“Close to the wall I’ll draw a row of stars and a circle of stars / I’ll search for what was present, for what was present or what will be present,” wrote poet Mahmoud Darwish in the poem “Close to the Wall” about his frustration, sorrow, and desire to keep going even when surrounded by the walls of the occupation. Decades after Darwish wrote the poem, Palestinian artist Zainab al-Qolaq, from Gaza, is using her art to seek the present and commemorate the great tragedy she has experienced.
Last month, the exhibition “I Am 22. I Lost 22 People,” featuring paintings she made in the past year, was shown in Gaza. She was a student at the Islamic University of Gaza’s English department. The pressure of studies led her, as she explained in an interview in March 2021 to the Palestinian Al-Quds TV channel, to look for ways to express herself. “That’s how I found myself painting,” she said. There’s no future for art in Gaza, but still I painted in a way that surprised even me, and slowly but surely, it evolved.”
Her life was utterly changed changed on the night of May 16, 2021. In an Israeli airstrike in the center of Gaza City during the war between Israel and Gaza that month, 22 members of her family were killed – including her mother, two of her brothers, and her only sister. Shewas trapped in the rubble for 12 hours, without knowing what had happened to them. Since then, she has maintained silence, and over the course of a year she painted the pain of the loss.
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In a conversation with a B’Tselem investigator in March, her father, Shukri, recalled that terrible night. “I live with the two children I have remaining,” he said, “after losing in the war my wife Amal, our children – Taher, 23, Ahmad, 15 and Hana’a, 14 – my father Amin and my mother Sa’adia, my sister Bahaa, my brother Fuaz and three of his children, Riham, Abd-al Hamid and Sameh, his daughter-in-law Iyat and his grandson Qusay, 5 months old, and another nine relatives. They were all killed when Israel bombed the building where we lived on Wehda Street in the Rimal neighborhood in Gaza.”
As opposed to her father, who agreed to be interviewed, Al-Qolaq withdrew into herself. “I don’t want you to applaud me for my works, or to console me,” she told those attending the exhibition, as reported by the Palestinian news agency Wafa. “I want you to make my voice and that of my family heard everywhere, to bring us justice and punish the Israeli occupiers. Every one of these paintings expresses a tragic moment that I experienced because of the occupier.”
Appearing in the paintings are members of her family, with incomplete faces, in gloomy colors, in a grave or in images that refer to their death. “Do you want me to tell you what happens when an entire building collapses and people are inside it?” she wrote on her Twitter account. “How can I tell you about my hours beneath the rubble when I shouted and asked for help? Even the stones of the house wept along with me.
“Should I tell you about the minutes before the explosion, when my family ran to the stairs and the entire building shook? Should I tell you about the sharp transition between feeling safe with my family and the battle for life and the encounter with death? Did you think for a moment about being in my place and imagining what it’s like to survive and to discover that I lost my entire family, my mother, my sister, the whole family? I can remember all the minutes beneath the rubble. But the great tragedy was after they rescued me and I discovered whom I had lost.”
In one of the paintings, she portrayed herself as a corpse, in the robe of the graduation ceremony that her family didn’t get to attend and in which she refused to participate. In the painting, she is seen gazing at the graves of her family.
It wasn’t easy to mount the exhibition in Gaza, says Ahmed Alnaouq, a Palestinian who lives in the U.K. and is in charge of public relations for the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, which participated in arranging the show, along with UN Women.
“There’s a large number of artists in various fields in Gaza,” he says, “but unfortunately there are very few exhibitions. The Palestinians there live in poverty and under siege. Involvement in cultural events is the lowest priority.”
In addition, he says, Gaza has no foundations providing financial support, or curators for exhibitions. And yet, “After the exhibition, Zainab was invited to France and Belgium, but she refuses to talk to anyone.” Although the exhibition made waves, she avoid visiting Wehda Street, where her house once stood. “The exhibition is only a glimpse into what is taking place inside her. She lives the pain alone,” Alnaouq says.