Creativity under Occupation: Five Palestinian creatives discuss the highs and lows of working in the West Bank and Gaza
We talk to the political fashion brand Nöl Collective, online radio station Radio Alhara, artist Malak Mattar, graphic designer Amani Yaqob and multidisciplinary artist Mahmoud Alhaj about their experiences of developing creative practices under Israeli occupation.
The cultural landscape of Palestine is burgeoning with creativity. This is a fact which is often overshadowed by news from Gaza and the occupied West Bank, which predominantly televise reports of violence. Last week the world looked on in horror as Israeli forces beat mourners at Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s funeral – the latest headline to reinforce Palestine’s presence in international media as one defined by conflict and oppression. But while Palestine is the living stage for this struggle, it is also the home of a resistant generation of creatives, who continue to make exciting and innovative work despite the adversity of living under military occupation.
What doesn’t make the news, however, is the understanding of the more insidious daily frustrations faced by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. For this feature, we spoke to a wide range of Palestinian creatives to discuss how they are developing their practices, all the while shedding light on daily challenges such as censorship, roadblocks, scarcity of resources and cultural appropriation. But what shines through all their accounts is the dynamic ways they use creativity to subvert and overcome these obstacles and, against all the odds, share Palestinian culture with the rest of the world.
“I hate to be presented in any media platform as a victim.”Mahmoud Alhaj
As everyone introduced themselves over the somewhat labyrinthine email thread I organised for this feature, some of the creatives asked questions of each other. Aya Faour from Nöl Collective, a feminist and political fashion brand based in Ramallah, asked Malak Mattar, a feminist artist born and raised in Gaza, about the importance of including her Palestinian identity in her paintings. Representing her identity through her work was “unquestionable”, Malak replied. “First, growing up in Palestine and celebrating the Palestinian holidays and culture, has inspired my identity as well as a love of the land and a longing for freedom,” she says. “Moreover, Palestinian identity is at risk as our culture has been threatened by appropriation and theft for over 70 years. It’s important for artists to paint their realities, their struggles and joy. And this is what the reality of Palestine is, pain and joy.”
The threat of appropriation of Palestinian culture was an issue raised by other creatives too. Tatreez (Palestinian cross stitch embroidery) is a tradition that was deeply rooted in the identity of different Palestinian villages prior to the foundation of Israel in 1948. After hundreds of Palestinian villages were destroyed or depopulated to make way for the new state, tatreez became a creative symbol of resistance. Nowadays, the craft is “often appropriated by Israeli designers”, says the founder of Nöl Collective, Yasmeen Mjalli. The political fashion collective is dedicated to preserving crafts like tatreez and “illuminating the stories behind both the people and the crafts of Palestine”, she continues. “The crafts are beautiful in and of themselves but they tell a larger story of a history, feminism and geo-politics – elements of fashion which are unique for our customers to think about when buying and wearing our pieces.”
1 of 8
Copyright © Mahmoud Alhaj
By connecting craftspeople and women’s cooperatives “scattered across Palestine” to make each garment they sell, the rhizome-like structure of the collective subverts the isolation instated by military checkpoints, dividing up the land of Palestine. This doesn’t come without its challenges: “From mailing packages out to finding a payment platform which doesn’t engage in fintech apartheid (operating in Israel but not Palestine), we encounter roadblocks at every stage of production”, Yasmeen says.
Transporting physical artwork from the besieged Gaza strip has provided an even bigger challenge for the Gaza-based artists we spoke to. Political artwork is often stopped at Israeli mail offices due to censorship, points out Malak. And, as highlighted by Euro-Med Monitor’s chairman Ramy Abdu last year, Israel tightened its restrictions on mail delivery to and from Gaza across the Erez border, allowing only paper mail through. Not only does this cause problems for people waiting for visas, passports or important medication, but it also makes it “very difficult to get the paintings out of Gaza for display or sale”, says multidisciplinary artist Mahmoud Alhaj, “especially the large sizes, due to the high cost of transportation and security measures.”
“It’s complicated to be a painter in an isolated area,” Mahmoud continues, “because good tools are scarce and expensive.” But the artist takes it all in his stride and refuses to be deterred from his creative practice, adding: “I hate to be presented in any media platform as a victim." Initially starting up as a painter, he has now turned to using digital imagery found “in the backdoors of internet searches” to get around the scarcity of resources and to “keep pace with the crazy flow of events and images” around him. He’s also been known to make art out of found objects he gathers from the streets. For his project Fragile, he used empty medication packages to create a series of Gazan cityscapes. This choice of material highlights both the physical impacts of occupation (by mimicking the war-torn buildings of the city) and the lack of mental health care for Gazans, which forces them to turn to over-the-counter medication to deal with the stress of daily life.
“Most cultural institutions were bombed in the Gaza Strip.”Malak Mattar
Malak turned to painting rather than medication as a form of “therapy and sanctuary” to deal with stress. She began painting as a creative outlet after she saw her neighbour murdered in front of her during the third major Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014. “Most cultural institutions were bombed in the Gaza Strip,” she adds. As a result, opportunities for cultural exchange are minimal. Now studying in Turkey, Malak comments that ,when she was developing her practice in Gaza, the art scene was very “male-dominated”. Despite the fact that there “are a lot of great and compassionate Palestinian men who support women in their community”, she notes that grants and opportunities were generally given to “male artists more than female artists”. As we discovered when we last caught up with her, Malak’s paintings of powerful and serene Palestinian women have become a political feminist tool for her to subvert both internal patriarchy and the wider oppression of the occupation.
Ramallah-based graphic designer and illustrator Amani Yaqob spoke of the underlying violence of the occupation which, despite its endless continuation, “can never be normalised," she says. "Daily reminders, fights and losses create the feeling of an ongoing emergency.” When asked by Mahmoud what first motivated her to make art, she said that it came from: “a need to communicate with the world around me [...] a way to imagine, and to sabotage the colonial systems in order to reveal new possibilities for a different future.” This has led her to create a series of political artworks, investigating issues like the role of 3G technology in Israeli surveillance systems. But recently, she's been working in the realm of illustration and graphic design to highlight the joyful and vibrant cultural scene in Ramallah. She's also become a regular at making poster visuals for music events at the city’s much-loved venue, Shams Bar.
Ramallah has become well-known for its music scene; it's home to hip-hop legend Muqata'a and stage to Palestine’s first ever Boiler Room event headlined by renowned techno DJ, Sama. However, Bethlehem was recently added to the contemporary musical map when Radio Alhara was founded in 2020. The online radio station was established by a group of six friends (including Amman-based graphic design duo Saeed Abu-Jaber and Mothanna Hussein) during the onset of Covid-19 lockdowns. The radio positioned itself as an alternative “public space” for sharing creativity during the pandemic. “Historically in Palestine, public spaces were inherent to the morphology of the city,” says Radio Alhara co-founder Elias Anastas. “They were key in the way the cities were formed and their relation to landscape. With the political regimes, public spaces started to be seen as spaces that are affiliated to governments and power,” he continues. Blasting radio waves from their base in Bethlehem to listeners across the globe, and building an international community through music, is their way of defying the “isolation and territorial forms of oppression that have been imposed for the last 70 years”.
“An important aspect of the radio is the solidarity and the moments of togetherness that have been embedded within our programme.”Elias Anastas
“An important aspect of the radio is the solidarity and the moments of togetherness that have been embedded within our programme”, Elias continues. The foundation of Radio Alhara coincided with the announcement of Israel’s plans to illegally annex 30 per cent of the West Bank, backed by Trump’s America. Radio Alhara resolved to take creative action against this: “We decided to stop our programme and open up the waves of the radio to protest these illegal and oppressive actions. The protest took the form of a four-day lineup of artists and DJs from across the world that came together against this project, as well to mirror other forms of oppression and injustices that are local in the context they're living in.” The project was a huge success and reached 17,000 listeners from over 100 countries in four days. Since then, Radio Alhara has continued its musical activism, and last year their efforts sparked an international solidarity movement, which they called the Sonic Liberation Front.
1 of 5
Copyright © Radio Alhara, 2021
Whether acting as individuals or collectivity, with a paintbrush or a mixing deck, the creatives we spoke to gave us a revealing glimpse at the vibrant cultural scene in Palestine happening now. Their accounts shed light on how continual military harassment and infuriating daily challenges make it impossible to develop a creative practice without ingenuity, determination and imagination. With a creative range crossing the fields of art, fashion, music and graphic design, everyone had diverse inspirations and motivations for their work. The unifying factor is that the very act of creativity under occupation is in itself a form of resistance. It's a refusal to be dominated and a proclamation that Palestine and its culture are still very much here, and not about to be intimidated into silence.
Copyright © Amani Yaqob, 2021
About the Author
Elfie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in November 2021 after finishing an art history degree at Sussex University. She is particularly interested in creative projects which shed light on histories that have been traditionally overlooked or misrepresented.