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“I have been producing images of the hoopoe for over 20 years and over time it has evolved into a rich and many-layered symbol for me from a spiritual into a broader, secular symbol of survival. Somewhat like the dove and olive branch which has morphed iconographically from relating to Noah and the Great Flood into an icon of peace. Hoopoe is an image which gives me great latitude to explore both suffering and survival. An icon suited for the state of the world in the 21st century. 


My interest in the hoopoe began with reading Attar’s grand fable and deepened during long conversations with my teacher Shakir Hassan Al Said. Now I read it as a metaphor for the journey of self-discovery, as a person and as an artist. Spiritual and creative journeys have much in common: both require endurance; both are perilous and sometimes painful and many are left behind. Hoopoe, the sheikh or pir who leads the 30 in Attar, is the quintessential survivor. I am He.” 


Hanaa Malallah

“The Hoopoe bird appears in many ancient, religious texts. I have started to follow the concept that is presented by the Hoopoe as a bird seeking truth to survive morally and spiritually, by starting a dangerous journey. I have used the Hoopoe as a symbol of suffering and survival in my artworks for the last six years, often in comparison to the Dove with olive branch. While the Dove was originally a Christian symbol, it was transformed into an iconic, secular symbol of peace by Pablo Picasso. Similarly, I have reworked the Hoopoe and olive branch as a symbol of survival in a secular context. I tried to deliver my concept by using taxidermy Hoopoe birds to explain that the shape is there but the content (life) is not.”


The Hoopoe bird appears in a number of works by Malallah, whether painted, drawn in pen and ink or appearing as taxidermy. The Hoopoe inspires Malallah for a number of reasons, and has both religious and secular associations for the artist. The Hoopoe bird is native to Asia, Africa and parts of Europe, and has been depicted in art and literature since ancient times. Due to its crown-like crest, it has often been described as a leader or king of birds. The Hoopoe bird (hudhud in Arabic) is also important in Islamic tradition, because it appears in a number of religious texts, most notably in the Holy Qur’an. It has been seen throughout history as sacred, wise and protective.

Malallah has also extensively researched the appropriation of the Biblical Dove and olive branch as a secular symbol for peace. The use of Picasso’s Dove of Peace (La Colombe de la Paix, 1949) as a symbol of pacifism worldwide has resulted in associations beyond the religious. In Malallah’s work, she replaces the Dove with the Hoopoe, which reframes the bird and olive branch motif to represent not peace but survival through destruction. There is, however, an inherent irony with the use of taxidermied, dead Hoopoe birds to represent the idea of survival. It is almost as if the empty bodies of expired birds represent the hollow emptiness associated with survivor guilt.

Malallah relates to the Hoopoe bird because of its historic association with moral and spiritual guidance, and legends of dangerous journeys undertaken by the bird, often inviting others to share in the experience. The artist equates these journeys to her own artistic journey, in which she undertakes to seek the truth in order to survive. In her work, the Hoopoe has become a symbol of survival itself. 


Louisa Macmillan

October 2014

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