Art Under Aggression

An artist's tribute to painter Duniyana Al-Amoor, killed in her room in Gaza at age 22.


June 22, 2023


"For my part, I'm not doing anything astonishing, I'm merely trying, amidst this isolation, to make life bearable."

Duniyana Al-Amoor, Palestinian artist

To be a painter in Gaza is to expect death at any moment while knowing that your artworks will live forever. It is to seek the safety of your paintings before that of your own self.

To be an artist in Gaza is to paint the anxiety and isolation, contrasted with rare glimpses of joy on the faces of people around you—people who are exhausted by siege and war. As artists, our only escape is through the canvas and paint that the Occupation barely allows entry. 

This essay is my tribute to fellow artist, Duniyana Al-Amoor. Duniyana is a 22-year-old painter from Gaza who is no longer going to paint. That's because in August of 2022, a rocket was fired into Duniyana's house, killing her inside her own room. Her remaining family members were injured. During this aggression, 49 other Palestinians were killed, including 17 children.

Left: Adnan, father of Duniyana Al-Amour, sits among her drawings in her damaged room which was hit by an Israeli strike, east of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, Monday, August 10, 2022. Right: Al-Amour's drawings in her damaged room after shrapnel tore through her bedroom during Israel's surprise opening salvo, hours before militants fired any rockets. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Al-Amoor's brutal murder triggered a new wave of emotional despair amongst Palestinians living under blockade. Her murder symbolized the unrelenting removal of joy, hope, and color from the two million people in Gaza trying to survive the Israeli oppression, human rights abuses, and constant bombardment. 

Al-Amoor was an art student at Al-Aqsa College of Fine Art. Not only was she a hardworking painter, but she was loved and celebrated among her family and colleagues, who were often the subject matter of her portraits. At just 22, Duniyana was ambitious. She dreamed of showcasing her art beyond Gaza's borders. Indeed, her dream came true—her paintings and drawings were showcased in Ottawa, the capital of Canada—but only after her passing.

I never had the opportunity to meet Duniyana, but every one of her works speaks to me as a fellow artist living under the same conditions. She portrayed victimhood and depression within the landscapes of Gaza. Her painting of a woman with the sea illustrates. What makes her work special is her diverse use of mediums that varies from charcoal on paper to acrylic and collages that use thick, glittered paper. Al-Amoor's key subject matter is her family, portrayed in this image using charcoal and graphite. In other expressionist portraits, watercolors take center stage. Al-Amoor's artwork depicts reflections of time and place through a range of emotions: sadness, fear, and loss. 

Artwork by Duniyana Al-Amoor.

The number of Palestinians who have been killed in the last 15 years is estimated at over 6,000. Among them are artists, teachers, doctors, children, elderly, and my neighbor. During the roughly 50 days of aggression in 2014, I witnessed the murder of my elderly neighbor, who was a part of my life since early childhood. I recall watching her patiently collect food from neighbors for the cats and pigeons passing the streets in front of her house.  

Witnessing her slow killing urged me to find a shelter in art. I drew images of the unforgettable war scenes and self-portraits that showed the psychological impact of the war. One of my paintings that was displayed in the museum of modern art in Portugal represents the true story of a pregnant woman, Anhar Al-Deek. A-Deek almost gave birth in the Israeli prison cell with no medical assistance. Depicting this story felt urgent, as to show the brutality, mistreatment, and oppression that Palestinian prisoners face.

The employee stressed to me that if the content of the painting was political it would never reach its destination. But what's not political about the Gaza Strip? Even the water we drink is political.

Since my neighbor's murder in 2014, I have never stopped making art. It's not only a way of self-expression, but a challenge to the media stereotypes that portray us as either terrorists or heroes, victims or perpetrators of violence. We are just humans wanting love, safety, and hope for the future.  

Collectively, artists from the Gaza Strip have made astonishing work that showcases our humanity, emotions, and stories. Renowned Palestinian artist Laila Shawa, who was considered a revolutionary icon, depicted childhood loss throughout her multimedia work, which ranged from murals and paintings to photography and silkscreen printing. Tayseer Barakat depicts human connections and landscapes through his abstract expressionist style. 

Through their works, these artists make clear demands to be liberated from this brutal blockade that isolates us from the entire world. The blockade on Gaza is not just limiting the movement of goods and people, but it also limits humanitarian assistance and cultural connectivity. 

Left: The Hands of Fatima, Laila Shawa, 2013. Acrylic and Japanese gold pigment on canvas, 130 x 100 cm. Right: Shoreless Sea #40, Tayseer Barakat, 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 70 cm.

For example, Palestinian artists and art workers living in the West Bank cannot visit the Gaza strip without Israeli permission, which is hard to obtain. The same holds for Palestinians from the Gaza Strip who want to travel to the West Bank. This lack of freedom has hampered artists' connections tremendously, and the Gaza Strip's art scene has become isolated from the rest of Palestine as well. As a result, the art creation can be affected by the sense of suffocation that surfaces from not being able to engage with or be an integral part of the Palestinian art scene. According to Dr. Mohammed Musallam, an art professor who taught fine art at Al-Aqsa University, art education in the Gaza Strip struggles to keep pace with the contemporary art world. It takes a while for artists to engage new mediums like installation art, which Musallam first helped introduce to the Gaza strip almost 100 years after the medium's beginning. 

Artwork by Duniyana Al-Amoor.

To combat our continued isolation, artists share their work through social media in order to connect with their local and international supporters. Inside the region, artists and art experts meet remotely through Zoom and Skype to remain in dialogue about contemporary art world news. We discuss the struggles of being an artist in Palestine and attempt to find solutions. Some of these conversations introduced me to the practices of other artists inside Gaza and the diaspora. 

Many painters in the Gaza Strip are influenced by the traditional symbols of Palestinian visual art: doves, olive trees, keys of return, kuffiya, and Palestinian thobes. However, others are in creative search of a new artistic language that reflects the time we live in. Artists like Hani Zourb and Hazem Harb experiment with new techniques and modern tools to create new work through digital art, video art, and the metaverse. 

Like a lot of goods coming through the Israeli border, art materials have their own limitations and restrictions, creating financial barriers for the majority of artists. Though Palestinian artists in the Gaza Strip have the ability to ship our original paintings, doing so  comes with warnings of censorship from the occupation. When I started selling my paintings abroad, I went to the mail office to ship my painting to the United States. The employee stressed to me that if the content of the painting was political it would never reach its destination. But what's not political about the Gaza Strip? Even the water we drink is political. Of course the paint is.  

During the May 2021 aggression, canvas wasn't even allowed to enter the Gaza Strip. I was only able to paint because an Australian friend smuggled the canvas in his vehicle through Jerusalem. 

Self-portrait by Duniyana Al-Amoor.

However, artists in the Gaza Strip are undeterred. Persistent. We utilize recycled scrap, rocket remains, ruins, species, and henna to make drawings and sculptures—which at their essence, symbolize resilience and resistance. 

As a young painter, I was concerned about what "political" meant. The risk of having my work censored or confiscated added to the stress I was already feeling while creating paintings of my reality. Now I accept the fact that my work will be political regardless of the themes. No matter if a painting gets confiscated or censored, it is part of our story. We artists should never fear to depict the truth.

In a self-portrait, Duniyana peeks from behind a door. She's not hiding. She's bearing witness. And so are we. We will not look away.

Malak Matar is a self-taught artist and published author who paints expressionist faces, figures, and semi-abstract designs. Matar started painting at the age of 14, during the 51-day military assault on Gaza in 2014, using school art supplies. Her artwork began to draw interest from galleries and museums around the world and, since that time, her paintings have been featured in individual and group exhibitions in Costa Rica, England, France, India, Palestine, Scotland, Spain, Holland, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Turkey, and 11 U.S. states. She is also the author and illustrator of Sitti’s Bird, a children’s book based on her life story.