Jamila Sawalah, 22, dreams of seeing a 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 Shababeek, one of the only artist collectives and gallery spaces in the Gaza Strip, is now organizing a traveling 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 traveling, 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.”
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.
In June 2016, Serhan completed a massive installation at the Gaza harbor of a lighthouse sculpture built entirely out of concrete blocks and steel fragments damaged in the 2014 war. It sits in the center 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 Gaza-based Palestinian sculptor whose latest project, “Ashes and Clay,” relied heavily on different hues of ash she collected around Gaza City.
Batrawi said she spent a year and a half collecting the color gray 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, 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.
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, another of Serhan’s students. “The most important thing for me, as we have no future, is art. Art is a way of not thinking about the future.”