Stephen Bourke visited The Gazing from Gaza exhibition in Dublin 8’s Back Loft gallery and found a Democratic world of dozens of palestinian artists channeling life, death and hope during wartime.
When Mohammed Lubbad looks north out of the Gaza strip from his home in Beit Lahiya, he can see gasometers in the distance at the Dorad and Rotenberg power stations. Just beyond is Askalon, his family’s ancestral home. It’s now an Israeli suburb, where cobble-lock cul-de-sacs radiate from avenues named for Zionist heroes: Sderot David Ben-Gurion, Sderot Menachim Begin, Eli Cohen St, and so on. You can see playgrounds, wheelie-bins and solar panels on Google Street View. It looks normal.
Perhaps this is the reason Lubbad calls the short time he spent working there in 1990 “the happiest and the hardest days of my life.” He’s an artist and a second-generation refugee living in Beit Lahiya, about 15 kilometres to the south, where that kind of normal life is not allowed to exist. The most northern city in the Gaza Strip is a dense, crowded grid of buildings surrounded by cultivated farmland. It became a target-rich environment. When the Israeli strikes came, Lubbad and his extended family had to evacuate.
“It was hard times we lived. During the war,” he tells me, in pump-action instant messenger syntax, of two months this summer that saw over 2,000 Gazans killed. The collateral damage was so extensive that even the Israeli Defence Forces admit the majority killed were civilians.
Dylan Longman at Dublin’s Back Loft gallery and artists’ studios held a fundraiser for Gaza in July – but felt he could do more. He had been keeping an archive of visual propaganda material from Palestine, and when the conflict erupted again this summer, it was a logical progression to do something about it with his contacts in the Gazan art world. He wanted something more direct – an exhibition Lubbad was the man who could make that happen. ‘Normal’ isn’t normal in Gaza, so it was perfectly natural for Lubbad to keep calm and curate on, even as his town was under daily bombardment.
“He instantly got together nearly 40 artists,” said Longman. “Basically he became my curator on the ground there.” The result was Gazing from Gaza, an exhibition of visual art by Gazans in the Back Loft on St. Augustine Street in Dublin.
“The idea came as many artists had lost their homes and some were injured,” Lubbad said. “We wanted to make this project, of making an exhibition of their paintings, support them financially and emotionally – to tell them, ‘you are not alone’.”
However, with the internet and mobile networks barely working during the conflict, it was a challenge just to get digital copies out. Lubbad’s friends were busy keeping their heads down. “It took me a lot of time to collect the paintings of my colleagues, because we were still in a war,” he said. “People and artists were caring for their safety and [didn’t care] about anything else.”
The threat was very real. One of the artists who sent work to Ireland was Diana Alhosary. Buried when a house collapsed around her, she barely escaped with her life. She appears in the exhibition standing in the rubble, holding what’s left of one of her paintings. Two Gazan artists died in Israeli attacks, and a dozen lost their homes. “I convinced them by telling them we must show our case and voice to the world, by our art of course. That was not easy at all, but we got it at last and that is the most important,” he said.
Gazing from Gaza shows 280 prints by Gazans, and not just professional artists. The pros are in there, but a considerable amount of the work is by non-professionals. “It’s a very democratic movement, of art by ordinary people, for ordinary people,” Longman said.
“A lot of prints from children. Not just artists, but people who were doing art.”
The result is often raw. Sahael Salem’s charcoals, for instance, are reminiscent of Otto Dix’s drawings of the Western Front during the First World War. There’s also childrens’ art from the warzone. “There was no school during the bombing, so kids did what kids do, you know?” said Longman, “They drew what they were experiencing around them, and what they actually saw. It’s probably the most honest art you’ll get. There’s no presumption, or context or anything with childrens’ art – they do what they see, or feel, or imagine.”
The prints were first shown back in August, and came out again when the Back Loft opened for Culture Night on September 29. “The idea was to give the money straight to the artists,” he said.
It’s half nine, Gaza time, and the lights are going out. “Will at a later time because of electricity,” writes Diana Alhosary. “Thank you again [for] your understanding,” they apologise, and then life goes on in the dark. On July 29, an IDF tank shell – Israel would say a stray one – hit a fuel tank at Gaza’s only power station. Three million cubic litres of diesel fuel burned and destroyed the fuel tanks, turbines, and control room.
The Gaza Energy Authority said it would take a year to repair. Meanwhile, Gazans are in the dark, except for the floating power station sent by a Turkish shipbuilder that gives a few hours of power a day. Lubbad can look to the north, and see the infrastructure that gives the Israelis who built a suburb on his parents’ village a first-world standard of living.
“I would like to thank all those who contributed,” said Diana Alhosary. She saw the exhibition as an opportunity to show the “right image for Israeli occupation and to expose his crimes against humanity.”
“The art does not stop because we, as artists, we derive life-energy [from] the art,” she adds.
The war might be over, but life and art go on in Gaza. They have to.