Like many pop artists, Laila Shawa, who died at the age of 82, used repetition and screen printing. In the hands of forerunners like Andy Warhol, form and technique emphasized the commodification of celebrity – as in the American artist’s paintings of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley – but Shawa, being Palestinian, had much darker and more political concerns.
Her print 20 Targets (1994) from the Walls of Gaza II series shows a five by four grid repeating the same photographic image of a young Arab boy, whose body is highlighted with a red circle. Arabic graffiti, which spread across walls in Gaza to bypass Israeli censorship, is layered beneath the chilling image. The repetition suggests that no famous life was celebrated, but many anonymous lives were lost.
Dubbed “Islamo-pop” art, Shawa embraced this style: she took complex, politically charged subjects and annotated them with a vibrant palette of paintings, sculptures and prints, the latter often incorporating photography.
Blood Money (1994) featured a photo of walls with more graffiti scribbles, a recurring motif, with an overlaid repeated screenprint of US dollar bills. Other works include a decommissioned AK-47 decked out in costume jewelry and an image of Israeli spy drones painted in comic book style, reminiscent of the work of Roy Lichtenstein.
In the series Disposable Bodies (2011-13), Shawa exhibited extravagantly decorated mannequins, limbless and headless: one encrusted with rhinestones and wearing an ammunition belt; another with a swirl of peacock feathers framing his bare shoulders and sticks of dynamite strapped to his hips. Shawa conceived the project after seeing news reports of female suicide bombers who she believed were victims of both the Palestinian plight and societal and media misogyny.
Born in Gaza, Mandatory Palestine, Laila was one of the five children of Salma Izzat al-Idilbi and Rashad al-Shawwa. When she was eight, the British mandate ended and her father became involved in the ensuing second Arab-Israeli war by helping to smuggle arms from Iraq and Lebanon to the Arab Liberation Army led by Fawzi al-Qawuqji. Laila was sent to boarding school in Cairo and at 17 attended the Leonardo da Vinci Art Institute, which was affiliated with the Italian Consulate.
A year later she extended her education to Rome and from 1958 studied for eight years at the Academy of Fine Arts under Renato Guttuso, an Italian painter whose own work was dedicated to anti-fascist expression. It was a glamorous moment in the Italian city, far from the horrors of home and the young artist’s encounters with the stars of the burgeoning Italian pop art scene in the cafés of Piazza del Popolo, but also with luminaries like the Rolling Stones , Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, proved to be just as instructive as the studio time.
During the last three of those years, she traveled to Austria during her study holidays to attend the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts, an alternative art school founded by expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka, which went against the prevailing fashion of abstraction.
In 1964 she returned to Palestine and began working on arts and crafts education projects in the refugee camps coordinated by the UN. A year later she had her first exhibition at the Marna House Hotel in Gaza.
In 1967 she moved to Beirut for nine years and exhibited frequently in Lebanon and in 1972 at the Sultan Gallery in Kuwait City. Her work during this period was influenced by the Cities series of blocky, colorful cityscapes; but here, too, the shrill politics of her later art began to emerge. The painting The Well (1967) depicts a group of women in full niqab sitting dejectedly in front of a mosque, while the spire of the building soars phallically.
When the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, Shawa returned to Gaza and helped build the Rashad Shawa Cultural Center, named after her father, who had been appointed mayor of Gaza in 1971 (he was removed from his post in 1982, along with others Palestinian mayors for non-cooperation with Israeli demands to annex Al-Shati refugee camp to the community).
She intended to use it as a venue for exhibitions, with plans for an art college and permanent collection. However, as Israeli attacks intensified, the brutalist building was bombed several times before it was fully completed.
In 1987, at the start of the first Intifada, Shawa moved to London and worked on a series entitled Women and the Veil, in which she painted caricature-like groups of fully veiled women, which was shown in 1990 at the Jordan National Gallery, Amman.
A work entitled The Impossible Dream features 10 women whose colorful niqabs prevent them from eating the melting ice cream they are holding. A series reflecting on women and Islamic magic got her her first UK exhibition in 1992 at the Gallery, London. The Walls of Gaza series was shown two years later in the library of Soas University of London.
That year, 1994, she showed in Forces of Change: Artists of the Arab World, a group show that opened at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC, and toured museums across America for 12 months. Walls of Gaza was shown again as part of The Right to Hope, a 1995 UN group exhibition that opened in Johannesburg and toured the world including Palestine and Northern Ireland.
In 2000 she had a solo exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Some of her work was destroyed in 2009 when her home in Gaza was bombed. The Rashad Shawa Cultural Center, which was seized when Yasser Arafat came to power and the site of a meeting between the PLO leader and Bill Clinton in 1998, is currently controlled by Hamas.
Shawa is survived by her brothers Hammam and Aladeen.