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From war to watercolours: 'Art prodigy' Malak Mattar brings Gaza to Washington

Malak, 19, paints about occupation, feminism, strength and hope in besieged Gaza Strip
Self-portrait of Malak Mattar temporarily on display at Gallery al-Quds in Washington (MEE/Sheren Khalel)

It was 2014 and bombs had begun falling in the Gaza Strip. Malak Mattar was 13 years old, but it was not her first war. It was her third. 

Planes buzzed overhead, the ground shook and giant plumes of smoke rose into the sky, marking Israel's latest target. It was all too much for Malak. 

"I needed to keep myself busy," said Malak, now 19. "Because, in war you never know if you'll end up alive or dead and you see everyone around you and know that in a second their life could be over. So basically, you look for a distraction." 

She needed to find an internal sanctuary from the chaos, so she gathered paper and watercolours and began creating a work of art that would set the trajectory of her future. 

She painted a serene and bright girl whose body stretched up from the ground, arms spread wide over a landscape of muted rubble, the sun rising over the horizon, large and hopeful in the background. 

A painting Malak Mattar created during Israel's 2014 bombardment of Gaza (MEE/Sheren Khalel)
A painting Malak Mattar created during Israel's 2014 bombardment of Gaza (MEE/Sheren Khalel)

"It shows that there is something protecting us, and that something, that woman, is Palestine," she told Middle East Eye in an interview at her latest gallery opening in Washington, DC. 

"The painting showed the hope and faith we all have in Palestine and the belief that whatever happens, we will be protected by Palestine," she said. 

Malak posted the painting on Facebook and was shocked at the support she received. 

"People from all over the world, far away from Palestine, were very interested in my painting and what was happening in Gaza," Malak said. 

"When I saw the attention that my painting received and saw that the messages I was sending were being understood, I realised that what I had was important and that it was something I needed to work on." 

'Palestine lives inside me and my work will always be about that'

-Malak Mattar

Discovering she had a talent that could tell Gaza's story, Malak became obsessed with her craft. 

At first she made do with supplies from the UN refugee school she attended, but before long she was selling her work online and purchasing canvas and paint from the only professional art store she knew in Gaza. 

A year later, at the age of 14, she had her first gallery opening in the Gaza Strip. 

"It was a good and a bad experience for me. What I did was new in the Gaza art scene - the colours were so bright, and I did not follow the rules that others artist in Gaza learned in art school," Malak said. "I was told not to do this colour combination, or this technique, that I needed to go to school to learn, but my artwork was completely free."  

"The colours and shapes I used were just me, from inside me,  and I think part of that uniqueness is what made my work special," she said. 

Her work matured quickly and before she knew it she was shipping pieces to be shown in art galleries around the world.

Still, living in a besieged territory created unique obstacles.  Art supplies in Gaza are expensive, she said, and the things that do get into the Strip are extremely limited. 

"At one point, they [the Israelis] actually put restrictions on canvas entering Gaza, and for three months there was no canvas allowed to enter," she said. 

"That's part of what occupation is about, trying to hide or restrict people who are using their art to talk about their life and their suffering." 

In 2017 Malak graduated high school with the highest matriculation test score in Gaza that year and was awarded a partial scholarship to attend university in Istanbul. 

'An art prodigy'

Over the past five years Malak's work has evolved into a particular style all her own. 

To date her art has been featured in more than 40 individual and group exhibitions in Jerusalem, France, Spain, Costa Rica, India, England, 11 states in the US as well as in the Art Under Siege exhibit held in the US House of Representative's Rayburn House Office Building in 2017. 

The Palestine Museum in Connecticut sponsored Malak's US gallery opening this summer, offering her exhibition space at its venue and bringing a smaller sampling of her work to the Gallery al-Quds in Washington. 

"She's basically an art prodigy" Faisal Saleh, the executive director of the Palestine Museum, told MEE. 

Some of Malak Mattar's work temporarily on display at the Gallery al-Quds in Washington (MEE/Sheren Khalel)
Some of Malak Mattar's work temporarily on display at the Gallery al-Quds in Washington (MEE/Sheren Khalel)

"People are very impressed by her artwork and by her poise," he continued. "She's 19 years old, but she really comes across as a seasoned artist. Her art is very powerful, very striking, and it's not just the Palestinians that are impressed with her work, it's people from all around the world."

On Tuesday, Malak arrived in Washington to display her work and speak with patrons and other artists about it. Her pictures depicting life in Gaza seem to send feelings of hope that are touched with sorrow. 

Since leaving Gaza two years ago, she hasn't stopped creating images that speak of Palestine. She never will, she said. 

"The atmosphere I grew up in was really nationalistic. We love Palestine, everyday we talked about Paletine, we danced for Palestine, we sang for Palestine, and every time we did that, our attachment and belonging grew deeper and deeper," she said. 

"So I would say I left Palestine two years ago, but it hasn't left me. Palestine lives inside me and my work will always be about that." 

Most of Malak's pieces depict women. "Every time I try to paint a man it turns into a woman," she said, laughing. "Part of the thing is - for me - the eyes of a woman tell you more."

"My mom for example, everything she was feeling you could see in her eyes... but my dad, even though he might be having a million feelings inside, he would hide it. You can feel the feelings in women's eyes, and for me, eyes are the window into any painting."

That sentiment is powerful in Malak's work. Most of the women she paints have oversized, almond-shaped eyes that stare back at the viewer, thick with expression. 

While her subject matter is war and occupation, Malak has never painted the images of the dead and bloodied. She prefers hope and peace, she said, pointing out the white doves that also appear throughout her work. 

"You can't tell someone how to feel, they have to feel it through what you do. This is my goal. This is my mission," she said. "To get people to feel something about how people in Gaza feel and live and to see hope from that."