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Palestine’s first-ever comics exhibition packs more than just a punch

The exhibition (which runs until this Thursday) was organized by artists, for artists, and takes pride in showcasing the work of many first-time participants in a professional exhibition. One of these young stars, Omar Shalayel, thinks comics in particular allow artists in Palestine to convey their message with the relevant intimacy, urgency and passion.

Jerusalem24 – Through 75 years of collective experience of loss and grief, Palestinian artists have constantly been finding new ways to rise over this grief, to talk about their history and culture, and to bring Palestine center stage.

At times, they have reinvented themselves in the process; at others, their lucky audience might feel the same way.

Is it possible that this kind of magic has been happening in Ramallah these past two weeks? The 26 Palestinian and international artists participating in the first-ever Palestine Comics Exhibition in Ramallah probably hope you will find out for yourself.

The exhibition took pride in showcasing the work of many first-time participants in a professional exhibition. Jerusalem24 caught up with two of these, digital artist Omar Shalayel from Gaza, and architecture student and artist Sara Shehadeh from Ramallah, at different moments during the exhibition.

Comics for Palestine

“Honestly, the reactions for the exhibition were really amazing,” begins Sara. “The number of people that showed up in the first days was really overwhelming.”

Omar concurs. “It was a very beautiful opportunity for Palestinian artists to communicate through art and continue to deliver our message all over the world.”

Omar believes art can touch everyone no matter where they are from or which language they speak, even though “the method of delivering the message, or the idea, is created from the artist’s perspective.”

Comic art might just be a particularly effective way of delivering the Palestinian message, ventures Omar. He thinks it is more modern and more intimate, in a way, allowing Palestinian artists to convey their message with the relevant urgency and passion.

And architecture student Sara has found that her different passions complement each other: “While studying architecture they teach you how to draw and how to think and how to conceptualize ideas, so being an architecture student really helped me,” she explains. “My mind can design, it gave me a tool [and] skills in other fields, like in comics and other art.”

And despite comic art still being in its relative infancy in Palestine, both young artists were fortunate to be avidly encouraged in their pursuit.

“I had a lot of cheering from my family and my friends,” says Omar.

Artist Sara Shehadeh describes her artwork to guests at the exhibition. [Credit: Palestine TV/Facebook]

The absent artist

While the reaction since opening day of 15 May has been “overwhelming”, the days leading up to the exhibition were not free of challenges for either Omar or Sara – even if each artist, living very different lives in very different parts of a fractured Palestine, had very different experiences.

“It wasn’t that easy,” Sara confesses. As a soon-to-be graduate, Sara was in the middle of a three-week stint of non-stop work in order to finish part of her graduation project, while she simultaneously put the finishing (and beginning!) touches to her artwork a mere five days ahead of the exhibition.

“It was challenging to find time between the graduation project and the exhibition,” she says. “But I think it was all worth it.”

In Gaza, Omar’s process was influenced by a different set of factors altogether. “A lot of bombing, a lot of noise,” he describes. “It wasn’t comfortable [making] art in this kind of situation. Art requires a mental comfort, a quiet and peaceful place, to be able to draw.”

Omar was furthermore not able to attend the exhibition in Ramallah to introduce his own artwork, because Israeli authorities denied him the travel permit that would have allowed him to leave the Gaza Strip. Despite Omar’s joy in exhibiting his work, the paradox of his own absence has clearly struck him hard.

“I don’t know anything about the exhibition except the photos I received from my friends who attended it.”

Omar Shalayel’s work is displayed next to his bio, at the exhibition in Ramallah that he was unable to attend. [Photo courtesy of Omar Shalayel]

When comic artists elevate fellow comic artists

But Palestine’s first-ever comic art exhibition vibrates with more energy, creativity and poetry, than sadness alone.

Rather appropriately, it was first dreamed up (and then organized) by renowned Palestinian comic artist Mohammed Sabaaneh – a fact that made a huge difference, according to Sara.

“Through your art, you try to escape limitations that reality puts on you,” she explains. “So when you […] seek approval and money from organizations, you find these limitations in your art.”

Instead of the usual constraints, Sara found in this exhibition a character of “genuine freedom”, with control over what she wanted to draw, what story she wanted to tell, and how she wanted to tell it.

“Every artist had the ability to express themselves fully without any restrictions,” she beams. “It was in my opinion a very genuine exhibition, and very personal to each artist.”

Catch Omar’s, Sara’s, and the other artists’ work in Ramallah’s old city at Housh Al-Sa’a (across from the gas station), 3 Dar Awwad street, until 8pm this Thursday 1 June.

Listen to Sara and Omar on Vibes.

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