Following the recent situation in Gaza, we took the time to talk with a man working as an art teacher to kids in the area. Through his testimony, you can hear the voices of the children he works with and their hopes for a future free of war.

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Interviewer : Arnaud Contreras

Photo Credit : Mahmoud Alhaj

Hello Mahmoud, can you introduce yourself?  

After my journalism studies in 2012, I started working  as a visual artist. From 2017 until now I worked as an arts teacher for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) in the open studio program that is supported by Dutch HOPE foundation. I teach to able and disabled children, to help them express themselves through art.

I deal with different types of media forms, such as photography, sculpture and also video. But in the past two years I turned to digital media so that I can keep up with the crazy flow of events and images around me. You know, we are living in a war zone and every day we have plenty of events and plenty of pictures.

Fifth Dimension Series - Mahmoud Alhaj @ We are Europe
Fifth Dimension Series – 120x60cm © Mahmoud Alhaj

Through my photography and digital work, I aim to present collective experiences where the artwork emphasizes my fragility as an artist and our shared humanity. My first project was an art magazine, ”Art Garage magazine”. It was the first photography magazine in the Gaza Strip* and the second one in Palestine. It was a personal initiative.

*The Gaza Strip: It is a part of the coastal area of the State of Palestine, bordered from the south by the Arab Republic of Egypt. Israel occupation withdrew from it in 2005 and has imposed a blockade since 2007.

What was your art background? Only propaganda art or also contemporary art?

My father is a poet, my brothers are musicians, we are an artistic family. I started loving the arts when I was 14 years old, my dream was to study cinema in Egypt, but I couldn’t because the borders are closed. So I tried to find an alternative to be in the arts. I started to learn via Youtube how to film, how to take good photos and how to use Photoshop.

I also saw artworks of famous Palestinian artists such as Ismail Shammout. All the art that I saw as a teenager was art of Palestinian resistance in the literal sense. I loved his work but I wished he would tell more about the personal stories. I wished that someone would have the ability to paint what is happening behind the closed doors, how we deal with each other, or at least about the status of our rights. Because the art itself is soft resistance. And I think the people abroad need to know more about our feelings. 

Fifth Dimension Series © Mahmoud Alhaj

Because of the siege, we don’t have a lot of artists coming from outside. Interacting with artists through screens is not enough to create, to learn, to share everything. The siege deprives us from seeing the real artistic experiences.

For example I consider that in the art field here, we are stuck in the years 2004-2005. We see the same art, the same experiences, the same figures. And to be fair some artists really didn’t stop searching about the knowledge and techniques to show their art.  

You can’t travel to meet other artists?

I am 31 years old, I still didn’t see the cross points in Gaza. I made a passport but I didn’t use it. I lived my entire life in the Gaza strip, I didn’t even try to experience travel, I wish I would.

Where do you present your art in Gaza?

There are many modest places to present art in Gaza. There is an association and a place called Shababeek. They care about young artists and they support them. In July, I will exhibit my project “402 of gray” there, This project is implemented within the Production Grants Program, through Shababeek and the General Union of Cultural Centers, in partnership with the AM AlQattan Foundation, through the grant of the “Visual Arts: Growth and Sustainability” project for the second part.

Shababeek art space had been damaged during the recent bombing of Gaza?

Yes there has been some damages, on the windows, on the doors, and some artworks couldn’t have been saved. They fix it immediately because of the importance of the place for a large group of young artists. I am one of them, and to be honest, when I saw the damages, I felt depressed because this place is like a home to me. I see it as the most important place for art in Gaza now. 

Fifth Dimension Series - Mahmoud Alhaj @ We are Europe
Fifth Dimension Series © Mahmoud Alhaj

Shababeek was part of the destruction inflicted on the art field in Gaza. For example, one of the problem now is that the bombing destroyed the printing shops in Gaza. I can’t print my artworks. I have to find some alternative ways to print my work or to show it. The only way now to print is to send my artwork to the West Bank*, and to ask someone to print it. But it will cost a lot and I will maybe lose my artwork at the borders. 

And in most cases some of the Israeli soldiers see art as the same as military resistance. There are a lot of stories about artists in the prisons, a lot of missed artworks. As an artist you have to deal with their powerful intelligence services. Especially my current project about the apartheid wall and siege. 

*West Bank: The lands of the State of Palestine located on the west bank of the Jordan River, mostly occupied and controlled by the Israeli occupation forces, and divided geographically by the apartheid wall.

Is there an art market in Gaza?

No, there is no art market in Gaza. I sell my artwork in Europe and in the USA, with low prices, because I’m from Gaza…You know, most of us talk about our daily problems, not about something you can hang in your room. Here, no one has the money to buy an art piece to hang on the wall. People here need to find money just to stay alive.

Fifth Dimension Series - Mahmoud Alhaj @ We are Europe
Fifth Dimension Series © Mahmoud Alhaj

What about women in art in Gaza?

There’s not a lot of women in art here. We can maybe talk about 20 names, they have great minds and experiences. I interact with a new generation at the school, there’s a lot of young girls, and maybe after 10 or 20 years, there will be a lot more women in this field.

Do you know the artist Sama*?

I don’t know her personally. I wish one day I can meet her, I was so sad to see her problems. She’s a great artist. I think what happened is not her fault – if we should consider it as a fault. The place where she made her party is an empty space behind a mosque. It’s similar to an hotel or a bazar. This place is under the supervision of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and she received the permit to party and to film there. 

Distortion Series - Mahmoud Alhaj @ We are Europe
Distortion Series © Mahmoud Alhaj

What happened was a lack of coordination and of cooperation between the sectors of the Palestinian government, who became like an old rusted machine. It hardly works, and the leaders and persons who are responsible know nothing, but they still form accusations. In Europe you can make a party inside a former church, but here, you can’t even make a party in the streets.

*Sama is one of the faces of We are Europe. To know more about what happened, we recommend this interview conducted by Themis Belkhadra.

I was stuck by your using of tabs for pills. It seems that you are talking about a topic that people are hiding : depression in Gaza.

You mean the “Fragile Project”. I started this project when the Coronavirus pandemic started. I wanted to talk about the military quarantine in that we have been living in for a long time, and no one talks about it.  When I started reading the comments and to read that people from the outside world were annoyed by restrictions and by the quarantine in general, I started laughing because I’ve been living in this status for a long time.

We’re all suffering from anxiety in Gaza, we’re using this type of drugs to be calm and to fix the headaches in our minds and in our heads. So I asked my family members to give me their empty blister pack, then I took a photography of it, and with Photoshop I started the process of transformation to give a new shape to those blister packs. 

Fragile Series @ We are Europe
Fragile Series © Mahmoud Alhaj

If you walk in the streets of Gaza, you can ask anyone for paracetamol pills for example. Because of the occupation we also have a lot of injured people, who needs pills. People who loose legs, people who loose hands.

During this Covid period, people all around the worlds became equal. They also temporary stopped to search or to look at the arts. Most of the people were only interested in reading and in searching about medicine laboratories. 

What was the reaction to this Fragile series?

Very good. I succeeded to express the state of mind in which we’re living this quarantine here, without using a mask or any corona virus shape to express about this problem. 

This project gave me the opportunity to give to my artwork an international character. I showed it at the Middle east institute in Washington DC. The exhibition title is “Art in isolation”. Then I was a speaker in a panel discussion with great artists from Syria, Iran, USA, to talk about this experience. The feedback that I got about this experience is a great motivation.

Fragile Series @ We are Europe
Fragile Series © Mahmoud Alhaj

I also started working with some students from art college in Gaza and to teach them how they can use digital art and softwares to create art. I am happy with that.

When you are working with kids, what do they express in their art?

When the ceasefire begun, my colleagues and I started immediately to work with twenty children from Khan Yunis city. We implemented two activities. During the first one, I asked them to express themselves by sounds and body movements.

The second activity was to draw. Many of the children were talking about taking care of their family, of their parents. They were saying that they were searching for safety places inside their home to hide them. And me, Mahmoud, I did the same, with my family members. I was searching for a safety place in my apartment to hide my kids and my wife. But there is no safety place in my apartment, as in all the rest of Gaza.

So, I decided to sit in one room with my kids and my wife. So, if our building is bombed, we will die together, and I will never be sad or my kids will never be sad. It is hard to say that but it is how is life here.

Distortion Series - Mahmoud Alhaj @ We are Europe
Distortion Series © Mahmoud Alhaj

We are in a war zone even if they announce a cease fire. We still feel the war inside our minds. I would like to mention that we are becoming scared from any natural voice. Even sudden, fast car sounds scare us. If my son closes the door hardly, I think I’ll be in a bad mental state for a moment. All this because I am used to hearing continuous bombing for eleven days. The kids at school shared the same stories with me.

When I asked them about their future, they told me that after forty years they will be safe, in a safe place. They told me that some scientists will create for them spaceships that can take them in space. And they started to talk about many things from their imagination. They need help. They need urgent psychological interventions.

I don’t have enough words to express my feelings. Those children should live in peace and in a safe place. Those pure minds should be cured.

Do you have comments from parents on how their children express themselves artistically?

You know, In Gaza, we all need help. They want their children as ambassadors to the world, to describe the problems of Gaza. I expect that in the future, within ten years, Gaza will be full with artists.

About Mahmoud Alhaj

Mahmoud Alhaj is a Palestinian visual artist and arts teacher was born in 1990. Alhaj received a BA in Journalism and Media from Al-Aqsa University. He is the founder of Art Garage magazine (2013) has exhibited widely in Palestine and Europe, including recent participation in Art in Isolation at middle east institute, Washington, USA (2020), and Within the Vacuum at Shababeek for Contemporary Art, Palestine (2019), Contemplative Contrasts at the A.M. Qattan Foundation, Palestine (2019) and Orient 2.0 at Pulchri Studio Den Hague, Netherlands (2017).

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