“Laila Shawa was one of the first Arab artists to successfully break through barriers in the West.” – Lawrence Joffe quoting Dr Venetia Porter in The Middle East, “Laila Shawa: still shaking people up,” February 2002

Laila Shawa was born in 1940 to one of Gaza’s old landowning families. She was exposed to art early and received her first serious training at the Leonardo Da Vinci School of Art in Cairo from 1957-1958. From 1958-1964 she matriculated at Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts spending summers with Oskar Kokoschka at his School of Seeing in Salzburg. After graduation Shawa went home to supervise arts and crafts education in refugee camps for UNWRA and entered into an informal apprenticeship with UN war photographer Hrant Nakasian. In 1967 she moved to Beirut to paint full-time for nine commercially successful years. When the Lebanese civil war started she returned to Gaza and for the next decade collaborated on designing and building the Rashad Shawa Cultural Centre.

Shawa took up residence in London in 1987 and soon after started her socio-political critique Women And The Veil resulting in acclaimed paintings like The Impossible Dream. This was followed by a long series exploring the practise of magic and witchcraft in Islam embodied by the Hands of Fatima now in the collection of the British Museum. She gained international recognition with her ongoing cycle of silk screens and prints collectively known as The Walls of Gaza (from 1992). Evolving from photographs taken by Shawa over many years of graffiti appearing on the walls of Gaza, they record and investigate alternative modes of communication and repeatedly draw attention to the emergence of generations of severely traumatized Palestinian children.

Shawa’s pioneering work during the 1980s of utilizing photography as integral to art production has left a lasting mark on contemporary Palestinian art. For the artist, it signified a departure from the traditional paint medium and instigated such works as the controversial installation Crucifixion 2000: In the Name of God at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and her immediate reactions to 9/11 in the form of sculpture entitled Clash. With her 2008 Dubai exhibition, Sarab, she briefly returned to painting with a 29 piece collection which expropriated Islamic geometric design from its historical context, asserting its role as primary visual identifier of Islamic popular culture. In January 2009, in response to the invasion of Gaza by Israel and the high death toll among children, she commenced a Gaza III series, two works from which she has entered into this competition.

Laila Shawa has expropriated Islamic geometric design from its historical context asserting, instead, its role as primary visual identifier of Islamic popular culture in its broadest sense. Indeed, from Malaysia to Morocco, Xinjiang to Sudan Islamic geometric decorations, local variations notwithstanding, are recognizable as such and absolutely ubiquitous. In the absence of noteworthy (read global) branded consumer goods originating in the Islamic world, Islamic geometric design as culture-specific element is inserted to fill the gap. The original is then abstracted (refracted) and can thus serve the artist’s customary narrative process in the form of a pan-Islamic postmodern visual meta-language. It is both the subject and object of art-making.(Christa Paula)