Laila Kassab is an artist, born in 1985 in Rafah. She was raised in Rafah refugee camp and attended schools run by UNRWA. She has a degree in psychology from Al Aqsa University in Gaza. Her art work has been part of exhibitions in the UK, America and Paris.

How did you become an artist?

I started to draw at the age of eight using pieces of charcoal. I used to really enjoy drawing on walls my favourite cartoon characters. My father who was also an artist noticed that I had a talent and did his best to encourage and support me. I was also helped by my art teachers at school who guided me and helped me to improve my technique.

I was the first girl to draw murals on walls in Gaza. At the time passers-by found this strange as they had only seen boys taking part in such activities.

At university I would have loved to study art but there were two obstacles in my way. First it was difficult for me to reach the fine Arts institute of Gaza from where I lived, it was the early 2000’s and there were still Israeli checkpoints inside Gaza which were difficult to cross. Secondly the materials I needed to buy were far too costly.

So I studied psychology instead and after I graduated I worked as a social worker for four years. During this time, I was unhappy and became depressed because it was not what I wanted to do with my life. I had to go back to art and I quit my job. I received much criticism for my decision. In a place like Gaza where the unemployment rate is so high, people thought I was very lucky and they couldn’t understand why I would choose to be out of work.

I joined the Gaza Art society . I met more artists and they helped me to learn to draw on glass, to learn pottery and to paint in oils.

I started to use pencil colours instead of oil based paints as in was less costly but I continued using them because I felt it was the best way to convey my art.

In 2011 my art work was exhibited at the town hall. Members of ‘Islington friends of Yibna’ who were visiting Gaza saw my work and asked the organisers for an introduction. I was very fortunate as they offered me assistance with obtaining art materials and it was the first time my work had received recognition from people who came from outside of Gaza.

In 2013 my work was smuggled out of Gaza to the UK where it was part of an exhibition titled ‘Who can sleep in Gaza’. I was overjoyed, this was the first time I was able to take part in an art exhibition outside Gaza.

My greatest achievement yet has been winning an art competition sponsored by Outside In and Pallant House Gallery. Artists were invited to submit proposals of work responding to the work of Scottish artist Scottie Wilson. I was chosen along with one other artist and awarded £4,000 to create my commission. My work is on display until the 29th of July at Pallant house Gallery in the ‘Coliding Worlds’ exhibition.

What are the difficulties you encounter as an artist in Gaza?

Gaza is a very difficult place to be an artist because of the harsh political realities. For the last 10 years we have had to endure an illegal blockade enforced by Israel as well as the violence of two wars during which thousands of Gazans lost their lives. Not surprisingly few people take an interest in art and there are very few work opportunities for artists.

I have four young children (my youngest is just 2 months old) and it’s challenging to find the time for my art. Usually I wait till they’re asleep at night. I like to work at night when it is calm and quiet, the problem is we frequently have power cuts and when that happens I have to stop.

One thing I desire more than anything is to be able to attend an exhibition outside Gaza where my work is displayed. A few individuals have very generously donated more than enough money to cover my travel costs but to get a visa anywhere, to reach an airport I would need Israeli permission to leave Gaza. I hope someone reading my words could help fulfil my dream.

Interview by Nadia Aburdene 2018

Charity for Peace in the Middle East