A Gaza Artist Creates 100 Square Feet of Beauty, and She’s Not Budging / The New York Times

The artist Nidaa Badwan has hardly left her small room for more than a year, creating her own world of color and a striking set of self-portraits.
The Saturday Profile

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — Nidaa Badwan’s room is less than 100 square feet, lit by a single window and a bare bulb. She has slathered one wall with aquamarine paint and covered another in a patchwork of colored egg cartons. There is a medium-size mirror, an antique sewing machine and iron, two easels, a large yellow ladder and a gas canister on which she boils water to make a sweet cappuccino drink from a packet.

Alienated by Gaza’s restrictive religiosity and constant conflict with Israel, Ms. Badwan, 27, has hardly left the room for more than a year. Within its walls she has created her own world, and a striking set of self-portraits that are at once classical and cutting-edge.

“I wait for the light,” said Ms. Badwan, who sometimes takes a week or even a month to construct photographs that look like paintings. “Everything is beautiful, but only in my room, not in Gaza. I’m ready to die in this room unless I find a better place.

“You can say now there is another life for me,” she added. “I feel I’m not living here. The project made new windows for me.”

The project is called “100 Days of Solitude” in homage to Gabriel García Márquez’s landmark novel, though Ms. Badwan’s isolation has been much longer. Its 14 self-portraits, all about 40 by 22 inches, are on display at an East Jerusalem art gallery, whose director, Alia Rayyan, said they evoked the Dutch masters of the 16th and 17th centuries with modern splashes, made more meaningful against the unseen backdrop of chaos outside.

That may be a stretch, but the images are undeniably compelling. Here is Ms. Badwan lying on her tummy in jean overalls and a wool hat, bare ankles crossed, staring at a laptop. There she is on a tire swing hung from that yellow ladder, buttoning a man’s shirt with a look of defiant pride. Wiping tears as she peels an onion. Threading a needle to sew a quilt. Gulping from a tin cup. Tapping an old typewriter, meditating, applying lipstick.

“It’s very bleak and at the same time it’s very beautiful,” said Anthony Bruno, director of the French Institute in Gaza, which spent about $8,000 to produce the exhibit. “Most of the work of Gaza artists is usually very influenced by the conflict, by the occupation, by the siege, by the war, and sometimes it does it in a not-so-subtle-way. Here, if you dig deeper in the meaning of her works, it’s definitely there, but it tries to transcend that.”

Born in the United Arab Emirates to Palestinian parents, Ms. Badwan began painting at age 6 and moved to this town in the central Gaza Strip in the sixth grade. She studied interior design at Al Aqsa University in Gaza City and spent a year in Amman, Jordan, working with film and video.

After Israel’s three-week war with Hamas, the Islamist faction that dominates Gaza, in 2008 and 2009, Ms. Badwan hung a set of abstract red and blue paintingson a charred wall of the bombed-out Red Crescent Cultural Center. In 2012, she was among 40 artists in the show “This Is Also Gaza,” with photographs of a woman’s head covered by a black plastic bag that Samia Halaby, an art historian, said “express the anguish of life in Gaza.”

On Nov. 18, 2013, Ms. Badwan said, she was harassed by Hamas officers while helping with a youth arts program. They questioned why she was standing with men. They chastised her for wearing those jean overalls and made her sign a paper promising not to go outside without loosely fitting, traditional Islamic garb.

“I told them I’m an artist; they said, ‘What does this mean?’ ” she recalled. “I said, ‘I make films and videos.’ They said, ‘We don’t know what you are talking about, and what do you wear? Why do you look so different?’ They hit me.”

The next day, Ms. Badwan retreated to her room.

FOR the first two months, she said, she contemplated suicide, struggled to sip soup her sister brought, popped anxiety pills, slept on the floor and cried. Eventually, she picked up her camera, a Canon EOS 600D, and started following the light.

“Slowly, slowly, I started to love isolation,” she explained. “It’s not a disease. It healed me.”

After she uploaded a photograph to the website 500px.com, Ms. Badwan was buoyed by responses from Japan, Paris and New York. As part of her isolation, she had excised all but a few Gazans from her Facebook account. Alone in her room but connected to the Internet, she could forget where she was.

“I used to knock on many doors in Gaza to enter the world I want to live in, but there is no door,” she explained. “I love cinema; there is no cinema in Gaza. I paint; there are no galleries to show what I paint. A woman and an artist at the same time — this is a catastrophe.”

Interactive Feature | On the Ground in Israel and Gaza Two photographers capture scenes from the most recent outbreak of war.

Ms. Badwan speaks in poetry and moves, in rainbow-striped socks, like a dancer. When a truck rolled by outside blaring Hamas slogans, she made a sour face and yanked the window shut.

The room is simple — two wicker chairs and a worn table that serves as a tripod, rolled-up clothes on an old suitcase — but vibrant. There is a colorful rug, curtain and bedspread, a wall of 40 pencil portraits by her autistic brother, clay and carving tools, a skeleton of a horse’s head she found in the sea and painted.

“Everything that is not art, I try to transform it into art,” she said.

DURING last summer’s 50-day battle between Hamas and Israel, Ms. Badwan stayed home when her parents and neighbors fled the shelling, taking shelter in the stairwell. She said she made only one artwork: a photo of herself in short sleeves against the aquamarine wall, sexily looking off to the side as she pours what looks like blood over her head as part of a Palestinian-solidarity riff on the “ice bucket challenge.”

These days, Ms. Badwan sometimes sits with her father in the living room and eats with the family rather than in isolation. But she said she had left the house only twice in 15 months: on Jan. 22, to view the opening of her exhibit via Skype at a Gaza City hotel, and two days later to see a doctor. “I ordered a taxi and the car was black, the windows were closed, nobody could see me,” she said. “I closed my eyes. I put on headphones — ‘What a Wonderful World.’ My head was down. I didn’t want to break my isolation. I didn’t want to see Gaza.”

The exhibit, at Al Hoash Gallery in Jerusalem until March 5, next heads to the West Bank cities of Nablus, Ramallah, Hebron and Bethlehem, with hopes for Paris and Berlin. “The big question is, are we going to do it in Gaza?” said Mr. Bruno of the French Institute. Ms. Rayyan, director of Al Hoash, said that Gaza might be invisible in Ms. Badwan’s work, but is still present.

“She is talking about her own creation of the space, a dream actually, how life could be there, but this only works in combination with what happens outside,” Ms. Rayyan said. “It is this dialogue, the contradiction between her image and the image we have of Gaza in our heads, which makes it very interesting.”

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