An Artist's Eye on Gaza

A Palestinian craftsman creates beauty from cast-offs on the city streets.
10 July, 2017
Shareef Sarhan has had his art on display in Egypt, Italy, the United States and the UK, but he's rightfully proud of the creative work that celebrates the culture of his Palestinian home.
The multidisciplinary artist works as a professional photographer and freelance designer, but it's his artwork made from recyclable materials that's notable for both its beauty and its impact in making Gaza more green.

A few days each week, Sarhan makes the rounds in Gaza City to pick up materials from its factories. He collects aluminium, wood scraps, steel and other waste that is otherwise left to the landfill. There are few recycling facilities in Gaza, he explained in a recent interview, so cleaning up the trash makes a real difference. Sarhan doesn't stop there, though, because those materials become his next artistic work.
Image: Twitter
In one memorable project, Sarhan helped to lead a team that built a 14-meter-high lighthouse at the entrance to Gaza's port. Although a working lighthouse – with beams visible to three kilometers on the Mediterranean Sea – the structure was designed as public art. Sarhan's team built the lighthouse entirely of recycled scrap materials, collecting debris left in the aftermath of Israel's 2014 attacks on Gaza, and they forged a new future for the salvaged materials. The cornerstone was retrieved from the rubble of the al-Nada towers; the iron cooking pots came from the bombed Shajaiya neighborhood.

The iron tower at the center of the lighthouse washed up on the Gaza shore five years ago, and is part of a railway believed to have been built in the late 1800s. Covered in colorful tiles, the lighthouse is among the most visible works of an artist collective that's passionate about creating new life for Gaza residents.
Image: Artsy
Sarhan is a leader among them, but laments the difficulty that Palestinian artists have in getting the paints, brushes and other tools they need. When necessary, they've become resourceful about how to make their art with cardboard, metal meshes, fabrics from old clothing. Sarhan will turn to an aluminium hand drill, for example, in order to fashion recycled aluminium waste into oversized Arabic letters.

The colorful letters can be used as wall hangings that honor the Palestinians' language and culture, or outside as public art or signage with a bit of pinache. A 2015 exhibit in Ramallah displayed the letters so that visitors interacted with the words and messages juxtaposed with 27 paintings of streetscapes and other backgrounds; their power draws on the ornate, centuries-old tradition of Arabic calligraphy.
Images: Utne Reader and Artsy
Sarhan's work is overtly political, in that it calls attention to the reality of the Palestinian people without airbrushing the scars, but it does so in a positive framework. The process of collecting aluminium scraps, kitchen utensils and broken toys in itself is emblematic of an artistic philosophy that is frank about the brokenness of Gaza around him, while at once remaining hopeful about the new creation that emerges.

The artist also is generous to the community around him, supporting other artists and encouraging their work. On one project, his photographs were used by the United Nations Development Fund for a 177-page report that looked at gender equality in Gaza and recommendations for humanitarian response. That passion to improve the lives of Palestinians is behind his work, and the reason for the recycled materials that he chooses.