Against a Canvas of Despair, Gaza’s Artists Trace Their Struggle

Against a Canvas of Despair, Gaza’s Artists Trace Their Struggle

Against a Canvas of Despair, Gaza’s Artists Trace Their Struggle

The incessant buzzing of an Israeli drone fills the room.

On one large wall, scenes of death and desperate rescues by hand through twisted metal and crushed rock play out on a video loop. A large mound of rubble — metal rods, bricks and broken plaster — extends nearly the length of the exhibition hall.

Along blue walls meant to evoke Gaza’s sky and sea hang paintings that mostly evoke life before Israel’s intense bombardment and invasion: Palestinian still lifes, native cactuses, music, cats and cows, and even one Catwoman.

The work of more than 100 Gazan artists lines the walls of this exhibition, which is showing at the Palestinian Museum in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a collection of protest that is as much about the art that is not there, lost in the war that rages in Gaza, as about the art that is on display. Most of the artists are trapped in the enclave, struggling to survive, much less to create.

“We resist with our colors and our canvases in order to relay our message to the world,” said Basel El Maqosui, an artist displaced from his home in northern Gaza whose work is featured.

“They destroyed all our civilization and destroyed our modern and ancient artifacts,” he said in an interview. “Each of which carries a memory full of love and joy and another memory full of sadness and tears.”

High on the wall in the hall hangs his painting of a Palestinian woman, her head, face and shoulders rimmed by layers of colorful scarves — red, yellow and blue.

Mr. El Maqosui said that he had been inspired by his neighbor in northern Gaza, a young Bedouin woman who had a unique style of wearing bright Palestinian clothing, layering four to five colorful scarves around her no matter the occasion or weather.

The work of the artists in the show, called “This Is Not an Exhibition,” attempts to reflect the texture of Palestinian life that can be both political and apolitical at a time when Israel’s stated war on Hamas has wrought a horrific human toll and vast destruction in Gaza.

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The organizers of the exhibition say they consider the show an act of solidarity with artists in Gaza, providing a way to draw attention to the cultural cost of the war. The exhibition points to a shared experience between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who, while divided in geography and governance, are united by common aspirations for their own state, having lived under Israeli control for decades in varying forms.

“Killing the Palestinians, killing the artists, destroying their works, targeting the cultural institutions,” said Ehab Bseisso, a member of the museum’s board of directors, “is a primary part of the genocidal erasure of history and memory and creativity.”

“This is about serving the colonial narrative that Gaza did not have life, did not have art, did not have culture,” he added.

During the more than four months of war, Israeli airstrikes in Gaza have destroyed many artists’ studios and works, as well as most museums and cultural institutions — a loss to the territory’s cultural life that experts say could take more than a generation to rebuild.

UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organization, has expressed concern about the impact of the war on Gaza. The agency has documented damage to at least 22 heritage sites, including 10 buildings of historical or artistic interest, one museum and three archaeological sites.

Standing in the exhibition hall and speaking above the sound of the drone, Mr. Bseiso referred to the artworks hanging around him as “survivors” because they were sold to collectors, universities and cultural centers outside the Gaza Strip before the war began.

Many represent joyful aspects of Palestinian life, while others represent the struggles of what organizers call “the harshness of reality” and the “ugly cruelty of the occupation.”

One painting, from 1982, features a body holding its dismembered head shrouded in a black-and-white checkered scarf known as a kaffiyeh. Another, from the 1970s, shows a man with chains and a dead dove. Below it hangs a 2016 painting showing a person whose face is covered in a red bandanna holding white underwear on which is spray painted the word “return” in Arabic.

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“This is the voice of Gaza they are trying to silence,” Mr. Bseisso said.

Some of those voices have been lost.

At least four of the artists with works in the exhibition have been killed by Israeli airstrikes, according to the organizers. Their names are marked on a wall of contributors with a black line in the corner of their nameplate.

Mr. El Maqosui is a long way from the days when he spent his time teaching art at a school during the day and then creating colorful art in his home studio at night. His home and his studio were flattened in an Israeli airstrike, he said.

More than two decades of works were destroyed. “I lost everything that I had,” he said.

Now he spends much of his days fetching and filtering water, lining up for food and keeping his family’s ramshackle tent of plastic sheeting intact against the cold, wind and rain in the southern city of Rafah.

He still makes time for art, sitting in the tent, bundled up with blankets, sketching with pen in a notebook, his colorful subjects replaced by black-and-white representations of the bleak reality in which he and more than two million others now find themselves living.

“In these difficult circumstances that we struggle to describe with any words, I am trying to hold on to my humanity by drawing,” he said. “Drawing doesn’t change what we are living through, but it is a way to relay to the world our suffering.”

When the war began, the Palestinian Museum was preparing an exhibit on music that was set to open in November. But watching the death and destruction in Gaza prompted the organizers to pivot.

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They tore down the walls of the music exhibit and used the rubble to make a mound of debris in the center of the museum’s hall.

Shareef Sarhan, co-founder of Shababek, an artists’ collective and gallery in Gaza City, said the effect “makes it feel as if you are entering Gaza with all its destruction.” Mr. Sarhan, who lives in Istanbul and Paris, helped put the exhibition together from afar, suggesting the drone sounds and rubble, among other ideas.

Before the war, the top floor of Shababek was used for artists in residence to focus on their art. It was destroyed by an Israeli strike, said Mr. Sarhan, who was outside Gaza when the war began.

The bottom two floors — where some of the enclave’s most renowned artists showcased their sculptures, paintings and mixed media art installations — remain intact and for many weeks housed families who had fled their homes and sought shelter there.

Mr. Sarhan says he does not know what happened to many of the paintings that were there, but he believes the families used the wood and canvases to make fires to stay warm amid acute shortages of fuel resulting from Israel’s near complete siege.

Through the exhibition, he said, the Gazan artists can communicate with people outside despite the war, at a time when most of the population has been cut off from the rest of the world.

During the war, phone and internet communications have regularly been cut, either by military airstrikes, power blackouts, or according to senior U.S. officials, directly by Israel.

“People are losing their connection with the outside world, but the art is able to play a role that the artist cannot,” Mr. Sarhan said. “People can see their message and feel your situation. It becomes like a reflection, like an official spokesman for them.”