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Gazan medical masks make a statement

Gazan artists use masks, sand sculptures and performance art to create awareness on social isolation and protection during the coronavirus pandemic.

With stanzas written by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish drawn on masks or sand sculptures of people wearing masks with messages telling them to stay home, Gazan artists are finding inspiration in the coronavirus pandemic and using their skills to help others stay safe.

“We drew the same masks used by characters of [Netflix’s] 'La Casa de Papel' on masks for young people. We opted for stanzas or quotes by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish for older people,” artist Dorgham Qreiqa, 23, told Al-Monitor, as he drew the image of a spiky coronavirus on a mask in his Shujaiyah home studio in eastern Gaza City.

Qreiqa and his fellow artists, Samah Saad, 30, and Tamer al-Deeb, 22, started drawing on masks and distributing them to the people in marginalized areas after the Palestinian Ministry of Health announced the first two cases of COVID-19 in the Gaza Strip on March 22.

“We noticed that the children refused to wear plain white masks, so we made colorful drawings on dozens of medical masks, and we posted pictures online. Everyone loved them. Then we headed to al-Shati refugee camp, west of Gaza City, which is the poorest area in the Strip, and distributed the masks after disinfecting them,” he said, adding, “We felt we were able to make a small difference.”

Qreiqa and his team work five hours a day to paint faces and pictures or write quotes from Darwish or Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky on about 40 masks every day. “The only problem is that these medical masks are becoming too expensive. A few months back, a 50-piece pack was 25 shekels (around $6); now it is 150 shekels (around $41), and the type of masks over which we draw is hard to find,” he said.

He and his team also decided to make murals to create awareness on measures to take against the spread of the coronavirus. On April 4, they drew Earth wearing a medical mask on a wall opposite the Legislative Council in central Gaza City. They will draw a similar mural in the coming days in al-Shati refugee camp.

Life is not easy for artists in Gaza, where most of the people live hand to mouth and think that paying for art or concerts is a luxury they cannot afford. Qreiqa, who dropped out of the University College of Applied Sciences in Gaza, sold only one painting to a local institution for $400 in 2016 and is currently working on one to be delivered in a few days to a local woman for 1,000 shekels (around $278). His few customers mostly ask him to draw on the walls of their own homes, for which he charges 200 shekels (around $55). He also sells A4 charcoal drawings for 30 shekels (around $8).

What he earns will go to his initiative to make masks. “The cost of the initiative is approximately 800 shekels (around $223). For us, this is a charitable project, and all we want is for people to protect themselves,” Qreiqa said.

Two young Gazans, Ahmad Abo Suker, 21, and Ibrahim al-Qarnawi, 25, came up with another initiative to use performance art to create awareness of the coronavirus. Dressed as crowns, they visited children in the Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip April 3. They distributed medical masks they had bought themselves, as well as five boxes of local sweets worth 50 shekels (around $13).

“We gave the children masks, taught them how to put them on and gave them sweets with a paper over which we wrote, ‘Stay home for yourself, your family and your country,’ and we explained to them what it meant,” Abo Suker told Al-Monitor.

“The refugee camps in the Gaza Strip are overpopulated. … This is why children need to be educated on the importance of protection and prevention.”

Fida al-Qarnawi, a mother of seven children, lives in a run-down house in the eastern Bureij refugee camp. Lamis, Qarnawi’s 11-year-old daughter, told Al-Monitor, “Uncle Suker and Uncle Hima (the names by which the clowns go) taught us to always wash our hands and keep them away from our eyes when we use disinfectants. They told us to stay home so we can protect ourselves and our families.”

Qarnawi, carrying her infant child, told Al-Monitor, “The initiative is excellent given the quarantine because the children need to let some energy out. My children were very happy, and they learned from Uncle Suker and Uncle Hima how to wear a medical mask and disinfect their hands.”

Meanwhile, in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood in central Gaza City, sculptor Rana al-Ramlawi, 25, painted the words “Stay Home” on a small sand mountain. Ramlawi, who learned to make statues out of sand from YouTube videos, describes herself as the first sand sculptor in the Gaza Strip.

“Artists express the issues of their community,” she told Al-Monitor, adding, “I felt like I needed to express my compassion for COVID-19 patients all over the world and deliver a message for everyone to stay in their homes.”

She had never made any political sculptures until after the Great March of Return on March 30, 2018. One of her best-known pieces of art was a sculpture of a mother crying while embracing her son whose leg had been amputated.

On April 3, Ramlawi made a sand sculpture of 11 individuals wearing blue medical masks; the words “Stay Home” were spray-painted on the sculpture. A photo of the work went viral. “A sculpture with only one figure takes about six hours. Some sculptures take an entire week, like the most recent one I made about the coronavirus,” she noted.

Although Ramlawi charges $200 per sculpture, she hardly gets any offers for such a price in Gaza. She received an offer in February from the administration of the Sabah Al-Ahmad Heritage Village in Kuwait to work as a sculptor in the village, but she was unable to travel because Egypt had suspended flights due to the coronavirus.

“My message to citizens is to take care of themselves and stay home to protect their families,” Ramlawi said, adding that she was hopeful for the future. “I aspire to create the first exhibition of sculptures that embody the lives of Palestinians under occupation since the Nakba (the creation of Israel and the displacement of Palestinians), so I can present Palestine to the entire world through art because the world now refers to historic Palestine as Israel,” she said.