Rising Gazan artist Malak Mattar launches solo exhibition in London
She describes how one of her neighbours was brutally killed. “Seeing this as a teenager I couldn’t help but feel how close death was… Growing up in a war zone, unfortunately, your life becomes defined by bombardment and by loss.”
She explains how her childhood was interrupted regularly by Israeli attacks and tension. The “terror” she witnessed drove Malak to create art every day as a way to express herself. She started with watercolours until her mother “saw how dedicated and truly immersed” she was and bought her colours, acrylics, canvas and paints.
"Not only is Malak celebrating the success of a solo exhibition at Garden Court Chambers but she has been awarded a global talent visa and been endorsed as an 'exceptional talent'"
“I was driven by my own passion but I was also relying on my uncle’s mentorship and guidance.” Mohammed Musallam was a pioneering artist in Gaza. “I was always fascinated by the way he recreated his own reality in such a creative and poignant way.” She admired how her uncle broke stereotypes and never reinforced narratives of victimhood in his work.
By 2016 Malak had attracted the attention of the Palestine Museum in Bristol and was keen to organise a UK exhibition of her work. It was a huge opportunity for her as a rising artist but unfortunately, even patients attempting to leave Gaza for life-saving medication are not granted visas.
So what chance did she have? The show went ahead… but without Malak. “I was very frustrated. I had wanted to speak to everyone who was there. What I am witnessing is so unfair and the world needs to know about it!”
When Malak received the highest grade point average in the Gaza Strip and the second highest grade average in all of Palestine, she was oﬀered the unique chance to attend university abroad.
But Malak faced the challenge of convincing her family to accept this proposition. “It’s prohibited. It’s like, a young woman should never leave without a brother or father or husband — it’s very taboo.” After “insisting” and “negotiating” Malak finally received their approval but “the hardest part was yet to come… leaving a big prison. Back in 2017, the border was barely open.”
When she made it to Turkey to study Political Science and International Relations, she learnt about “other minorities and world issues,” which has played a key role in her desire to make her art universal. Malak elaborates on the repeated rejections she has received to enter both France and Europe “time and time again.”
“I thought once I left (the Gaza Strip) I would be free, but I was not.”
But 2023 marks a new chapter for the determined artist. Not only is Malak celebrating the success of a solo exhibition at Garden Court Chambers but she has been awarded a global talent visa and been endorsed as an “exceptional talent.”
Every six months, the committee of Garden Court Chambers selects an artist to launch their work to a wider audience. Malak was delighted to be selected and to host a private exhibition at this leading barristers’ chambers in London.
The event, which took place on June 30, was a huge success with over 250 people attending to view the paintings and hear her speech about her journey and vision. All three rooms displaying her collection at the Holborn venue were fully packed.
The highlight of the show was a painting called Mother Nature Embracing The Boy With A Horse which Malak describes as “very Gazan”. It was completed before the attack of May 2021 and it depicts a mother, her son and beautiful patterns of birds and horses.
“The idea to include animals came because of a small fish we had in my home. I was intrigued when I saw how much this fish was eﬀected by the bombardment because the colour of her skin kept changing until she died.”
In Gaza, “humans are massacred and there is no protection for life. There is so much tragedy. But you never hear about the animals which also get killed when buildings are erased and families are evicted. These animals have their own life under siege.”
Malak felt inspired to paint birds because of the idea of the creatures being caged. “Seeing an animal in a cage reflects my own feeling of imprisonment, of being trapped.”
"I was also close to my Mum and grandmothers who were very powerful in their own way. They were oppressed, of course, by the occupation and the patriarchy but they were also incredible and able to navigate their own way — to build their own families, be providers, strong, creative and great in whatever they do"
Before the show, Garden Court Chambers bolstered Malak with some advice she very rarely hears, “They said to be political — don’t worry about anything. Do whatever you like. Just bring the paintings you want in the show. That felt really like the beginning of something. When I had shows in Germany, it was horrible. They put a list of things I should not speak about — like the Nakba.
"They would talk about my work being colourful or hopeful, but they took it out of the context of it being about struggle, about loss and about pain.”
The UK is no stranger to censorship of Palestinian narratives. A memorable painting in the exhibition was of a girl looking at the viewer in front of a pixilated image of a soldier grabbing a child. The impulse to create this was the result of the disheartening removal of drawings by young Gazans from the walls of Westminster and Chelsea Hospital earlier this year. Malak asserts that censorship proves the power of art. “It is the recognition of the power of the witness.”
Another stand-out piece was of Anhar Al-Deeq — a Palestinian prisoner who was incarcerated whilst heavily pregnant. “I felt the urgency to make this when I read about the dire situation she was in and the mistreatment she was facing from the jailer… She was scared about the health of her baby.”
Women are often at the forefront of all Malak’s work. She explains, “Given the nature of Gaza society and how much of it is segregated, without noticing it, I was only painting women because I was taught by women and my classmates were all women.
"I was also close to my Mum and grandmothers who were very powerful in their own way. They were oppressed, of course, by the occupation and the patriarchy but they were also incredible and able to navigate their own way — to build their own families, be providers, strong, creative and great in whatever they do.”
Malak expressed exasperation at the way in which Gazans are depicted in the media — as victims or terrorists. “But there are many stories I wanted to depict,” she says. “I want to do this in an artistic way to reach beyond my community, to speak to other people who are not necessarily engaged with my cause or what my beliefs are. I believe in humanity, even though there were times when I was under the Israeli bombardment, I lost this belief completely.”
After the success of her solo show, Malak is due to start a Masters in September at the prestigious art school Central St Martin’s.
When asked about her bright future, Malak diligently replies, “My plan is to always be better at what I do. I have a higher mission of why I make what I make… I would like to change how people think about Gaza and about my own people. When you have a story, this is your power. Just sharing your story can make a change.”
Sarah Agha is an actress and writer of Palestinian and Irish heritage. Her work has been published in Backstage Magazine, 1883 Magazine, the RSC Patrons Paper and “Out of Isolation” by Unicorn Publishing. She is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin, a Bafta Connect member and she currently curates The Arab Film Club
Follow her on Instagram: @sarahaghaonline