Palestine through Contemporary Art: interview with Malak Mattar
Could you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a Palestinian painter. In 1948 my grandparents were forcibly expelled to the Gaza Strip, where I was born and raised.
When I was 14 years old, I experienced the third war in Gaza and began to paint during the 51 days that the military incursion lasted.
How did I start? My uncle, a renowned Palestinian painter, had an influence on me, however it was the feelings of fear, anxiety and terror that led me to take refuge in painting as a way to endure days without electricity and waiting for everything to end.
The moment I started painting I forgot what was happening outside, and I focused on painting and producing more.
Then, after studying a little about art, I came across “art therapy” which explains what I experienced and felt 6 years ago.
A year later, after expanding my knowledge and creating with different painting techniques, I held my first art exhibition in the Gaza Strip.
Since the war that year Gaza obtained international media coverage, my works attracted interest from media that also wanted to expose the social side of the Palestinians, and not only the political one.
This helped more people know me and attract the attention of people in Europe, the United States; and also to have more exhibitions.
To date I have shown my works in at least 60 art shows.
What do you consider to be the importance of Palestinian art?
It has a very great influence. For example, after the 2014 war, the import of canvas was not allowed in Gaza. That lasted a considerable time. This is because art is powerful, it truly represents Palestinian voices and their struggle.
Any Palestinian living anywhere has a different struggle.
I would say that many Palestinian artists are committed to the Palestinian cause. That makes his work very powerful.
As an artist I consider this commitment very important since I can show my own struggle and that of those who have lost their lives and been murdered during wars and attacks.
There are many works by Palestinian artists that were censored in Europe precisely because they were considered “hostile” towards the Israeli occupation. For example, an exhibition by the painter Sliman Mansour was forced to close.
Palestinian art is very intimidating for Israel given the influence it has globally.
Many tourists and foreigners have a preconception of Palestinians as terrorists and of Israel as a perfect democracy, and once they know my history and my art, they change their opinion.
That is why our culture is very important for us Palestinians, it has a lot of influence.
How is your art connected to the liberation process of the Palestinian people?
As an artist I always try to show the human side of the lives of Palestinians, to show that we are more than statistics. After the last war in Gaza, everything around was numbers, figures of the number of dead, number of people who lost their homes... it was all numbers.
Through my art I want to show the human aspect of us as individuals with the right to travel, to have access to electricity… above all I focus on Gaza.
I have painted about the shortage of electricity, the absence of freedom, about the murdered people and their stories.
I don't know if it's a way to liberate Palestine, but it's a way to enlighten people who were raised to believe that Israel is the only democracy in the region. I try to show the true face of the Palestinians through our stories.
Our liberation begins by raising awareness about what is happening in Palestine, because the more people support us, the more pressure there is on Israel.
Could you tell us a little about the situation of the arts in Gaza and the rest of Palestine?
We are known for being the birthplace of famous artists. During the last 15-20 years, and especially with the blockade on Gaza, we have experienced a strong emergence of artists in various fields.
I think people have started to use art as a way to express themselves, especially after three wars and the media coverage that has brought.
However, being an artist is difficult since we do not have a culture of art consumption. Even my father finds it difficult to conceive the idea of buying a piece of art and it is something that must change. That is why many artists subsist with another source of work.
There is a lot of art being produced from Palestine, but there is no compensation for the artists.
Palestine has great artistic wealth, there are galleries and other art exhibitions in Ramallah and Bethlehem, in addition, many Palestinians show their art in different places around the world.
It is fortunate that art pieces have greater freedom of movement even though Palestinian artists do not.
You currently live in Istanbul. How do you think you contribute to the Palestinian struggle despite the distance?
It's an interesting question as I initially thought I was going to spend my days painting the Blue Mosque or the Galata Tower. However, my commitment to Palestine and our struggle remains even outside of Gaza.
It was a change and a very different experience since the Gaza Strip is such a small space that we all know each other, meanwhile here everyone is unknown, for which I have felt a lot of nostalgia even though in Gaza I lived through very difficult times and even I suffered from depression. But even outside I don't feel like I left my home.
I think the commitment is the same, but perhaps what has changed are the feelings. Now there is less sadness and tension, I feel relief even though it is still difficult. But the commitment is the same.
We Palestinians, even outside the country, feel Palestine within us.
What is your message for the next generation of Palestinian painters?
Knowing how much my work has influenced the vision of many people towards Palestine, I would tell them that Palestine should always be present in their paintings, even when it is not explicit or clear, the Palestinian struggle should be represented in one way or another.
For us Palestinians, giving our testimony is a very powerful element since in one way or another they are stories of struggle, resistance and in some cases also of success despite everything we have experienced.
I would say: “keep Palestine in your heart, talk about it, tell about it and never forget it.”
Source: Embassy of the State of Palestine in Argentina