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  • Aug 07, 2019

Obituary: Kamal Boullata (1942–2019)

The celebrated artist and art historian KAMAL BOULLATA has died, aged 77. Portrait via the Arab American Institute

Kamal Boullata, a Palestinian artist, art historian, and writer acclaimed for his exploration of the concepts of exile, belonging, modernism, and the emergence of Palestinian identity against colonial powers, has died in Berlin at the age of 77. 

Born in Jerusalem in 1942, Boullata grew up in the Christian Quarter and was apprentice to the painter Khalil Al-Halabi, studying the Arabic calligraphic and geometric aesthetics that would later influence his body of work. Following Israel’s occupation of the territory in 1967, he was exiled to Beirut and later traveled to Europe and the United States, where he studied at the Corcoran Art Museum School in Washington, DC.

In his early works, Boullata established a distinctive aesthetic that foregrounded the angular symmetry of the Kufic script, which he arranged into colorful, modern geometric patterns. This style placed him in the Hurufiyya art movement, which included artists—notably Etel Adnan and Dia Al-Azzawi—who strove to identify a Pan-Arab, modernized visual language. Boullata's silkscreen artworks, which addressed the concepts of binaries and divided identity, often included clear visual references to the decorative elements of the Dome of the Rock—a site he frequently visited as a child in Jerusalem—as well as the traditions of Palestinian embroidery. In more recent works, such as those displayed in his London exhibition “And There Was Light” (2015), Boullata’s signature abstract style evolved to include in-depth studies of light and space, which art historian Gérard Xuriguera described as “product[s] of a vigilant discipline.”

In his research, Boullata’s dedication to exploring Palestinian modernism and Islamic aesthetics was unparalleled. In the early 1990s, he conducted field research on Islamic art in Morocco and Spain as a Fulbright Senior Scholar Fellow, and in 2001, he traveled to Palestine to study post-Byzantine painting with a grant from the Ford Foundation. He was also the author of four books on Palestinian art, most notably Belonging and Globalisation: Critical Essays in Contemporary Art and Culture (2008), as well as Palestinian Art: From 1850 to the Present (2009), the culmination of his 30 years of research into the topic, with a foreword by art critic John Berger. In 2012, he moved to Berlin after being elected a Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin Institute for Advanced Study. He resided in the German capital until his death. 

Boullata’s work can be found in numerous collections including at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha; Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah; Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah; Alhambra Islamic Museum, Granada; British Museum, London; New York Public Library, New York; Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris; Khalid Shoman Foundation, Amman; and the Bibliothèque Louis Notari, Monaco.

Kate Lau is an editorial intern of ArtAsiaPacific.

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