GAZA CITY — One of the best-known works of Reham Amawi, a 24-year-old artist from the Gaza Strip, is the portrait of Yasser Mortaja, a cameraman who was killed by Israel in 2018.
Amawi drew the portrait of her friend on a dark canvas while standing at Gaza’s border with Israel — to the east of her hometown Rafah — during the Great Return March on April 8, 2019.
Today, the young artist says she spends eight hours a day drawing in her small, silent studio far away from the chaos of central Rafah. Most of her paintings concern the situation in Palestine.
Amawi owes her interest in art to the cartoons she's watched since she was seven. Her favorites ranged from "Tom and Jerry" to "Siraj," Palestine’s home-grown educational series. “Cartoons stimulated my imagination and led me to drawing at the age of seven,” she told Al-Monitor. “Art was my favorite subject at school — I just wished I could be in an art class all day rather than take other courses.”
While studying arts and handicrafts at the University College of Applied Sciences, she decided to paint in a surrealist style, often incorporating Palestinian symbols — horses and olive trees — into her paintings.
“I chose this school of art because it has an unorthodox outlook toward reality. Very few painters use it — though it is very impactful,” she said.
After graduating in 2017, she participated in an art workshop called the South Pioneers Project put on by the Rafah-based Future Association for Culture and Development.
After the program ended, she received funding from the US Consulate in Jerusalem create an exhibition she named “Re Art.” “My biggest achievement was displaying three of my paintings for my graduation project in the exhibition ‘Re Art.’ The first painting was called 'Silence of the World' — a reference to the world’s inaction on the Palestinian issue. The second painting was called 'Birth of a People' and showed that Palestinians, like plants, sprout again after they die. The third painting, 'A People’s Revolution,' depicted Palestinian women.”
Amawi said that she usually paints with oil or acrylic on canvas or wood. Sometimes, she draws with charcoal on paper.
“I want to participate in drawing contests in the Arab world and in the United States so that I can get across the message of Palestinians’ suffering. I also want to urge funding for cultural centers in Gaza so that girls and boys' talents are not wasted,” she said.
Very few artists in the Gaza Strip can overcome economic and travel obstacles to journey abroad to participate in exhibitions in the Arab world. One such artist, Fadi Thabet, held a photo exhibition titled “Light in Gaza” in Beirut Aug. 26.
Gaza is home to several art schools such as the Faculty of Fine Arts at Al-Aqsa University and the Applied Arts Program at the Gaza Community/Training College as well as the Arts and Crafts department at the University College of Applied Sciences. Its cultural centers include the Culture and Free Thought Association in Khan Yunis, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music and Al-Khaima City Center.
Atef Askou, the director of the Department of Arts and Heritage at the Palestinian Ministry of Culture in Gaza’s government, told Al-Monitor that there are 75 cultural centers in Gaza. “The ministry is working on elevating the cultural sector by providing the centers with what they need,” he said, adding that it also seeks to work with local telecommunications companies and other businesses to sponsor art programs.