Malak Mattar has lived through four Israeli attacks on Gaza. In 2014, when the Palestinian artist was 14, she spent 52 days locked in her home, fearing for her life.
As Israeli air strikes pummelled the Gaza Strip, she turned, for distraction, to a watercolour set she had been given at school, but had never used. Her first painting was of a smiling girl, her eyes closed and arms flung wide, her hair curling in the wind. She wears an embroidered dress and hovers above a city of ugly grey buildings, her skirt as wide as the sky. Two pink doves float beside her and in one hand she holds a golden key.
Mattar, 21, first started painting at the time she experienced a third Israeli bombardment of Gaza, after she witnessed an air strike that killed her neighbour.
“They bombed her house when she and her husband were inside. They were an old couple and all I remember is her beautiful colourful clothes and her feeding cats near her home,” she says. She describes how she witnessed the woman’s body being recovered from the ruins of the house. “These scenes stuck with me for so many years – until now. It’s not something that I forget.”
Amid the fear and stress of the weeks that followed, painting became a therapeutic outlet. “When I survived the first attack I was only eight years old and it took me around seven years to be able to talk with people normally … so when I was 14, this was the time I broke this silence,” she says.
She began sharing her work on social media and was astonished to receive messages from around the world. She held her first exhibition at the age of 14 and has since created more than 300 paintings, exhibiting her art in 11 countries and earning a scholarship to study foreign affairs and international relations at Istanbul Aydin University, where she is about to enter her final year.
“A lot of people hear of the Gaza Strip through me, especially in my university talks and exhibitions, so I feel like there is a kind of responsibility to portray the reality as it is,” she says. “It can be overwhelming, but I feel I’m blessed to have the recognition I get because I believe in art … It’s one of the things that people find surprising – that there is art from the Gaza Strip – so I find it a powerful message in itself.”
Mattar’s paintings are soulful Expressionist portraits that reveal her love for the colours and shapes of Picasso and Matisse, and her admiration for the searing self-expression of Frida Kahlo.
Her Recent work includes Two Gazan Girls Dreaming of Peace, a rich, autumnal-hued acrylic and oil painting capturing two dark-haired, dark-eyed women in traditional embroidered dresses holding a white dove between them.
Another, You and I, was created in February to mark to death of Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti. It shows him embracing his wife, Radwa Ashour, an Egyptian novelist who died in 2014, their rich clothes a Gustav Klimt-inspired symphony of flowers and gold. She named the painting after a poem Barghouti dedicated to his wife.
One piece captures two girls sharing a single face mask bearing images from Picasso’s famous anti-war painting Guernica. It aims to convey the shortage of medical supplies in the Gaza Strip. The eyes of its subjects, wide and expressive above the mask, speak of silent suffering.
The first time Mattar visited a museum was on a trip to France. Repeat visits to the Louvre gave her a new perspective on her own life. “Even before surviving the four attacks, I had the trauma genetics from my grandparents; from my parents. And they got passed to me … But then seeing all these pieces by, for example, Picasso, I realised that the trauma exists, but it’s up to me to move forward in life and to not limit myself,” she says.
In recent years, many of her paintings have come to focus on Gazan women and the struggles they face. “I paint my stories and my emotions and things I feel strongly about,” she says.
“I’m critical of patriarchy, so I’ve painted about domestic violence. I’ve painted about the killing of women by their partners, their fathers or their brothers. It’s something I get criticised for, like, ‘You need to focus on the main issue.’ And I say, ‘No, because when a woman gets killed, she gets killed.’ There is nothing to hide or to turn a blind eye to.”
Thawra (Revolution) was inspired by J Howard Miller’s famous We Can Do It! poster, which shows a woman in a bandanna flexing her bicep, created in 1943 to recruit women to work in US factories and shipyards during the Second World War. It later became a symbol of American feminism.
Mattar echoes the pose in her portrait of Israa Ghareeb, the make-up artist from Bethlehem who was killed in 2019 by her brothers at age 21 for having dinner with her fiance.
“She represented, for me, the hope of Palestinian women – to get independent and to be creative and to be strong – so her killing was a killing of something inside me. In a way, it felt personal,” says Matter.
She speaks passionately about how women in Gaza are twice oppressed: by the Israeli occupation that traps them in the Gaza Strip and by the patriarchal values of Palestinian society.
“Part of my feminism is actually from my mum because she worked for 23 years as a teacher and she has very strong attitudes. She believes in equality,” she says.
“People have this image of submissive women, which is partially true, but there is still a full image that needs to be portrayed. Women are strong and they still try to work, despite all the oppression they face, so there is an image that needs to be portrayed through art, which is beauty and strength and resilience.”
Mattar’s next project is a new venture – a children’s book based on her own story, which she says will be the first bilingual book written and illustrated by a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip. She hopes that it will encourage local children to forge connections with people outside Gaza, particularly other Palestinians.
“A friend of mine who lives in Al Jalil, which is a few hours away by car, said, ‘Gaza is so close, but I feel it’s further away than China.’ This is what the occupation wants, to disconnect it culturally, socially and politically,” she says.
“So I’m hoping to make this connection, that Palestinians from the Gaza Strip do exist, they have their own dreams. They are really traumatised, but they are still living their lives hoping for change.”
Artist in Focus is our series that shines a spotlight on young artists in the region