by August Kissel & Samantha Walla, Senior Writer & Production Manager
Malak Mattar is only twenty years old. She is studying political science in Istanbul, Turkey. She is also travelling the world presenting her artwork about the feminine experience in state undergoing a territorial dispute. Mattar grew up on the Gaza Strip.
In 2014, during a period of bombings and attacks, Mattar began trying to seek refuge from her daily experience of listening to the radio describe the war taking place outside of her door. It was here she discovered water color painting.
For 51 days, Mattar was kept at home with her parents with no electricity, no water and no access to food. During this time, Mattar lost relatives and neighbors who were close to her, spending her days listening to a small radio that reported the number of people who had been killed.
“I was looking for anything to just distract myself… I was looking for something to distract myself, having nothing to do, but just that radio,” said Mattar. “So I looked, I opened that gift box that I got from my school and I suddenly had these watercolors. It was like I never thought of opening it. But at that time, I think, ‘I’m just gonna grab it. I’m gonna just give my time.’ And then I started drawing and sketching.”
At this time when Mattar and her family were under incredible stress and found it difficult to talk, Mattar was able to express her feelings through art.
“I felt like I felt better. Like, it felt like art has been kind of a therapy. So I’ve started painting And that time I do not care of whether I will be bombed or not, or I will be killed or not. I just wanted to make more art. So, I find myself just speaking through my artwork,” said Mattar.
These pieces focus on themes regarding peace, death, belonging, and the female experience within these realms. One year after Mattar began painting, her art was featured in a solo exhibition, and after that her art began to travel the world without her. They were featured in France, Switzerland, Costa Rica, and the United States.
“It was almost like my paintings were more free than me. I would send my paintings anywhere but I would not be there in person,” said Mattar. This was tied to her citizenship and living on the Gaza Strip. Mattar’s ability to travel was hindered by both the surrounding conflict and her position as a woman. These struggles have informed the subject matter of her paintings.
“I only paint women, because it’s basically I am a woman myself, I feel like I need to support myself. And I also need to empower and support the other women who don’t have this, like this has this blessing of freedom,” added Mattar.
Due to societal and state expectations, Mattar was not anticipating the opportunity to travel the world with her art. Therefore she made a deal with her parents, that is she was the top of her class, then she would be allowed to study in Turkey and with that visa be able to begin travelling with her art. Mattar sometimes studied for 17 hours a day with her goal in mind. Mattar finally achieved a GPA of 99.3, the highest in Gaza Strip and the second highest in Palestine. Mattar was soon on her way to live and study in Turkey, but she did not know that her studies would be easy compared to the process of traveling.
Mattar has since begun studying political science in Turkey, as her university has no fine arts program. However, Mattar continues to study while travelling the world telling her testimony about what it was like growing up in Palestinian territory, and how it influences herself and her art.
“I’m really interested in the ways in which you practice freedom, in the ways you practice mobility and the ways in which you practice feminism,” said Dr. Badruddoja, professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Manhattan College. “The idea of naming women and believing women and then constituting our identities into the larger Palestintian history I think is really, really important. So your practice of feminism, I think, is seminal.”
Mattar’s art differed from traditional Palestinian art, which typically featured embroidery, women and Palestinian culture. Her influences included Pablo Picasso and Rosie the Riveter, as well as Palestiniant artists such as Nabil Anani.
“And in all my artwork, I always try to do the bigger image of life in Palestine is not only what you see in the media, but it’s also a complete life where people adapt itself under occupation and under siege,” said Mattar. “So despite everything we call the scene in space, still have this leftover culture tradition and this product that you are posting in and you can simplify your life to your country and that feeling that you belong and all the stories that you were born to me and as a student, I always every morning at school, they like the main I was singing the national anthem at the Coliseum. And day by day you feel the love.”