Artist Steve Sabella shares memories of his friend, the painter and historian who channelled the anguish of living in exile through his works. This account is part of our Remembering the Artist series
If there is one thing Kamal Boullata often said in his incredibly distinctive voice that continues to echo in my ears, it was “look forward”.
It was a metaphor for his life because he always looked ahead. Though the pain of him losing Palestine, his homeland, was so great, he channelled that anguish through his art and writing and ultimately, everything he produced was about light and transcendence.
I’m pretty sure that was a healing process he practised over the years; a process that led him to becoming an expert on the literature of the soul.
Kamal remembered Jerusalem as though the city stood right before his eyes, as if he had never been forced to leave in 1967, owing to the Israeli occupation. The detail with which he spoke about Palestine was astounding and I guess that stemmed from his love for life.
Because he looked to the particulars, he had a wider vantage point. After all, a magnified vision offers better views and those who are enlightened can see the bigger picture.
His attention to detail was ever-present: while I was visiting him and his wife, Lily, in 2011, at their home in Menton, in the South of France, I heard Kamal burst with laughter on the phone with the celebrated Syrian poet Adonis. They had missed a comma in a poetry book that they were editing, and the typo had altered the text’s meaning altogether.
In that moment, I realised I ought to pay attention to the clarity of my own creations and in so doing, I would know when to add, delete or leave something as is.
That wasn’t the only thing I learnt from Kamal. We met in 2002 during the AM Qattan Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year Award (renamed Hassan Hourani Award) for which he was a jurist, and one who believed in the power of youth. His presence was so powerful, and it was easy for others to feel threatened by it.
“You speak of Jerusalem all the time, but I do not see it anywhere in your work,” he said sternly of my submitted photographs from my Identity series. “Jerusalem is the capital of my imagination,” I replied. He smiled. I knew then that I never needed to speak because Kamal understood me.
Two years later, he asked me to accompany him on a trip of a lifetime to photograph Christian icons, many of which were otherwise unseen and undocumented. For a little over a month, we drove across Palestine, visiting all its churches. It was sublime.
As we navigated our motherland, I saw how hard it was for people of his generation to have been forced into exile, and equally, forced to accept the atrocious reality of occupation. Still, Kamal was never hopeless or helpless. He kept Palestine alive by sharing stories and he did so through writing and painting. After all, does a painter need a brush to paint? Does a poet need a pen to write? That was Kamal, a master storyteller whose stories you never wanted to end.