DUBAI: In times of war — when people are dying by the thousands and hospitals and schools are bombed, as they are in Gaza at this moment — it’s easy to wonder if the arts have any real relevance or role to play. In the face of such pain and destruction, art of any kind can be seen as a luxury enjoyed only by those fortunate enough to live outside of the violence. But history shows us that some of the world’s greatest artists have produced their most potent creations in the midst of horrendous suffering and socio-political upheaval.
In 1937, for example, Pablo Picasso produced his nightmarish painting “Guernica,” depicting the bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. And one of Iraqi pioneer Dia Al-Azzawi’s greatest works is his massive, emotionally-charged artwork based on the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut in 1982.
As Israel’s military assault on Gaza enters its third month, Palestinian artists at home and abroad are using art to express their emotions and to raise awareness of the suffering their countrymen have endured. Recent exhibitions in Dubai and Beirut have shown solidarity by exhibiting works by Palestinian artists.
Reem Anbar is a daughter of war. Born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Gaza, the musician reportedly became her town’s first female oud player, despite a lack of opportunities for studying music. Though Anbar, a Master’s student in music therapy, currently lives in Manchester, England, her memories of growing up in Gaza remain fresh. “I was raised with war,” she says. “I faced three of them. In every war, we lost our homes, neighbors, friends. . . We were literally living in a prison.”
But she still found some hope. Aged 11, Anbar picked up the oud at a local center that offered summer activities, and it’s been her companion ever since. “I don’t know why, but I used to feel like it was a weapon for me. It allowed me to express myself and talk about my cause, my feelings, my life,” she says.
Anbar went on to form Gazelleband in the UK in 2017. “I didn’t want to come here as a refugee and do nothing with my life,” she says. “I came here to work. I go from town to town to spread my Palestinian music.”
Anbar has concerts coming up in the UK and Italy. She’s been asked about how she could play music when her family and friends are being killed. But to her, music is solace.
“Even if a rocket drops, I will still hold on to my oud. Wars motivate us to sing and make more music. In the end, we Palestinian artists are carrying our cause wherever we go,” she says. “A message can be passed on through art.”
Like Anbar, 24-year-old Malak Mattar hails from Gaza and has found refuge in England. She says she grew up in a household that appreciated poetry and art, and her colorful, women-centric paintings pay homage to Palestinian heritage and visual culture. In the past three months, though, her work has taken a new direction, seeing her produce raw, charcoal drawings of victims of the recent attrocities. She was actually visiting Gaza in October, leaving just the day before the Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7.
“It’s the worst period of my life,” Mattar tells Arab News. “My family is still in Gaza. Every day is a new tragedy. What’s happening is genocide. Nowhere is safe.”
In these new drawings, Mattar depicts helpless infants and animals, damaged buildings, and wailing women in striking monochromatic tones.
“I think it’s my protest as an artist, using only black and white,” she explains. “To be honest, some of the works were hard to do, but it’s my way of documenting what I’m seeing on social media through journalists and photographers’ accounts. I’m drawing something that I don’t want to forget.”
The drawings will be displayed in London’s art-residency program “An Effort,” for which Mattar was selected as artist-in-residence. The violence and displacement faced by her family in Gaza has, of course, had a huge impact on her, but she realizes the importance of continuing to create.
“I believe in art. It has a role to play — documenting everything and expressing something in a humane, moving way,” she says. “I think it’s bad to forget. Forgetting means betrayal. What we’re seeing are war crimes. I’m not just in a state of sadness, but anger too. I can’t face the outside world, because it let us down.”
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, the veteran Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour is also preparing to showcase a new, surrealist-style canvas in a group exhibition at the end of January in Ramallah. These days, Mansour is taking things slow, not visiting his studio on a daily basis, and even when he does, it’s sometimes only to paint for an hour at a time.
“I talk to artists and friends and they all have the same problem: They don’t know what to do. There’s a kind of loss in this time period,” he says. “If I was to compare the situation we’re in right now and the First Intifada, the First Intifada had a stronger effect on art and culture. I think when people were participants in the battle, they were more creative. But, now, we are just viewers. We sometimes talk to artists in Gaza and their situation is terrible — they don’t have studios and their homes have been destroyed. When we told them about the Ramallah exhibition, they were very annoyed, saying: ‘We can’t find something to eat and you’re talking about exhibitions?’
“It can seem as if art is not important during times like this,” he continues. “But I think it’s important — if not for this generation, then for future ones. Art reflects the soul of a certain time.”
On Instagram, images of his melancholic figurative paintings are regularly circulated by younger audiences. Mansour finds himself sharing posts of his older work in the Eighties and Nineties. “Nothing has changed for us with the Occupation,” he says.
Even though Dubai-based Palestinian artist Hazem Harb’s home in Gaza, which has belonged to his family for generations, has been destroyed, he — like Mansour — still believes that art has value in times like this. “I still can’t process that it’s gone,” he says. “Our whole lives and memories were in that house.”
In November, Harb gave a live performance in Dubai, producing harrowing drawings of vulnerable faces on a huge canvas — part of his “Dystopia Is Not A Noun” charcoal series — accompanied by rousing music.
“It was the first time in my life that I drew in front of people,” he says. “It was honestly a hard experience, but it was also expressive, letting out my feelings. Towards the end, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I was literally painting from my gut.”
He hopes that his November canvas will find a public home, such as a museum, to serve as a reminder of the atrocities that his native city has been subjected to.
“Art,” he says, “absolutely has an important role to play — to tell and record these stories.”