I was in touch with Kamal Boullata via email, before I met him in person. We first corresponded in 2013, when I was helping to put together an exhibition at the Barjeel Art Foundation that featured five of his silkscreen prints. Kamal’s emails to me were descriptive and long. He communicated with clarity and precision, and addressed the subtlest of details with a meticulous diligence. “I appreciate it if a damma and a shaddah are always used with the letter ha, and not a ta marbuta at the end of my last name in Arabic,” he instructed me.
Spelling, diacritical marks, and transliteration conventions were as important to him as any other part of a publication. “If you need any help, please let me know,” he would always add at the end. Having started my job at the foundation only a few months prior, I felt overwhelmed and snowed under with the task of putting together an exhibition and a catalogue for the very first time. I confessed my worries to Kamal, to which he sent a reassuring note, encouraging me to be confident and remain positive, saying “Just remember, they say the darkest place is under the candle.”
Our first in-person meeting happened in 2014, at the opening of his solo exhibition Bilqis at Meem Gallery in Dubai. A kind and soft-spoken man, Kamal was difficult not to be completely taken by. He spoke of Jerusalem and his childhood, and how to truly know the city, one must learn to navigate its narrowest streets. He also told a group of us how important sunlight is, and its unique quality in different places around the world, for the creation of his work. A remarkable artist, gifted writer, and tireless researcher, Kamal was known to be unwilling to accept any standard short of perfection. He worked industriously on expanding the understanding of geometry, colour, as well as Arabic letterforms in visual art. He also authored numerous texts on the history of Palestinian and Arab art, making a much-valued contribution to the scholarship of modernity in the region and beyond.
Courtesy of Meem Gallery
In the fall of 2015, I had an opportunity to attend another of his exhibition openings, this time in London’s Berloni Gallery. After a friendly chat in the packed gallery, he asked me which of the exhibited paintings I liked best. When I pointed to a dark composition of blues and browns interrupted by two fiery orange wedges, he smiled and threw his fist up in the air.
“Boom!” he said, “Me too. This was a very difficult one to achieve.” It made me feel amused, but also excited and inspired to think that someone with a career as accomplished and celebrated as Kamal’s, firstly, has just said “Boom,” and secondly, remained this hungry and playful well into his career as an artist, and continued to treat each new work as potential to experiment, grow, and break out into new territories of investigation in the realms of composition and color theory. It was Kamal’s unquenched curiosity and true love for his vocation that led to a life exceptionally lived.
Kamal was a lot of people’s teacher, and a lot of people’s friend. What distinguished him, was an innate ability to give each person he encountered so much warmth and light, and share himself so generously, that it allowed everyone to develop a special type of bond that was only theirs and Kamal’s. He will be remembered and missed dearly by many.
From the Autumn 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art