Defiant Gaza artists vow to recreate their destroyed works

With Israel's destructive war on Gaza killing tens of thousands, losing art seems trivial. Still, artists are determined to keep their works alive despite attempts to erase Palestinian culture.

A painting by Majid Mekdad
A painting by Majid Mekdad

Defiant Gaza artists vow to recreate their destroyed works

Israel’s longest and most intense attack against Gaza has now killed roughly one in every 50 residents, displaced nine in every ten, and reduced much of the Strip to rubble. It has touched everything from the natural landscape to the basic infrastructure needed to support services such as education and health. It has inflicted great damage on historic sites and Gaza’s architectural heritage, damaging its unique cultural identity.

Like so many of Gaza’s people, its writers and artists have been forced to flee. Now, they are trying to salvage what they can from the manuscripts, books, sketches, paintings, and sculptures they were forced to leave behind.

While basic survival remains a priority, searching for art can look like a luxury. In desperation, some framed paintings have been used as firewood for cooking food when food can be found. Yet artists’ determination to recover the hallmarks of Gaza’s culture may prove to be an important part of survival. Al Majalla spoke to Palestinian artists in Gaza about what they had lost.

Gone in an instant

Mohammed Abu Sal said: “My home in Maghazi camp was bombed, and my studio was utterly demolished. I lost everything in an instant. It held hundreds of artworks symbolising my artistic journey but is now reduced to rubble.”

Among his losses were models from his art project titled Ugly Goods that Do Not Meet Your Rights. This sought to reflect Palestinians’ daily experience: the apartheid wall, barbed wire, military bulldozers, and all occupation methods to constrain Palestinian lives and deny them freedom.

A destroyed artwork by Mohammed Abu Sal

“I lost 3D installation projects, among my most significant artworks,” he said. “They simulated the state of siege and suffering of Palestinian society due to movement restrictions. Losing them in this manner is heartbreaking.”

While some artists have lost everything, works included in exhibitions abroad have been spared, surviving by chance. Abu Sal had a few pieces in Ramallah, Germany, and other countries, he said, "but this represents only 10% of my output". After Israeli tanks withdrew, he searched for what could be salvaged from the ruins, but to no avail.

"I found everything damaged. Many pieces had been taken by desperate Palestinians—unaware of their artistic worth—to be used as firewood due to the cooking gas crisis. Despite my efforts to store them carefully, my art sculptures have been lost."

He thinks it was part of a "deliberate" plan to "undermine everything" in an overarching onslaught against the Palestinian people. "People, land, and buildings were targets of the occupation, along with memory, cultural heritage, and expertise. Every facet of life was targeted during this genocide. It left nothing untouched."

Some artists intend to recreate lost works, but Abu Sal does not. "Is not possible," he says. "Each piece is specific to its space, time, and moment. We are not machines or printers capable of replicating the same emotions and artistic expression."

A destroyed artwork by Mohammed Abu Sal

Repainting for recovery

Palestinian artist Lamees al-Sharif sees things differently. She is determined to reproduce what has been lost in dozens of her paintings. "Once the war is over and I can settle down, I will begin working on painting ideas again," she says.

"I know it's a daunting task and maybe impossible. It's challenging for an artist to replicate the same sense of colour, brush strokes, light, and environment. Nonetheless, I will try to recover some of my work by attempting to repaint them."

Al-Sharif refuses to let go of specific paintings with deep personal significance or evoke intimate memories. "These are artworks that I never considered selling because they are intimately connected to my ideas and perhaps form the essence of my life."

"I wanted to preserve them. Thankfully, the war spared them. I never imagined for a moment that all my paintings would be reduced to damaged pieces."

Al-Sharif adds that the art "captured an era in this place's history, which is why Israel wanted to destroy it and turn it into ash. This is a relentless war on Palestinians—and their culture."

"I feel profound sadness at the loss of these memories. My paintings were my imagination, a means through which I explored the world and discovered myself. A painting is a collective biography, not an individual one."

"The emotions the artist conveys are shaped by their era, their perception of the world's constancy and change, and the narrative of events that must resonate within the artist's legacy."

She explains that al-Sharif's work focuses on the plight of Palestinian women in Gaza who have borne a distinct burden. "They have endured significant losses amid the immense pressures faced by Palestinian families, impacting all aspects of women's lives."

She sees symbolism in the damage to her paintings, such as "a back bent from weariness". Her paintings aimed to offer a glimmer of hope, she says. "Perhaps I should revive them, for myself and all women."

A painting by Majid Mekdad

Destined for ruin

Majid Mekdad says: "Painting is more than just wood, fabrics, and colours. It is an integral part of the artist's essence. The idea of its destruction and loss cannot be overcome indefinitely."

During the 2014 war on Gaza, Mekdad created numerous paintings reflecting events of the time. Years ago, he left Gaza for Turkey, leaving behind all his work. His home was damaged during the war in recent months.

"What I created during the 2014 war has been destroyed in the current war," he says. "There is a systematic and deliberate erasure of our artistic influence and Palestinian memory."

Art should help us confront violence, yet Mekdad believes that "painting, no matter its value and capacity, remains futile in the face of the atrocities inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza. I feel deeply angered and disoriented by the destruction of Gaza and its humanitarian, architectural, and cultural resources."

None of his paintings survived except those outside Gaza, he says. "Many paintings in my studio in Gaza were destined to be destroyed. It's a truly dreadful feeling."

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