At age 21, Malak Mattar, a Gaza-born artist, has survived three wars and untold trauma. She also recently lived through the 11-day Israeli assault on her city that killed over 240 civilians, including dozens of children. A fragile ceasefire was signed on May 20 between Israel and Hamas, which rules the besieged Gaza Strip. But suffering in Gaza, one of the most impoverished cities in the world, hasn’t ceased. The grief and loss continue with entire families slain; over 70,000 people displaced; widescale damage to property; and continued misery under Israel’s ongoing blockade.
That’s why Mattar, who recently returned home after four years of studies in Turkey, thinks that the term “war survivor” is hollow.
“Nobody survives wars; this is a myth,” she told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation last week, while the bombardment was still ongoing. “You never really survive the trauma of it. When your life can be taken so carelessly, it can easily lose its purpose.”
The self-taught artist, who sells prints of her works on Etsy to make a living, started creating art as a teenager during the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza, which claimed over 2,000 Palestinian lives. The titles of her acrylic paintings, many of which featuring women, indicate grief and resilience as two major motifs of her work. Examples include “Dreams of Gaza,” “Cage,” “This Is My Home,” and “When Peace Dies, Embrace It. It Will Live Again.”
Since the latest round of violence broke on May 10, Mattar has posted videos on Instagram showing bombings outside her window. Mattar and her family have not been physically hurt, though she says they’ve lost numerous friends and neighbors, young and old.
Hyperallergic spoke with Mattar on the last day of the attacks, several hours before a ceasefire was announced. The artist spoke about the situation on the ground in Gaza, life under siege and war, and the difficulty of sustaining an artistic practice under such conditions.
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Hyperallergic: First, how are you?
Malak Mattar: It’s been really difficult. We are losing people every day. My mother, who is a teacher, lost two of her students. Her colleague lost her husband and house. Ten other families we know have become homeless. Every explosion feels like an earthquake. And it always feels as if it’s happening just outside my window.
H: Do you feel an urge to document the situation through painting? Are you at all capable of producing any art under these circumstances?
MM: I’m too scared to hold the paintbrush. Painting what’s happening around me would only increase the pain. Everyone here is suffering and scared for their lives. Painting their faces would feel like cutting my skin.
Besides, the only art supplies store in Gaza, called Pens & Pins, had been destroyed in the bombings. I’m already running out of paint, so I hold on to my remaining supplies because I don’t know when I’d be able to get new ones.
H: Your Etsy page includes a recent painting titled “Last Painting Before 2021 War“. It shows a woman sleeping serenely under a blanket covered with mermaids against the background of a sunset. Can you tell us more about this specific work?
MM: I’ve had a difficult time fitting into society in Turkey. I never felt welcomed there. But I wasn’t able to visit home for four years because the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt was closed. When I finally traveled home in March, I was held at the border for several days. Gaza is a city under siege, and electricity is not something we see seven days a week, but I still got my best sleep in years. I wanted to remember that feeling. I painted mermaids because the sea was loud that night and entered my sleep. They also represent the dream of freedom. I finished this painting just a few days before the attack.
Now when I look at the sea, I see the Israeli navy firing at us. This occupation is turning everything beautiful into frightening and ugly. It’s killing the soul of this city and its people.
H: Your work has been shown in several international venues. It seems like you’ve been able to beat the odds after all.
MM: My paintings have always had more freedom of movement than I do. I was able to ship the artwork but I was stuck in Gaza because I’m not able to travel or get a visa.
But each artwork that leaves Gaza is vetted by the Israeli forces to make sure it’s “safe content.” Every time I go to the local post office to send an artwork, a worker there tells me: make sure the artwork is not political, otherwise it won’t get to its destination. We live in constant fear of censorship. No artist should have that fear.
H: Your work includes many depictions of Palestinian women. How present are you in these figures?
MM: I see myself in each portrait, though they’re inspired by many different women I see. Artists often have one persona or portrait that keeps growing with them over the years through different styles and mediums. I would say that it’s me growing up but it’s also women around me.
H: What ambitions do you for the future as an artist? Do you, for example, hope to start a new life somewhere else?
MM: Right now, my ambition is to get out of this war. I’m suspending all my dreams and hopes until I survive this attack. I don’t have any sense of safety. I could lose my life any second.
The most precious thing that anyone can have is not personal achievements. It’s having a sense of safety. I’ve had successes in my life for someone at my age but they feel useless now. What is the value of these achievements if my life is at risk?
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In several previous interviews with the international press, Mattar has been routinely asked: “What message do you have to the world?” Admittedly, that’s a question we intended to ask her as well, as voices of artists from Gaza are rarely amplified. But before we did, Mattar stated that she finds this question “offensive.”
“I get asked these questions a lot, but I lost faith in the ‘international community’ when I was eight years old and witnessed things that I didn’t even have words to describe,” the artist said. “I’m not yet healed from the trauma of 2014. I’ve seen neighbors being carried to ambulances in pieces.”
“I’ve always tried to be a citizen of the world, but then I’m always reminded that I’m stateless,” Mattar continued. “All I hear from leaders of other countries is that they are ‘concerned about the situation in Gaza.’ Don’t just be concerned. Take action.”