Like many pop artists, Laila Shawa, who has died at the age of 82, used repetition and silkscreen. In the hands of such pioneers Andy WarholForm and technique highlighted celebrity commodification—as in the American artist’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley—but Shawa, who was Palestinian, had darker, darker political concerns.
Her print 20 Targets (1994), from the second Gaza Walls series, depicts a five-by-four grid that repeats the same photographic image of a young Arab boy, his body outlined in a red circle. Arabic graffiti, which has spread across walls in Gaza to sail around Israeli censors, sits beneath the harrowing image. The repetition indicates that not famous lives are celebrated, but many unknown lives are lost.
Calling this style Islamic Pop Art, Shawa created her own style: taking complex and politically charged subjects, annotating them with a vibrant color palette via paintings, sculpture, and prints, the latest of which often includes photography.
Blood Money (1994) featured photographs of more graffiti, a recurring motif, with a repeating screen print superimposed of US dollar bills. Other works include a decommissioned AK-47 rifle encrusted with costume jewels and an image of Israeli spy drones drawn in a comic book style reminiscent of the work of Roy Lichtenstein.
In her “Disposable Objects” series (2011-13), Showa displayed fancy limbless, headless mannequins: one is covered in rhinestones and wears an ammunition belt. Another has a wave of peacock feathers framing her bare shoulders and sticks of dynamite strapped to her hips. Shawa contemplated the project after seeing news reports of female suicide bombers, and believed that they were victims of Palestinian distress and societal and media hatred of women.
Laila was born in Gaza, Mandatory Palestine, and was one of five children of Salma Izzat al-Idlibi and Rashad al-Shawa. When she was eight, the British Mandate ended and her father became involved in the ensuing Second Arab-Israeli War, helping to smuggle weapons out of Iraq and Lebanon of the Arab Liberation Army led by Fawzi al-Qawuqji. Leila was sent to a boarding school in Cairo, and went on to attend the Leonardo da Vinci Institute of Art, which was attached to the Italian Consulate, when she was 17 years old.
After a year, she extended her education to Rome, where she taught at the Academy of Fine Arts for eight years from 1958, before Renato Guttuso, an Italian painter whose own work was committed to anti-fascist expression. It was a magical moment in the Italian city, far away from the horrors of home, and the young artist met the stars of Italy’s burgeoning pop art scene in the Piazza del Popolo cafes, as well as luminaries like the Rolling Stones. He, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, proved as instructive as their studio time.
In the last three of these years, during academic vacations, she would travel to Austria to attend the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts, an alternative art school created by the expressionist Oskar Kokoschka, which rejected the prevailing fashion for abstraction.
She returned to Palestine in 1964 and began working on arts and crafts education projects in refugee camps coordinated by the United Nations. She held her first exhibition at the Marna House Hotel in Gaza a year later.
In 1967, she moved to Beirut for nine years, exhibiting frequently in Lebanon, and in 1972, in Sultan Gallery in Kuwait City. Her work in this period is characterized by the Cities series of cityscapes filled with bright colour. But even here the strict politics of her late art began to emerge. The painting The Well (1967) depicts a group of women in full veils sitting despondently outside a mosque, the building’s tower rising vertically.
With the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, Shawa returned to Gaza and collaborated on the construction of the Rashad Shawa Cultural Center, named after her father, who in 1971 had been appointed Mayor of Gaza (removed from office in 1982, along with Palestinian mayors). Others, for not cooperating with the Israeli demands to annex the beach camp to the municipality).
It was intended as an exhibition venue, with plans for an art college and permanent collection. But as the Israeli attacks worsened, the monstrous building was bombed several times before it was even fully completed.
In 1987, with the outbreak of the First Intifada, Shawa moved to London, where she worked on a series called “Women and the Veil”, in which she drew caricature groups of fully veiled women, which were shown in 1990 at the Jordan National Museum, Amman.
One work, titled The Impossible Dream, shows 10 women whose vibrantly colored veils prevent them from eating the melting ice cream they carry. A series of ruminations about women and Islamic magic gave her its UK premiere, at the London Gallery, in 1992. The Walls of Gaza series was shown two years later at the SOAS University Library in London.
That year, 1994, she exhibited in Forces for Change: Artists from the Arab World, a group exhibition that opened at National Museum of Women in the ArtsWashington, D.C., and traveled for 12 months to museums across America. The Walls of Gaza were shown again as part of The Right to Hope, a 1995 United Nations group exhibition that opened in Johannesburg and traveled around the world, including Palestine and Northern Ireland.
In 2000 she had a solo exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Part of her business was destroyed in 2009 when her home in Gaza was bombed. Rashad Shawa Cultural Center, upon request Yasser Arafat He came to power, and the site of the meeting between the PLO leader and Bill Clinton in 1998 is currently controlled by Hamas.
Shawa was survived by her two brothers, Hammam and Alaeddin.