‘We have to rebuild the city from scratch’

Shareef Sarhan is the co-founder of an artist collective and contemporary art centre in Gaza. On Thursday, he will visit Fotogalleriet in Oslo.

Shareef Sarhan. Photo: Amos Trust.

After 123 days of war, over 100,000 people have either been killed, gone missing, or been wounded in the Gaza Strip, in Israel, and in the occupied West Bank. The UN estimates that the amount of rubble in Gaza will exceed eight million tonnes and will take at least three years to remove.

“I have lived through many wars in Gaza, but this is the first time that the whole city is under attack – the infrastructure, people, culture, heritage, and art,” visual artist and photographer Shareef Sarhan told Kunstkritikk.

Sarhan is co-founder of Shababeek for Contemporary Art, an artist collective and contemporary art centre in Gaza. On Thursday 8 February, he will come to Oslo to give a presentation at Fotogalleriet, set in the context of Ayman Alazraq’s exhibition The Lost Tapes of A Peoples’ Tribunal, 1982.

In addition to presenting his art practice, Sarhan will focus on the conditions for artistic production and cultural reconstruction in Gaza.

“First, I want to talk about connections between my art and my city. I will also say a little about the history and development of Shababeek, and think about possibilities for the future. How can we create a new place for art, and support a new cultural life in Gaza?”

Shababeek was founded in 2009, after a year of conflict between Hamas and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Over time, it has developed into a community space and meeting place in support of artistic development. Here, artists can participate in exhibitions, workshops, artist residencies, and apply for production grants.

“In 2009, a large part of society was non-functioning, including the cultural administration. We wanted to create a place specifically to support visual artists. We started small, then it grew,” Sarhan said.

From an opening at Shababeek for Contemporary Art in 2019. Photo: Mohammed Al Goel.

The building that housed the art centre is now among over two hundred art and culture sites destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. Sarhan described the situation in Gaza as catastrophic. He emphasised that the situation for artists was already challenging before 7 October, due to a lack of artistic infrastructure. There were only two galleries, Shababeek and Eltiqa Gallery.

“A large part of our work has been mediation, we have worked to build up an audience for art over the past ten years. I would say that we have two different target groups. We have our local audience that understands our community work, different humanitarian issues, and with whom we work to create an atmosphere. Then we have the international and Arab audience, which we are connected to via the internet,” Sarhan explained.

If an artist in Gaza is invited to exhibit abroad, they are often unable to travel to install their work in person or attend the opening. Sarhan said that permits must be sought from the Israeli authorities, both for the artworks and the artist. Visas may not be granted until after the exhibition opening, or the works are allowed to leave Gaza, but not the artist.

“Gaza has been under siege since 2006, and since then it has been difficult for both works of art and artists to get out of Gaza. There is a whole generation of artists who have grown up being isolated from the outside world. It is our mission at Shababeek to teach them how art is changing in the world, from materials and techniques to concepts.”

Shababeek for Contemporary Art after the Israeli airstrike.

When asked what he thinks the future looks like for Gaza’s art scene, he said it is hard to imagine:

“If the war ends today and everyone is allowed to return, there is still no infrastructure, no homes, no water, no electricity. Art and culture will not be a priority. Yet artists are so important to any society, and so are Palestinian artists. They work to archive the past, present, and future. Art helps us develop, it helps us speak, see, think. I think it is very important to support this.”

Sarhan currently resides in Paris. His studio there is financed until the end of February by Dar Al-Kalima University in Bethlehem and Qattan Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Ramallah in the West Bank. Since last September, he has also stayed in Turkey and Spain, and now hopes to establish a collaborative project between Shababeek and Oslo-based artists and art institutions.

The ongoing collaboration between Shababeek and Fotogalleriet started in 2021 with the exhibition Artists from Gaza. Sarhan’s visit is a part of this collaboration and coincides with an art sale, facilitated through Fotogalleriet, featuring works by artists from Gaza. Profits from the sale will go to Shababeek and the artists.

Shareef Sarhan, Fishermen, 2016.