Ismail Matar has been in this position before. Watching his artwork destroyed. Thinking about when it will be safe to paint again.
Matar, 23, is a Palestinian student and artist living in Gaza. In recent years, he has gained a following on social media, sharing his art to more than 5,500 followers on Instagram, and earned praise from people around the world, including some in Canada.
Last weekend, as Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza, Matar took cover and watched buildings crumble. His murals — like one of a long, blue octopus with arms outstretched representing the trapped feeling under occupation — painted on city and building walls near several refugee camps, turned into piles of dust and rubble.
“The house I live in dances with every bombing. Black smoke is rising around us,” Matar wrote to the Star. “Aren’t we human and worth life?”
Photos sent to the Star show before and after images of several murals Matar has painted that have now tumbled and turned into debris. And even with an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire in effect as of Friday, the damage has been done.
“Everyone in Gaza has lost neighbours, friends, their homes,” Matar said. “Every time (this happens) it buries memories with my paintings.”
Matar’s work has been highly impactful across Gaza — it’s why he’s been given the name ‘Rasam al-Mukhiam,’ which means Painter of the Refugee Camp. He’s one of the first artists in Gaza to use the medium of mural painting and one of the top commissioned artists by local Palestinian businesses and galleries.
In his experiments with bold colours of acrylic paint, he asserts power amid a conflict in which he’s powerless. He says he aims to depict the patience and perseverance of Palestinian people through his work.
“In all my paintings and technique, I like to think outside the ordinary and I draw different art to be special,” said Matar. “Maybe it helps me feel less trapped.”
As of Friday, at least 243 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children and 39 women, with 1,910 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not break the numbers down into fighters and civilians. Hamas and militant group Islamic Jihad say at least 20 of their fighters have been killed, while Israel says the number is at least 130. Some 58,000 Palestinians have fled their homes.
Twelve people in Israel, including a five-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl, were killed. The military said an anti-tank missile fired from Gaza hit an empty bus near the frontier on Thursday, lightly wounding an Israeli soldier.
Matar is thankful that no one in his family has been killed or harmed, but the ongoing violence has been a lifelong reality growing up in Gaza.
During the 2014 Gaza war, which lasted 50 days and resulted in thousands of casualties, Matar tried to bring a renewed hope to the city by painting colour on the grey walls of destroyed homes. He’ll be doing that again once it’s safe to, he says, because he wants the world to see the humanity in his people.
Matar draws inspiration from other street artists who have pushed outside the box, like Banksy, whose work — often political — is on display around the world. In 2015, Banksy’s work appeared on walls in the Gaza Strip, most notably a painting of a kitten on the remains of a house destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. “I wanted to highlight the destruction in Gaza by posting photos on my website — but on the internet people only look at pictures of kittens,” Banksy said on his website.
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The message of humanity and hope that Matar shares in his paintings has resonated far beyond the Gaza Strip. Many people around the globe have noticed his work. David Lafleur from Welland, Ont., is one of them.
In 2020, Lafleur came across Matar’s work on Facebook and was moved by the artistry. The two connected and Lafleur bought a painting that he proudly displays in his home.
“He puts so much of him in his paintings. I am honoured to have his work on my wall,” Lafleur said.
“I was devastated when I learned that some of his art had been destroyed. I felt helpless, I wanted to help, but what could I do being so far away? I can’t imagine what it would be like to have it so senselessly destroyed,” Lafleur said.
Matar says he has dreams of coming to Canada to exhibit his work one day. “Being a Palestinian is a great pride. (We) have strength, patience and inspiration,” Matar said “We are a source of creativity and hope … to see evolution in my country for peace and freedom. No war, no occupation.”
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