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Dreaming of van Gogh in Gaza

Palestinian artists draw inspiration from masterpieces they may never be allowed to see

By The Washington Post | September 26, 2019 | Category

James McAuley, Hazem Balousha, The Washington Post

GAZA CITY -On the top floor of a run-down studio, the young sculptors were scraping away at plaster bas-reliefs, in many cases re-creating Western masterpieces they may never see.

Nimer Qeeq, a 23-year-old hipster in tight black jeans, said Michelango's "Pietà" would be the first thing he'd aim to see if he ever leaves the 25-mile strip of land that has circumscribed his life. "The details of that statue," he said, "how Mary holds Jesus, the details on her arm - it's really perfect."

Jamila Sawalah, 22, dreams of seeing van Gogh. "The violent nature of the brushstrokes - I love that style, and I try to do the same." She dashed paint onto her sculpture of a couple in a passionate embrace.

It is often said that art is a means of escape. But in Gaza - an overcrowded and squalid enclave that residents cannot leave without great difficulty - there is no escape. Art here is a means of weathering an increasingly oppressive reality, of learning to find, or create, beauty in the most hostile environments.

Gazans live under a strict blockade imposed by both Israel and Egypt to exert pressure on Hamas, the Islamist militant group that has controlled the Palestinian enclave since 2007.

A group of artists from Shabakeek, one of the only artist collectives and gallery spaces in the Gaza Strip, is now organizing a travelling retrospective of Gaza-made art. It is to be shown first in East Jerusalem in late December, then in the West Bank city of Ramallah and then, tentatively, in Frankfurt, Germany, sometime in 2020.

But because of travel restrictions imposed by Israel, the artists may not be able to secure the permits necessary to leave Gaza.

"Our art is travelling, but not us," said Shareef Serhan, a painter and sculptor who now runs Shababeek. "It's very difficult for the artists, including me, that you're not there with your art. You can't visualize the impression it makes on viewers. You can't see the impact and feeling of people toward your art."

Painter Sherif Sarhan, director of Gaza's Shababeek artists collective, teaches a class on Aug. 21, 2019. Shabakeek is one of the only artists collectives and gallery spaces in the Gaza Strip. Photo for The Washington Post by Loay Ayyoub

Israeli military officials said in a statement that there is no attempt to keep artists from accompanying their art. "When any request is received by the Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA) for Gaza, it should be clearly understood that the request is handled on its merits, in a professional fashion, according to the criteria and subject to security considerations," the statement said.

In recent years, rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel have brought Israeli retaliation. There have been three wars since 2009, with the most devastating in 2014, when more than 2,000 Palestinians and 67 Israelis were killed in a conflict that reduced significant expanses of the Gaza Strip to rubble.

For many artists in Gaza, that rubble has inspired a wide array of new projects.

Painter Sherif Sarhan, director of Gaza's Shababeek artists collective, works Aug. 21, 2019, in Gaza City. Photo for The Washington Post by Loay Ayyoub

In June 2016, Serhan completed a massive installation in the Gaza harbour of a lighthouse sculpture built entirely out of concrete blocks and steel fragments destroyed in the 2014 war. It sits in the centre of a traffic circle, a new landmark on a cityscape pockmarked from artillery fire.

"In Gaza, we see many things that are broken and ugly, and we make it into something beautiful," said Rana Al-Batrawi, a Palestinian, Gaza-based sculptor whose latest project, "Clay and Ash," relied heavily on different hues of ash she collected around Gaza City.

Al-Batrawi said she spent a year and a half collecting the colour grey wherever she could find it - from wood, the remnants of destroyed buildings and other ruins. The idea, she said, was to show that in ashes of different types, there was still an ineradicable essence.

"After every war, there is devastation," she said. "But we keep going, and life goes on - love, marriages and so on. We have life."

In a society controlled by Hamas, which espouses a conservative view of women and gender relations, Al-Batrawi said that for women, in particular, making art restores some of the agency otherwise denied in everyday life. "Art gives women strength, power and bravery," she said. "Something I can't express publicly I can express through my art."

The image of Gaza most often transmitted abroad is one of destruction and devastation: photographs of dead bodies, broadcasts of burning homes. But these images, while reflecting much of Gaza's reality, ultimately rob Gaza of its full humanity, Serhan said.

On a recent afternoon, one of his students, Rawan Khazeq, 20, was working on a bas-relief that depicted a Palestinian woman in traditional dress, carrying a water jug over her head.

"I want to remind everybody that we have a history, that we have a heritage," she said.

"The majority of overseas people have an image that Gaza is a place of war," said Serhan. "I feel I'm obligated as an artist to show what is beautiful about Gaza and that it's more than just a war zone."

Asked to describe what about Gaza is beautiful, he had a list at hand: "The sea. The people. The details in certain homes and houses."

"If you want to see the face of beautiful Gaza, you have to dig deep inside the details - it takes time," he said. "You have to stand on the beach for four hours with a camera, watching the fishermen. Or you have to go [down] a little side street in a refugee camp, to see the beautiful eyes of the children. Or elderly women weaving at a loom."

To that end, he shot 1,000 photographs between 2000 and 2012, which he then displayed in an exhibition- and subsequent book - both called "Gaza Lives."

But how can artists transmit this alternate vision of Gaza to the world?

"The restriction of movement has an impact on you, and everything here is connected to that," Serhan said.

Sculptor Rana Albatrawi works on a piece from her series "Ashes and Clay" in Gaza City on Aug. 22, 2019. Photo for The Washington Post by Loay Ayyoub

For some artists, leaving Gaza may still be a dream, but it no longer seems realistic. Instead, they paint and sculpt without thinking about where these may lead, because the answer may be nowhere.

"Gaza is full of stress, full of pressure," said Sawalah, the student who dreams of van Gogh. "The most important thing for me, as we have no future, is art. Art is a way of not thinking about the future."

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