Gaza’s Last Contemporary Art Space Decimated by Israel

The last of two contemporary arts spaces in the Gaza Strip was completely destroyed in March during Israel’s second military incursion on the Al-Shifa Hospital. Shababeek (Arabic for “windows”) for Contemporary Art, a nonprofit arts education center and gallery space in Gaza City that opened in 2009, stood just a few feet away from the medical complex and was left completely decimated after Israeli forces finally retreated.

Palestinian artist and Shababeek’s co-founder Shareef Sarhan explained that with limited funding from international sponsors and excessive limitations from Israeli border controls, the organization administered artist grants, hosted residencies and exhibitions, taught university students how to use and explore different contemporary media, and structured public art programming across Gaza.

“In the last five years, Shababeek’s artist community grew to about 250 people,” Sarhan told Hyperallergic, speaking in Arabic through interpreter Rhoda Kanaaneh, an adjunct assistant professor at the Middle East Institute at Columbia University.

Between 2006 and 2012, tight restrictions on bringing art materials into Gaza left artists to either work with unconventional alternatives or wait for friends from outside to bring supplies in through diplomatic convoys. Though import restrictions have loosened in the last decade, it’s been equally difficult to get traditional artwork out of Gaza, and artists have turned to social media to share their work.

“Gaza’s artists have been trying to access channels to let the world know that through art, we’re able to produce love, hope, freedom, and peace,” Sarhan said.

“Installation, photography, performance, digital and video art, design — these are contemporary mediums that translate well online and therefore work around the siege, and they are also important to learn about in order to keep up with the rest of the art world.”

As the only two contemporary art hubs in Gaza, Shababeek frequently collaborated with its predecessor, Eltiqa Gallery in downtown Gaza City, to nurture artists during what Sarhan called “a severe neglect” of the creative sector. Eltiqa Gallery was destroyed last December by an Israeli airstrike.

Sarhan and his immediate family were in Istanbul before Hamas’s attack on October 7, and have been forced to watch the decimation of Gaza from the outside. He told Hyperallergic that after experiencing multiple wars while living in Gaza, this was his first time away during such a catastrophic event.

Shababeek incurred major damages to its third floor between November and January, but Israel’s relentless attack on Al-Shifa Hospital leveled the entire building in the last two weeks, destroying 30 years of Sarhan’s artwork as well as the archives of the organization’s fellow co-founders, Majed Shala and Basel El Maqousi, who is currently sheltering in a tent in Rafah.

“Sometimes when I see the photos, I can’t believe that I’ve lost everything — even the little brush that I’ve used for 10 years,” Sarhan said. “I’ve been thinking all along that I want to return to Gaza as soon as possible, but after losing Shababeek, I’m not in a rush anymore.”

Sarhan noted that a majority of his artist community has been displaced and referred back to El Maqousi, who had to rebuild his home twice since 2008 before it was destroyed a final time in 2023. Sarhan explained that El Maqousi converted Shababeek into a shelter for some time, distracting his nephews and nieces with art sessions before everyone had been evacuated to Khan Younis and then Rafah.

“Basel has turned his tent in Rafah into ‘Little Shababeek,’ doing art workshops with children to help them unload from themselves and change their moods, and hosting workshops with women and girls as well,” Sarhan continued, underscoring that “Shababeek is an idea, not a place,” and that the loss of the space has put the focus back on the artists who made it.

“That’s why I continue to say that through art we can change the meaning of life for people,” Sarhan said.

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