‘This is very, very potent work. It’s got an incredible energy’
The painter and activist Felim Egan, who was aboard the Irish boat ‘Saoirse’ when it was boarded by Israeli commandos, is bringing art from Gaza around Ireland
Animal Farm 2 (detail) by Mohammed Al-Hawajri
Carrier of Roses (detail) by Mohammed AbuSal
Our Land by Sohail Salem
Harvest by Ruqaia Alulu
Felim Egan’s first attempt to reach the Gaza Strip was in November 2011. The painter was among 25 activists on the Irish vessel the MV Saoirse when it was boarded, in international waters, by Israeli commandos in balaclavas, and towed to port at Ashdod. What the Israelis had in mind, alas, wasn’t beer and skittles.
“We were towed from international waters into Israel,” the artist says. “And then charged with entering Israel illegally.” He laughs, or attempts to laugh, at the Kafkaesque absurdity of it. After eight days’ incarceration, during which time all of their electronic devices were confiscated (and not returned), the group was deported.
Egan finally entered Gaza, along with members of the newly formed Gaza Action Ireland, in January last year, this time crossing by land from Egypt. Their mission was to engage with civil society in the besieged Mediterranean enclave – or as much of it as had survived after six brutal years of Israeli blockade.
The trip had sporting, medical and fisheries components. But Egan’s responsibilities were in the arts. He had made contact with Windows from Gaza, a group of local artists managing to work amid the chaos. “I’d visited Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon,” says Egan, who is a member of Aosdána. “But this was much, much worse. There were chronic power shortages. Eight hours’ electricity a day, if you were lucky. There was a lack of fuel, not just for transport but for powering generators in hospitals. And no water. Natural water flows into Gaza, but the Israelis cut it off and sell bottled water by the truckload to the Palestinians.”
In these conditions, artists have to be resourceful. Shareef Sarhan, for example, paints enormous landscapes using only oil and coal dust. “Despite the lack of materials,” Egan says admiringly, “this is very, very potent work. It’s got an incredible energy.”
Sarhan is also a photographer. He photographs bomb sites, of which Gaza has no shortage, after they’ve been hit. “There are no bodies, no blood,” Egan says. “But you can tell something has happened. It’s the calm after the storm: very evocative and disturbing.”
A winner of the Premier Unesco Prize for the Arts, Egan was born and raised in Strabane, Co Tyrone. When you ask how most Gaza artists explore the conflict with Israel in their work, he recalls our own experience of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
“The conflict is evident in the work,” he says. “But most often it isn’t overt. It’s similar to the way people like Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, say, wrote about the North. The Troubles are alluded to, but it isn’t in your face.”
In Burma, I tell him, I recently visited an exhibition of paintings by veterans of the 1988 pro-democracy student uprising. The most striking image was of a tank sitting on the lawn outside Rangoon University. There was no depiction of students or soldiers. Just that weird juxtaposition of a place of learning and an instrument of war.
He likes the comparison. “Yes,” he says. “Much like Dermot Seymour painted fields with cows and British army helicopters in them. And the same is true in Gaza. The pressure of the occupation is everywhere in evidence, even if you have to look closely to find it sometimes.”
An exhibition of art from Gaza curated by Egan, Windows into Gaza , opened at the RHA Gallagher Gallery, in Dublin, earlier this month. It willtour the country over the next six months.
Regrettably, two of the artists featured in the exhibition, Shareef Sarhan and Mohammed al-Hawajri, who had been due to attend the opening, were prevented from travelling.
Hawajri had been due to travel via the Rafah Crossing into Egypt, which has been shut down for several weeks. But Sarhan, who has a visa to commute between Gaza and Jordan, seems specifically to have been blocked from travelling to the exhibition by the Israeli army.
Nonetheless, both men’s Irish visas remain valid for three months, and Egan hopes they can join some portion of the exhibition’s tour around Ireland. “I’m hoping Shareef will be over for the exhibition in Derry, in May, and Mohammed will come along to Galway, in July.”
Egan emphasises that Gaza Action Ireland strives to be nonpolitical, deliberately avoiding even the appearance of affiliation with any political grouping. “The inner politics of Palestine, I think, is their business, and it is not for us to show affiliation with any group there.”
But as an Ulsterman who grew up in a place where even to utter the name of the province’s second-largest city was to make a political statement, he must realise that, in the Middle East, striving to appear neutral smacks of extreme wishful thinking.
Even visiting Gaza will be perceived as a partisan gesture. Israel’s apologists will ask, why Gaza? Why does Ireland pay such particular attention to Palestinians? Why not people in Homs? Or Donetsk? Or Pyongyang? Egan isn’t perturbed by that.
“People have asked, ‘What about Syria?’ ” he says. “I’ve been to Syria, and I’ve travelled throughout the Middle East. But the honest answer is that we can’t save the world. But we can keep the pressure up on one place. After all, we’re called Gaza Action Ireland. Not World Action Ireland.”
Windows into Gaza is at Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, from Wednesday until May 24th . After that it visits Derry, Galway and Limerick; facebook.com/