“My art expresses the rights of the Palestinian children to live in an environment that is safe, without conflict and violence. The children who stand despite the difficulties and destruction surrounding them.”
This powerful statement, uttered by a 16 year old Palestinian girl and artist called Lamia Shashak from Khan Yunis, directly cuts to the heart of the exhibition Gaza 51, displaying 52 works that are windows into the mindscapes of young Palestinian artists from the Gaza Strip. Through the medium of art, the exhibited artists seek to reconcile the trauma and grief they experienced following the devastating 51 day Israeli attack in 2014, along with the ever present aggression in their lives. Having travelled through multiple Indian cities, Gaza 51 opened at the School of Architecture and Environment in Mumbai.
The collection is curated by Mahnoor Yar Khan, who comes from a film and drama background and took her first journey to Palestine almost 25 years ago. “Once you are there, you just don’t leave,” she says. “It’s because of the people, their resilience, their humour and strength, which has kept me there for many years. The investment with the people has been strong both ways. I got a lot of support in many many ways from the people.”
Initially dividing her time between the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, Khan is now entirely based in Gaza and has been working as a drama therapist with various organisations. “I went to Palestine to research all of these techniques as therapy, making use of them in order for people there to look at themselves and confront issues,” she says, adding that it was more a process of learning along the way than training per se.
“I was struck by how intensely powerful was their form of expression, their need to overcome and heal through art, whether it was films, music, writing, sketches or photography”
The genesis of the exhibition began when Khan was in Palestine immediately following the 2014 attack. “There have been several instances of violence of course, but this one was particularly brutal. Everyone lost a house or a relative or a dear friend, there was a lot of grieving and trauma that young people were dealing with.” Many organisations at the time were using art and various forms of art media to help youth overcome these traumas. “I was struck by how intensely powerful was their form of expression,their need to overcome and heal through art, whether it was films, music, writing, sketches or photography,” Khan says.
How did she find out about the artists and source their works? Of the 52 sketches, photographs and digital artworks on display, the sketches for instance were all done by artists between 13 and 17 years old, living in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, which was heavily bombed. An organisation in the city, Culture of Free Thought, which she has worked closely with, was very supportive and helped her source them. She found the photographers through various outlets: she saw digital artist Mahmoud Alkurd‘s work on Facebook, for instance. Malak Mattar, a 16-year-old artist, was painting on scraps of paper, whatever she could find, before she got support from a Gaza art group to help her express herself.
“These young artists feel a strong need for their works to get out as much as possible, as there’s limited exposure to the outside world and not many people can visit [Gaza],” Khan says. “They are art activists in the sense that they are creating awareness about what it is like to live in Gaza, and depict the harsh realities of their experiences while simultaneously presenting themselves as artists.”
“Why are we so silent, so uninvolved? Why aren’t we questioning more the reasons behind these unrests?”
Apart from showing works reflecting the young artists’ resilience and courage and how they are using art to heal, Khan also wanted to present the Indian audience with a counter-narrative of Palestine. “At the moment, there is a belief [here] that Palestinians are terrorists and that Israel has a right to defend itself in the fight against terror. The Palestinian movement is not perceived as one of resistance, nor is Israel presented as occupiers,” she says. She also hopes that the exhibition will make viewers question similar instances in conflict areas in India, such as Manipur, Chhattisgarh and Kashmir. “Why are we so silent, so uninvolved? Why aren’t we questioning more the reasons behind these unrests?”
Gaza 51, which is shown in Mumbai until Thursday, October 27, asks us to look – and look again – into the lives of young Palestinians, utilising art to question elemental issues of home, belonging and displacement – and dreaming of the fundamental right to peace. All proceeds from the art works sold at the exhibition will directly go back to the artists.
Pictures taken from Gaza 51’s Facebook page.