How Gaza became a rich canvas for Palestinian art

Art is flourishing in the carnage left behind by Israel's military onslaught last year. <b>Donald Macintyre</b> reports.

Saturday 26 December 2009 01:00

The prematurely ageing apartment block on the edge of Jabalya overlooks a forbidding stretch of wasteland. There is a lift shaft but no lift.

But if this is no surprise in a Gaza starved of building materials and spare parts, the interior of the spotless and stylishly furnished fourth-floor flat, where Maha El-Daya lives and works, certainly is. The walls are covered with her own (and her artist husband's) paintings: haunting land and seascapes, a portrait of a child; the living room table on which coffee is served is covered with a dark red and black cloth she hand-stitched in the pattern of a chess board, the chairs scattered with cushions decorated with her own kaleidoscopic embroidery.

Ms El-Daya's studio and home in the northern neighbourhood of al Saftawi betrays little sign of the turbulence and bloodshed of the three-week Israeli military onslaught on Gaza which began a year ago tomorrow. Nor does the painting she chose for the annual auction of Palestinian art organised this month in Jerusalem by the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which sold for $900.

At first sight, it is an abstract against a vibrant blue background but, examined more closely, it is pregnant with traditional Palestinian motifs: the feathers seamstresses attach to a needle and thread instead of a knot; the bag containing Koranic verses once worn by women, the grain used in baking bread. The blue is the colour of the Mediterranean; the brown that of the desert land it laps against.

Ms El-Daya, 33, is one of a growing, younger generation of talented painters helping to bring Gaza – and indeed Palestinian – art to the well deserved attention of a wider public. If Gaza's economy has ground to a standstill, its modern art appears to be flourishing. And remarkably, the majority of the richly varied works on display in the "Colours of Hope" exhibition at the Alhambra Palace this month make little or no overt reference to last winter's war.

In the case of Ms El -Daya, who has a daughter Salma, six, and a three-year-old son, Adam, this isn't because she was unaffected by the war; quite the opposite. "I couldn't draw anything," she says. "I was living in a depression during and after the war. I was very afraid and very worried by the bombardment and the Israelis came very near to us."

Her husband Ayman was stranded in Egypt, where he is studying for a Master's degree in fine arts. The trade union headquarters near her flat was bombed. Twenty-two members of the extended El-Daya family were killed when an Israeli F16 fighter bombarded their four-storey family apartment block in one of the worst incidents of the war – later explained by the military as an "operational error". Practical as well as multiply creative, and mindful that a prominent Hamas figure and potential target, Ismail Radwan, lives in her neighbourhood, Ms El-Daya painstakingly removed the glass from her windows on the first day of the bombing, replacing them as soon as the war was over. She says she could see the white phosphorus used in the bombing of nearby Atatra, adding "We saw the ball of fire, like an octopus". But though her words testify to her painter's eye, she had no inclination to commit it to canvas, seeing such immediate events as unsuitable for the lengthy task of constructing a work of art.

It was two months after the end of the war before Ms El-Daya picked up her brush again and, if her work had a theme (though she denies it is political), it was that of recovery. Her first post-war painting was of a fishing boat being repaired on the Gaza City beach. Repeatedly, her work returns to scenes of Gaza's coast: boats, the sea, the decay of Gaza's old port. One Palestinian expert has suggested that some of her beach scenes specifically evoke the siege of Gaza imposed in June 2007 after Hamas's enforced takeover. This Ms El-Daya rejects, saying only that "everyone can do his own translation" of the work.

She does admit, however, to wanting to record scenes that are vanishing, or threatening to, in Gaza's ever-changing landscape. "I want to tell the world that there was a harbour here." Similarly with her pastoral pictures of the now bulldozed farmland of Beit Lahiya. "It's not there any more," she says. "People are trying to get it back now but it won't be what it used to be."

Ms El-Daya has much in common with her fellow painter Shareef Sarhan. The work of both has been shown and sold as far afield as Britain and the US. But while the paintings can travel – often thanks to diplomats – their creators, because of the closure, could not even get to this month's show in Jerusalem. Both have difficulty in bringing in good quality paints from Israel and the West Bank. And both have jobs to help support their families – Ms El-Daya teaches children to draw in a programme run by the Palestinian Red Crescent and Mr Sarhan, also 33, is a photographer for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

But Mr Sarhan's painting – which fetched $800 at the UNDP auction – is unmistakeably of the war. Like Ms El-Daya, he did not paint during Israel's Operation Cast Lead; instead he alarmed his wife and four children by photographing its impact both in the streets and, even more dangerously, from the sixth-floor roof of the family home in Gaza City's Sabra district. Though he sold some photographs, others he posted for free on his website, attracting 40,000 hits in the process. It was only in the following weeks that he began to paint the series of war studies which culminated in the work for the UNDP auction. "Sometimes the artist looks to express the events he lives through immediately," he says. "Sometimes it's after a period."

He argues that his paintings of the "aggression", as he calls it, though informed by both his memory and the photographs he took from his roof, are essentially "from the imagination". But Mr Sarhan is also not, by preference, a war painter. His entry at the 2008 UNDP auction, which sold for $1,100, was a cityscape with an environmental theme, buildings packed between two trees, in which he has painted – as he often does – the grey/brown urban housing of Gaza in startlingly bright colours.

Nor has he, Ms El-Daya or the other painters represented in this month's show, resorted for financial reasons, as some others have, to political murals and the "martyr" portraits of those killed in conflict, frequently commissioned by the armed factions. "I'm not angry with them; I found a job but maybe they had no other option. But I won't do it," Mr Sarhan says.

The problem he has is finding the time to paint as much as he wants. Not only does he need to earn his living but he is also, as a founder member of the "Windows from Gaza for Contemporary Art" group, a tireless champion of younger artists, helping to arrange two to three exhibitions a month. There were "difficulties" at first in attracting a Gaza audience for shows including video and installation art as well as paintings. But now, he says, 150 to 200 will routinely attend an opening.

Mr Sarhan says Hamas officials have nether intervened against nor encouraged the contemporary art movement here. He also points out that the painting sold in last year's UNDP auction by Ms El-Daya's husband, Ayman Eisa, included the outline of a nude woman. Though painted here, it almost certainly could not be exhibited in socially conservative Gaza, Hamas or no Hamas. Accepting that there are "differences between artists and the government" he remains politically neutral. "I am not Fatah or Hamas," he explains. "I am Shareef."

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