Karl Schembri | Sunday, 25 October 2009

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Art under blockade

Dozens of people are flocking to a modest house recently converted into an art studio by a handful of young artists from Gaza. The streets in central Gaza City are dark after the latest power cut, but generators serve to light up the exhibition space, making it possible to see the works of art.
The lights also expose the poor quality of some of the photo prints.
“It’s impossible to find good printers in the Gaza Strip,” says artist Bassel Al Maqoussi, who had to make do with inferior prints of his works in order to be able to exhibit them here. “There is no professional equipment to print high quality photos, so we have to manage with what we can.”
Under blockade, even art here suffers from the same problems faced by every other sector. Paint and raw material is scarce, of low quality and very expensive.
“We depend on material coming through the tunnels from Egypt,” says another artist, Sharif Sarhan. “Sometimes we have to ask anyone coming from Israel, Jerusalem or Ramallah to bring us material with them. I have some friends working with UNRWA, but not everyone is so lucky. No artist here can live on art, so we all have to have another job. There are no materials here, and no good places to hold exhibitions; maybe three spaces in all of Gaza.”
Even the de facto Hamas government of Gaza does not help much. The Islamist movement is, at best, indifferent to anything that is not immediately religious or political within its own agenda.
“I have no work or cooperation with the ministry of culture, no contact,” says Sarhan, who has participated in numerous exhibitions abroad in the past. “We don’t really have problems with them. Government is not interested in art. Maybe they organise different activities falling under culture, but not art. We’re not on the same wavelength... they may even be displeased with the fact that women might come to the exhibition.”
The occasion for tonight’s event is meant to mark the opening of an exhibition called ‘Tribute to Jerusalem’. Yet in the besieged and impoverished Gaza Strip, an art exhibition is also a statement: the people here are alive, and daring to dream.
Organised by Windows from Gaza, a collective of Gazan artists working to promote contemporary modern art, the exhibition pays homage to the holy city, which is completely forbidden to Gazans and the vast majority of Palestinians.
Sarhan last visited Jerusalem 16 years ago. What he misses most are the little, ordinary details of life in Jerusalem. Like having tea with friends on a pavement, walking in the labyrinthine cobbled streets, or buying a souvenir.
“We can’t move out of here, definitely not to go to Jerusalem,” Sarhan says. “The idea behind our exhibition is to say ‘hello, I’m here’ to Jerusalem. It’s our way of telling Jerusalem that it’s still in our hearts, that we’re thinking about it all the time.”
Al Maqoussi last visited Jerusalem in 2007, before the civil war between Fatah and Hamas and the ensuing blockade. But even on that occasion, he could only see the Old City from the outside.
“I was with my friends at the gates of Jerusalem, at Damascus Gate, and we were prevented from entering by Israeli police, specifically because we are from Gaza,” he says. “I couldn’t even take a photo of the Old City. We could only see Jerusalem from outside the fortress walls.”
Another artist from Gaza, exhibiting her works is Maha Daya, whose colourful landscapes with domed buildings and arched doorways offer a glimpse of her dream of Jerusalem. Her last visit to city was in 1996, and she is well aware of the ongoing changes happening under Israeli occupation.
“If I had to go there again I’m sure I’d find that a lot has changed. It’s not just the landscape and the buildings, but also the people – there are much fewer Palestinians living there now.”


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