Alaa Albaba’s fishes dream of life without boundaries or walls.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
Zawyeh Gallery has hosted the first of a series of Open Studio events in Ramallah, Palestine. It was a project by Palestine artist Alaa Albaba in the Al-Amari refugee camp, and the event was held March 18 – 19. Zawyeh is an independent visual art gallery founded in Ramallah, in 2013. Since 2020, it has expanded by opening in a second location at Alserkal Avenue, Dubai. Part of the project included an invitation to the public to visit Albaba’s studio, where they had the opportunity to see his work closely and engage in face-to-face discussions. Albaba’s themes mainly deal with refugee camps as structures juxtaposed with and contrasted against Palestinian refugee aspirations.
The event aimed to create a space that encourages interaction between residents of the camp and the broader Palestinian public and Albaba’s artworks. It was also an opportunity to view his jobs that are in progress.
Albaba started working in his studio in the camp in 2010, and the space soon became the incubator of his artistic career. The Zawyeh Gallery initiative comes as part of a larger undertaking that aims to shed light on the works of several artists’ studios, through a series of exhibitions.
The gallery aims to promote these works through its networks in both Ramallah and Dubai, to support artists and motivate them to produce and interact with audience and the environment that nurtures them. Albaba’s work focuses on the daily life in refugee camps, through which he reconstructs the camp, using vibrant colours that reflect his imagination, insight, and experience.
He uses various techniques and materials in his paintings and has produced several surreal and expressionist artworks, where he relies on research and experimentation, focusing on the densely populated camps through comparisons and approaches.
He draws attention to the contradictions between the fixed nature of the structure of the refugee camp and its modern and ever-changing urban surroundings. He explores different socio-political issues, focusing on his relationship with the camp and how it has managed to preserve its political identity and form through the years.
The Al-Amari Refugee Camp is located in the Ramallah and Al-Bireh Governorate, situated two kilometres south of Al Bireh in the central West Bank. It was established in 1949 and like most of the West Bank camps, suffers from overcrowding, poor sewerage and water networks. During the First Intifada in 1989, Muhammad Ismail, aged 20, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers here.
The Al-Amari camp’s football team has won the Palestine football championship several times, and has been designated to represent Palestine in regional and international competitions. Albaba was born in Jerusalem in 1985 in the Al-Amari refugee camp, and lives there. He graduated from the International Academy of Art Palestine in 2010, and has participated in many local and international exhibitions and art residencies. He has also established the On The Wall studio in Al-Amari Camp.
One of his most prominent projects is The Path of the Fish (2015 – 2017), where he created 18 murals throughout Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan, focusing on painting fish as a symbol of Palestinian refugees, who long to return to their villages, located by the sea. They lost their connection to their land and the sea during the Nakba.
Albaba took up the case of the Palestinian who lived on the coast before the Nakba — the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias ahead of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 — and wound up in a refugee camp, cut off and forbidden from accessing the sea. Albaba’s own family was expelled from Lydd, now in present-day Israel.
The fish that thrashes about after being removed from the water serves as a metaphor for life in overcrowded refugee camps. Sardines packed in tins — like those distributed to refugees by relief agencies after 1948 — are yet another related symbol.
Palestinian poet and author Mahmoud Darwish, who is also regarded as Palestine’s national poet, once asked: “How many times will you keep travelling and to what dream?” Albaba’s artworks present the dream of life beyond the confines of a refugee camp and, like fishes in the sea, dreams have no boundaries or walls.
His artworks portray the chaotic beauty of life in a refugee camp, through its unique architectural features. Amidst the chaos, a cacophony of colours bursts forth. With many pressing needs in the camp, where poverty and unemployment rates are high and the infrastructure in need of maintenance, art wasn’t exactly a priority.
“But after a while, art became desirable in this place,” Albaba says. And there he works, painting fish who dream of returning to the sea. He is known as the Palestinian Banksy for his graffiti in the West Bank and in Israel.
Zawyeh’s mission is to promote emerging and established Palestinian artists – from Palestine and the Diaspora – through various thematic exhibitions at home and abroad. In the past few years, the gallery organised several solo and collective shows, offering artworks based on a variety of mediums including painting, sculpture, installation, video, and photography. Zawyeh believes in investing in creativity and artistic talents in Palestine, as a way of resilience in the face of adversity. People resist in any way they can. Some paint. Others showcase the paintings. No less than a personality than Spanish painter Joan Miro underlined that “more important than a work of art itself is what it will sow. Art can die, a painting can disappear. What counts is the seed.”
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