Dreamers Among The Rubble: Meet the Gaza artist who created an open-air gallery in a bombed building

Ali al-Jabali has painted the walls of the sprawling Italian Complex in central Gaza, which was reduced to rubble after an air strike, with the haunting faces of those who yearn for a better life

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How do you find soul in destruction? This was the question Gazan artist Ali al-­Jabali, 27, asked himself when he set about organising his latest show. He answered it the best he could by transforming the bombed-out shell of a well-known building in central Gaza into a stunning open-air exhibition. 

Now, inside the crumbling facade, haunting murals of citizens of the war-torn area stare out at its surroundings. There’s a painting of a little girl carrying a dummy, hoping for a better life. There is a young man gazing upwards, trying to find someone to help him achieve his dreams.

“I tried to express the steadfastness of the Palestinian people,” al-Jabali says. “I began to draw portraits and faces that reflect the destruction that we live and the dream we aspire to achieve.”

The murals have been photographed and picked up by international media. But few have heard from the artist himself.

Al-Jabali was born and raised in Gaza, and has weathered the wars throughout his life. He began dabbling in art when he was 11 years old, and eventually developed his skills in graffiti. Art, he says, is a way for him to “challenge the obstacles facing me here”.

The murals were painted on the Italian Complex, which was destroyed in airstrikes in 2014. Courtesy Fady Hanona

"Everything here can become a memory: humans, buildings, even my paintings can be destroyed and become a memory. We live in extraordinary circumstances. The changes in Gaza are many, as we live in a reality that refuses to surrender. For example, I am 27 years old and I [have] witnessed three devastating wars over Gaza. After every war, there were many changes. In Gaza, you don't know what is going to happen after five minutes."

Being an artist is a struggle in a country cut off from much of the rest of the world, and constantly in the throes of conflict. This is exacerbated by the fact that there is no funding for the arts, al-Jabali says, and the soaring unemployment rates. "Everyone is trying to continue in this difficult life, everyone here is struggling to reach their goal or live in peace, and this is the secret of our strength – that we are always trying."

These, and plenty more, are the reasons behind al-Jabali's new show. He'd been intrigued by the colossal Italian Complex building in the al-Nasr neighbourhood in central Gaza for a while. It had long been a well-known city landmark due to how huge it was, at 15-storeys high, and was built in the 1990s by an Italian businessman.

We have the right to live on this land. We love life, and we are not eager to die. We only want to have our rights and live peacefully.

Israeli rockets hit the mixed-use complex, which housed residential units and commercial offices, during the 2014 Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip. Twenty-five people were wounded in the attack. It was a time of escalated warfare in the city.

Previously, the military had hit targets in high-rises in "pinpoint strikes", targeting wanted men, but leaving the buildings standings. But during a week in August 2014, five large towers or shopping complexes were destroyed, in what many cited as new tactics aimed at increasing pressure on Hamas. "That's where I got the idea to name my exhibition Dreamers Among The Rubble. I have huge faith that our dreams will rise from ashes and rubble, and that one day, we will achieve what we want."

Palestinian artist Ali al-Jabali walks people through his haunting exhibit. Courtesy Fady Hanona

And so, al-Jabali set about transforming the monolithic husk. He painted the walls and hung pictures showcasing startling faces of characters from the streets around him.

The exhibition is divided into two main parts, the first of which contains four brightly coloured murals. The second part of the exhibition contains oil paintings in wooden frames. These paintings aim to project the notion that each citizen has the "right to life".

That’s where you’ll find the painting of the little girl with her dummy. Or the man staring up to the sky. 

Al-Jabali doesn’t know how long the exhibition will exist, or if it will survive. He simply wants to ensure the plight of the people who live in Gaza is there for the world to see – both in the international media, and plastered all over the walls of a bombed-out building. 

“The blockade is a word that I wish could disappear from the dictionary. All of us are affected by it. Every person in Gaza lives an extraordinary and abnormal life. We have many daily challenges such as electricity and water outage. Also problems such as freedom of movement and travel,” he says.

But most of all, he simply wants to communicate one point: that Palestinians deserve the right to a normal life. 

“We have the right to live on this land. We are humans like everyone around the world, and we want our rights to live, education, freedom of movement. We love life, and we are not eager to die. We only want to have our rights and live peacefully.”