The sabra is a cactus that produces fruit and carries great symbolism in Israel and Palestine. It grows wild throughout the region and is known for being able to withstand any weather conditions. The plant has a tough exterior but is soft and sweet on the inside. Both Israelis and Palestinians see the sabra as a representation of their people’s resilience and determination in the ongoing conflict.
About a year ago, Ahmad Yaseen, an artist on the faculty of An Najah University in the Palestinian city of Nablus, began using spiny cactus pads as canvases for his political artwork. This resourcefulness, in an environment where art supplies and education are not easily accessible, is a testament to the local spirit he aims to express through these portraits.
Ahmad Yaseen, “Patience” (2016), acrylic on cacTus
Yaseen uses white and green acrylic to create portraits that exhibit impressive detail despite the uneven, living surface. In one painting, he depicts a pair of newborn babies nursing, with the mother’s bent arm forming the shape of a keyhole. Another painting features an old woman in a Keffiyah with closed eyes, a furrowed forehead, and clutching 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 into a cactus pad and painted a hand clutching it. This piece is the most overt reference to violence among his cactus paintings. However, Yaseen purposely avoids depicting knives, which are the most commonly used weapons in the current infitada or other weapons.
Ahmad Yaseen at Work
Yaseen’s paintings aim to promote peace. In an interview with AI Monitor, he explained that he does not depict martyrs or scenes from the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, he 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 takes a bird’s-eye view as an artist.
In photographs of his works, the surrounding dry, hilly landscape provides a wistful backdrop. For instance, in one photo, the antennas of Elon Moreh, which is the center of Israel’s settlement enterprise in the Palestinian Territories, are silhouetted against the sky.