An Artist in Bethlehem, Ayed Arafah

A multi medium artist from Bethlehem, Ayed Arafah depicts two famous Levantine dishes in Palestinian cuisine: maklouba and waraq.

I met Ayed through Vivien Sansour, founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library as well as founder of El Beir Arts and Seeds. Vivien was giving a talk about agricultural heritage through the revival and preservation of seed varieties in Palestine at the Altadena Public Library in Southern California. Ayed had originally created the recipe art graphics for El Beir Arts and Seeds located in the old city of Beit Sahour, just east of Bethlehem.

I got to know Ayed for the multifaceted artist that he is during a visit to the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA). The stop was unplanned, though in retrospect seems fitting to have seen this particular exhibit, Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago, with a Palestinian artist who grew up in a refugee camp, disconnected from the world. The exhibit showcased indigenous artists who challenged the traditional perception of islands usually associated with tourism.  The pieces instead connected often ignored, local populations across the islands.  Something about what the installations conveyed felt familiar, and like many of the artists featured, Ayed also worked with recycled materials.

Ayed grew up in Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem. He studied social work, earning his degree from Al Quds Unversity and later went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Contemporary Visual Arts from the International Art Academy in Palestine.  In 2010, Ayed received the A.M Qattan Foundation Young Artist Award for an installation that was later exhibited at The Mosaic Rooms gallery in London, England.  I’m grateful to have crossed paths with Ayed, who kindly shared some thoughts on the role of art in his life.

How did growing up in a refugee camp inform your art?

The camp was always surrounded by barbed wire.  [Israeli] soldiers were often in or around the camp. For a long time, I thought these were normal circumstances experienced by most of the world. As a kid, I really thought events on TV were the result of the invention produced by this wooden box, like an imagined reality outside of the camp. Life in a refugee camp is to grow up in complex, very complicated circumstances from the time you’re a child.

It was only when I experienced life outside that I realized that the world is bigger and wider than a refugee camp. I do not know the full extent of how my childhood in the camp influenced my understanding of the world, but art became a way to discover it and experience it beyond my limited surrounding.

How many different art mediums do you work with? 

Painting was the first medium of my artistic expression. Once I began to study contemporary art, I began to incorporate multimedia. I started working with video, compositional work, photography and design. Art in general is an opportunity for me to discover new mediums. 

Your art work has been displayed in The Mosaic Rooms in London. What was that installation about?

The show in the Mosaic Room was called "Horizon". It was an installation of the sea meant to reflect the country divided into small bags, but all of them having a single horizon.

What was your most recent art installation?

It was a life size interpretation of a bull, hanging from the ceiling and the circus circling around itself. I made it from used wood pieces. It was part of an individual exhibition at the Bab al-Deir Gallery in Bethlehem 2017.

Are you speaking to a specific audience when creating art?

Communicating through art is my way of finding a universal language to speak to any viewer, regardless of cultural background. I try to speak to the heart. The term for heart in Arabic, qalb, inherently connects the mind with the heart. It's not a separate part, but a core. I only aim to make a connection.

Is there a piece you are most proud of?

I'm proud of the sea projects, Bejaa Bahr and Afaq. It was an extended project that gave me the chance to meet many interested parties and participants, and opened a dialogue.

Are your mother's maklouba and waraq recipes top secret? 

It is not a secret, but a recipe that's popular and passed down among Palestinians. Of course, every mother has a unique touch that is apparent in how the dish tastes, and that unique twist may be a secret.

Does your mother know her recipes are printed on tote bags? 

My mother was very happy about what I did with the recipes. When I was in London, I was shocked when she told me she was seeing people back home carrying bags with my art.

Cover photo by Vivien Sansour

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