West Bank exhibit gives Gaza artists rare showcase

Fifty-three paintings and two sculptures by 45 artists have gone on display in the West Bank city of Ramallah

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The Gaza Strip is tough turf for artists. An Israeli-Egyptian border blockade of the Hamas-ruled territory keeps them away from an international audience and potential buyers, while the local art market is close to nil.

A new exhibit now offers them a chance to showcase their work outside Gaza.

Fifty-three paintings and two sculptures by 45 artists have gone on display in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said Haneen Qatamesh, a spokeswoman for one of the sponsors, the Palestinian company PADICO. Since Saturday’s opening, 12 works have been sold for prices ranging from $850 to $9,000, she said.

However, a majority of the artists were unable to attend their own show.

Gaza and the West Bank lie on opposite sides of Israel, and since a Palestinian uprising in 2000, Israel has severely restricted travel between the two territories which the Palestinians hope will one day be part of their independent state, along with east Jerusalem. Israel captured the three areas in the 1967 Mideast war.

Qatamesh said only 12 artists received Israeli travel permits to attend the exhibit, or less than half the number of artists who applied.

Among those forced to stay home was Ismail Dahlan, a 36-year-old painter from the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya who has three works at the Ramallah show. His colorful paintings depict the characters, customs and daily life of a place he’s never been to - Hamama, a former Palestinian village in what is now Israel.

Dahlan’s family fled to Gaza in the Mideast war over Israel’s 1948 creation. They were among more than 700,000 Palestinians who were uprooted during that war. Today, the refugees and their descendants number more than 5 million, most of them living in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, according to the United Nations.

Dahlan said his paintings are based on the stories his parents told him about their home village.

“I start to draw a picture in my mind of the towns that I cannot reach, through information obtained from my parents and my grandfather, and I start to imagine how my country looks and the people’s daily habits, which I cannot reach and see,” he said.

Organizers of the exhibit said they hope it will give the artists needed exposure.

Samir Hleileh, the CEO of PADICO, said he became aware of the Gaza artists’ difficulties during a trip to the territory. “Most of the artists could not leave Gaza to visit markets like Dubai or New York or London or even Ramallah,” he said.

Gaza’s isolation deepened after the 2007 takeover of the territory by the Islamic militant Hamas. In response, Israel and Egypt enforced a border blockade that prevents most Gazans from leaving their territory.

Other sponsors of the Ramallah exhibit included a U.N. agency and the Artist Pension Trust, an international organization that allows selected artists to buy into a retirement plan through their works, rather than money.

Some 2,000 artists from 75 countries have joined the fund in the past decade, spokeswoman Lidia Fabian said. Some of the Gaza artists are being considered for membership, but the vetting is ongoing, she said.

“Our main focus is to give artists worldwide financial security and international exposure,” she said. “For artists from Gaza, it is difficult to have a door to the outside world. This exhibit will get them some more publicity.”

Dahlan, the Gaza painter, said Gaza artists won’t have a future as long as they can’t travel.

“The local market is not promising,” said Dahlan, a father of four who has sold four paintings so far and currently earns $300 a month painting sets and doing other jobs in a local theater. “We have many artists here and all of them are looking for a window to get out and show the world their talents.”