Where language of art forms medium of protest

Where language of art forms medium of protest

Gazan artists have circulated drawings overlaid onto pictures of the explosions from Israeli bombs

The images of so many houses destroyed, so many bomb blasts, even so many bodies wrapped in burial shrouds can begin to blur together, indistinguishable.

But Belal Khaled, a young photojournalist and painter in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, saw symbols and stories in the smoke all around him.

First, in a black cloud staining the bright blue sky above a beach, he saw hints of a prominent nose, thick moustache and wild hair, “like an old man contemplating the situation of Gaza,” Khaled said. Then, in a friend’s photograph of a taller, thinner plume, he saw a fist with the index finger extended, a gesture Muslims make when saying, “No God but Allah.”

Using Photoshop, Khaled added a few simple lines to emphasise these hidden icons, and uploaded the artwork to Facebook, where it was shared and “liked” thousands of times.

“Artists may see things others can’t see,” said Khaled, 23, who works for a Turkish news agency. “Even at the very tense times and very hard moments, we still draw.”
Probably as long as there has been war, there have been war artists whose interpretations of the battlefield feed cultural understanding of conflict.

Modern armies appoint official artists to chronicle military triumphs; dissident poets and painters provide portraits of victims and the aftermath. Though made decades after the Revolutionary War, Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” is but one example of a work that lingers in the public consciousness.

In Gaza, where art supplies are scarce and expression often stifled, the fierce fighting that began July 8 unleashed a barrage of creativity, fuelled by social media networks, which have been a prime tool in the parallel propaganda war between backers of Palestinian militants and Israel.

At least a half-dozen artists, some far from Gaza, have circulated drawings like Khaled’s, overlaid onto pictures of the explosions from Israeli bombs. (He is one of several claiming to have been the first to do this.)

Others posted more straightforward paintings of death, destruction, rockets and warplanes, stark graphic designs of strident slogans, digital manipulations and political cartoons. Among the most interesting is a series of mashups by Basel Elmaqosui, pairing classic works by the masters with scenes from the street.

Elmaqosui inserted “The Card Players” by Cézanne into a photograph of men playing cards on a blanket in one of the United Nations schools that have sheltered thousands of displaced residents for weeks. He put Picasso’s “Child With a Dove” next to an actual dove - or perhaps a white pigeon - perched on one of the only walls that remain standing in the destroyed village of Khuza’a, in front of a Palestinian flag.

Beside a Beit Hanoun neighbourhood reduced to rubble, the figure in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” howls.

“It must be famous drawings so the vision is familiar to people,” said Elmaqosui, 42, as he sat on the porch of the Windows studio in Gaza City, where he and two others paint, exhibit and run workshops for children. “Many of these drawings are related to our reality. They happened before in the world. It’s like they are happening again now.”

The artists see their work as a form of resistance to Israeli aggression. The resistance is also what Palestinians call the men who launched rockets into Israel, dug tunnels into Israeli territory, and killed Israeli soldiers during their ground invasion of Gaza. But it is much more than a respectable term for militancy or terrorism: Resistance is an admired value, an essential part of life’s fabric after decades living under Israeli occupation and restrictions.

Artist’s language

“Everybody in Gaza is resisting in his own language,” said Manal Abu Safar, 31, who has posted dozens of bomb-smoke artworks like Khaled’s on Facebook. “The Palestinian artist has his private language, through his brushes, through his lines.”

Abu Safar, who lives in the central Gaza Strip town of Deir al-Balah and started drawing as a child in Libya, said she made her first picture from the smoke of an F-16 strike, a hand making the “V for victory” sign, on the fourth or fifth day of the war.

While Khaled seems to be picking up on hints in the actual smoke, Abu Safar, who finds photographs online, takes more liberty in superimposing her vision: a snake attacking Gaza; a map of historic Palestine; Yasser Arafat holding his cheek in his palm; a cartoonish man in a helmet with a Star of David, sucking the blood of a child.

Khaled said he learned Arabic calligraphy in the seventh grade and painted Quranic verses on the walls of his family home. He started taking photographs at 18 and dropped out of college, where he was studying interior design, to take a job at Anadolu, a Turkish news agency.

Three years ago, he began painting - haunting portraits, mostly, of the forlorn old men and impoverished youths in his neighbourhood. At the office one night, he used the coffee left in his cup to paint a child screaming.

“I like to draw faces because they carry a lot of stories,” he said. “I like to focus on drawing the eyes. The eyes are the central attractive point for the one seeing the face.”

Elmaqosui started drawing and painting in a YMCA workshop in 1995, and later went to Jordan for training. Over the past five years, he and two partners have taught photography and drawing classes to about 5,000 children, whose work was collected in a book pairing their reflections with excerpts from the United Nations’ half-century-old declaration on the rights of children.

Gaza has no academy for the arts, Elmaqosui said, and only two small galleries, which get no government support. There is only one store that sells tubes of acrylic paint, for about $10 each, nearly twice what they cost before 2007, when Israel imposed tight restrictions on imports after Hamas, the Islamist faction it deems a terrorist group, seized control of Gaza.

During the 2008-09 Israeli offensive in Gaza, Elmaqosui made a series of 40 black-and-white paintings, mostly of abstract faces underneath attack planes and helicopters; 22 of them, representing the 22 days of that war, were recently on exhibit in the West Bank. Some sold for $500.

He said he made art constantly during the fighting this time, in part “to change the atmosphere for my children,” ages 16, 15, 13, 11 and 3 months. During the earlier conflict, he said, “I was telling them these are fireworks, but now they know it’s not fireworks.”

On Tuesday, he posted to Facebook a picture made by the 11-year-old, and wrote, “Ahmed paints a war.”