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Gazan Artist Speaks About a Lifetime of Trauma and War
Gazan Artist Speaks About a Lifetime of Trauma and War
“We live in constant fear of censorship. No artist should have that fear,”
says 21-year-old artist Malak Matar.

by Hakim Bishara
May 26, 2021
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Malak Matar, “When peace dies, embrace it. It will live again.” (2019) (all
images courtesy the artist)
At age 21, Malak Matar, 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

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 Matar, 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, Matar has posted videos
on Instagram showing bombings outside her window. Matar and her family have
not been physically hurt, though she says they’ve lost numerous friends and

neighbors, young and old.

Hyperallergic spoke with Matar 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.

* * *

Hyperallergic: First, how are you?

Malak Matar: 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

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?


“Last Painting Before 2021 War” (2021)
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


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,

it won’t get to its destination. We live in constant fear of censorship. No
artist should have that fear.

Malak Matar
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?

Malak Matar, “My Skin is Not a Sin” (2020)
* * *

In several previous interviews with the international press, Matar 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, Matar stated that she finds this question

“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,” Matar 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.”
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