Gaza-based painter Malak Mattar on making art as a feminist in Palestine

After her recent collaboration with GQ Middle East, Malak Mattar talks us through using art as a means to escape a home under attack

1 July 2021

Based out of Gaza, Palestine, Malak Mattar’s paintings are intimate and layered in their depiction of women living in contemporary Palestine. Through her images, audiences are transported into a serene oasis of calm – something which directly contradicts the turbulent and besieged context in which they spring from. For Malak, painting has always been a way through these recurring attacks on her homeland. “I grew up in an artistic family where poetry, painting, music was part of my social life,” she tells It’s Nice That. “But, I started my art during the 51-day attack on Gaza city, where I wanted to escape the fear and anxiety of losing my life.” It’s a powerful sentiment that rings true to the lives of those still under the occupied territory of Palestine. The artistic scene in Palestine is consequently small, and hard to navigate, but Malak’s beautiful work found its way into the international art conversation during her first solo exhibition some years ago. “It went viral locally and internationally and that was the breakthrough for international coverage and exposure,” she explains.

What’s especially striking about Malak’s paintings is her ability to evoke an acute sense of emotion without having her characters devolve into melodrama. Their faces appear stoic, but details point to their eyes containing a wealth of story and life. Rich reds and browns and greens fill the frame. “I started developing my visual style soon after I started painting as I painted freely my own life, emotion, story but I was still influenced by master artists at the beginning like Picasso,” she tells us. A keen use of expressionist painting techniques merges well with Malak’s personal sensibilities. Often, the subjective experiences Malak draws on for her work translates into something that can be universally understood and appreciated. When asked about what motifs she particularly enjoys to convey these feelings, Malak refers to the “women with strong facial features and Palestinian embroidery and symbols.” It’s these exact features that attracted GQ Middle East’s attention to commission her for its June cover, which has since been a huge success.


Malak Mattar: You and I
You are beautiful like a liberated homeland
I am exhausted like a colonized homeland (Copyright © Malak Mattar / GQ Middle East, 2021)

“My main inspiration in my art is where I come from,” Malak says. “My city, Gaza, is a complex place and it’s under land, sky, sea and culture siege.” As a painter actively working within and about Palestine, Malak’s work can at times be daring, dangerous, and brave. Being at the forefront of the country’s cultural output puts her in the spotlight at a time when her own life is regularly under threat from artillery weapons. But still, Malak is keen to persist in displaying Palestine as the richly cultured, beautiful, and intricate country it really is. “Gaza is such a heavy and rich place for artistic experimentation and different emotions,” she explains. “The art scene in Palestine is one of the most prolific and rich in the world, as it’s been a prominent way for documenting our historical events and diverse culture.” It’s not just Palestine’s external problems that Malak is keen to draw attention to, however. She also quickly points out that “like in many places in the world, female and especially young female artists have a hard time marketing and centring their work compared to the men.” It’s why her work takes on a distinctly feminist point of view that strays from the whitewashed feminism of the West. Malak speaks to the direct lived experiences of women in Palestine, something which has pricked the attention of international audiences. “I’ve had several exhibitions in Palestine, but truthfully the majority of my shows happen around the world.”

Hoping to continue her work in expanding Palestine’s art scene, Malak has been busy devoting much of her time to raising awareness of the attacks on Gaza via her Instagram account. It’s often a balancing act between the two, but she tells us she hopes to keep working on “more diversity in the medium I use.” Ultimately, she wants to launch her children’s book – “specifically,” she says, “the first children book from the Gaza Strip inspired by my story.”


Malak Mattar: If only I could fit my home in my suitcase, a painting I did in Istanbul after years of not being able to go home because of the Blockade. (Copyright © Malak Mattar, 2020)


Malak Mattar: Morning in Gaza (Copyright © Malak Mattar, 2021)


Malak Mattar: Refugees (Copyright © Malak Mattar, 2021)


Malak Mattar: Refugees (Copyright © Malak Mattar, 2021)


Malak Mattar: My Mother, a painting started during the 2021 attack depicting living under attack without a shelter. (Copyright © Malak Mattar, 2021)


Malak Mattar: Thawra means Revolution in Arabic which is a tribute for the strength and resilience of Palestinian women and new feminist period in my art. (Copyright © Malak Mattar, 2021)


Malak Mattar: How do you feel closer to homeland? I paint (Copyright © Malak Mattar, 2018)


Malak Mattar: My family (Copyright © Malak Mattar, 2017)

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Malak Mattar: Palestinian children dreaming of Peace (Copyright © Malak Mattar, 2019)

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About the Author

Joey Levenson

Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. They were part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.

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