad Yaseen, “Life” (2016), acrylic on cactus
Ahmad Yaseen at work