/ 19 January 2024

Don’t look away: Local artists on the war in Gaza

Richardt Strydom In Memory Of The +112 Journalists Killed In Gaza Since October 2023 2 (1)
Snapping point: Visual artist Richardt Strydom prompted AI to create an image in reaction to the war in Gaza

It was an exclusive report for The Times by its South African-born special correspondent George Steer of the horrific bombing of Guernica, a town in Spain’s Basque region, on 26 April 1937 that inspired Pablo Picasso to create one of his most famous works. 

The article uncovered that Nazi Germany was secretly supporting the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Steer’s eye-witness account told of how the air attack on market day killed 1 600 civilians, with “the whole town of 7 000 inhabitants, plus 3 000 refugees, slowly and systematically pounded to the ground”.

Steer observed: “In the form of its execution and the scale of the destruction it wrought, no less than in the selection of its objective, the raid on Guernica is unparalleled in military history. Guernica was not a military objective.”

After reading Steer’s report, Picasso responded with Guernica — a 3.49m by 7.76m oil painting — which took just 35 days to complete. 

Guernica represents Picasso’s outrage over the senseless violence caused by the bombing; it has become an international symbol of wartime genocide and an exemplar of anti-war art,” according to The Artchive.

Nearly a century after Picasso’s statement, artists continue to respond to the depravity of war. With Israel’s war on Gaza being broadcast in real time, artists’ responses come faster now and are often instantaneously displayed on social media.

Among them are several South Africans who have expressed their outrage over what many term Israel’s genocide of Palestinians. Their “Guernicas” are photos, posters, graffiti, murals, paintings, T-shirts and other media. Their “George Steers” are Gazans, formal and citizen journalists who keep reporting despite Israel’s bloody onslaught.

One of them is Bisan Owda (@wizard_bisan1), who describes herself as a “filmmaker, traveller and dreamer”. She uploads reels and photographs from Gaza on Instagram, where she has 3.8 million followers.

On 11 December Bisan posted a photo of a mouldy orange with the caption: “65 days of genocide, this was my breakfast today. Finding citrus fruits has become almost impossible in this bombing, so if I find any type of food, even if it contains mold, I cut off the moldy part and eat it. I know it is not good for health, but what is the value of health in everything we face?”

Cape Town-based artist, Aquilah Sheik Ismail made a painting based on that photo and called it Bisan’s Orange. It was sold on the annual Artists 4 Equity Instagram auction, where South African artists submitted works for free. The R206 000 raised from the sale, which ended on Christmas Day, was donated to aid organisations supporting Palestinians, such as Gift of the Givers.

Here are five South African artists who are responding online to Israel’s war on the Palestinians.

Annemi Conradie-Chetty was born in 1982 and in her teaching, research and art, has often focused on the afterlives of archival, colonial images in contemporary art, design and media. She mostly uses discarded materials and sewing in her projects. 

Image 1 Medical Workers In Progress (1)
Annemi Conradie-Chetty embroiders flowers onto a keffiyeh — one for every death in Gaza

What work have you been producing in reaction to the war in Gaza? 

Since late October, I’ve been sewing flowers in the colours of the Palestinian flag onto a keffiyeh. 

Each flower represents one person killed in Gaza by the Israeli army, with parts of the keffiyeh dedicated to children, medical personnel, UN workers, journalists or artists. Green flowers represent children, red for adults and black for bombed heritage sites.

There are also smaller dedications to specific deaths: the killing of poet Refaat Alareer, individual premature babies and assassinated journalists. 

What I did not anticipate when starting this was having to return to certain sections to add flowers as more people are being killed. And I realise now the one keffiyeh will never be big enough to mark every death. 

The process is slow but that is the point. Combing through news and documentation of individual deaths is heart-wrenching but that is also the point — to not look away. 

Why are you doing it? 

Following the killing and kidnapping of civilians and soldiers in Israel by Hamas on 7 October, and the brutal retaliation by Israel, much of the Western world was quick to show empathy to only one side. The propaganda machine that has vilified Arabic and Muslim populations for centuries was put into overdrive to justify the destruction of Palestinian lives, homes and heritage. 

In mainstream media, the victims of the Hamas attack were rightfully named and mourned but not the Palestinians killed and kidnapped by Israel. The embroidery was born from frustration, grief and feeling powerless in the face of these atrocities. I was looking for a way, however small, to mourn and to witness lives and stories that were not considered equally precious. 

What has the response been?

Apart from the “like”, “heart” and “tearful” emojis, and sharing of my  posts, I have received messages from individuals who expressed appreciation for the act of witnessing and memorialising individual lives and deaths. 

Sharing the work on social media has also meant connecting with an international community of artists, which builds solidarity and opportunities for contributing to other activist initiatives. 

Why do you believe it is important for you as a South African artist to be making this art?

I think it is important for artists every­where to use their work, skills and platforms to witness, record, inform, to speak against discriminatory dominant narratives. Art offers me a way of speaking to those in my community who share and oppose my views and, through social media, to and with people I’ve never met.

Can art make a difference?

It can, absolutely. Artists have the tools and power to create, participate and fortify communities who are connected by the insistence on dignity and liberty for all beings. 

There are many South African creatives who are freely giving their artworks, time and skills to raise money, advocate, boycott, communicate crucial information and who are, importantly, documenting the ongoing genocide and the Palestinian struggle for liberation. 

Parusha Naidoo is an artist who lives in Cape Town. She paints on canvas, creates digital illustrations and, since last month, started painting murals.

What work have you been producing in reaction to the war in Gaza?

I’ve been producing paintings, protest posters (which are available for anyone to print free for protests), murals, phone screensavers and Instagram content capturing the art-making process in support of Palestine.

Why are you doing it? 

To be honest, I was avoiding the political most of my life … but I guess it’s in my blood, my DNA — I am the child and grandchild of freedom fighters. I experienced the effects of apartheid on my family, on my country, on our collective psyche. 

My grandfather was in jail for treason, his brother was in jail on Robben Island and in exile. My other grandfather wrote plays about forced removals of apartheid and the absurdity of the regime. My one grandmother made protest art.

Growing up, my parents were running from the police, at times in hiding, we had our homes raided, our phones tapped. Many family members were in the MK, my uncle was murdered by the Special Branch, we had family in exile, my friends’ parents and parents’ friends were assassinated, tortured, assaulted, imprisoned, terrorised.

In the period before apartheid, my ancestors were indentured labourers from India who’d been oppressed in their own country by the British, then coerced, captured and kidnapped by them to work on the sugar plantations of South Africa under a repackaged slavery. 

It was inevitable that I’d be drawn to protest art. It is giving me a sense of greater purpose and perhaps healing. Since October, I feel like there’s nothing else that is as important. I woke up. Feel like I was sleeping before. And the whole world was sleeping too. 

Madiba Quote Freedom
Cape Town artist Parusha Naidoo made a poster

What has the response been? 

People have said the art gives them hope and brings light in these dark times. I started making a few illustrations for my own sanity. Those images resonated with people and they were able to use them to express how they felt. 

My digital illustrations have been shared by people all over the world. The illustrations later became posters that people printed out and used in protests from Durban to London, Paris, Singapore, Dubai, Brussels, Berlin and Cape Town.

As a result of the art, I’ve received messages from people from Palestine and Sudan who have said they appreciate the support in the art I’ve created. 

Why do you believe it is important for you as a South African artist to be making this art?

For the same reason the legal team is fighting for a free Palestine and South Africa as a collective is anti-apartheid and anti-genocide. I think it’s important to use the tools. I must help in dismantling the injustices in Palestine and the world, even if all that art does is spiritually fortify us or help the oppressed feel seen and supported to carry on the struggle for freedom.

Can art make a difference? 

I don’t know. But without art, what would the world look like? And why are art and books banned? Art is carrying messages around the world. And it scares people in power. The painting of Palestinian flags is now seen as dangerous.

Aquilah Sheik Ismail is a psychology student. She is not a formally trained artist but has been making art in her own capacity.

What work have you been producing in reaction to the war in Gaza?

I’ve recently been painting for the Artists 4 Equity auction in aid of Palestine. This included a series of three paintings, all focused on Palestine. 

The first piece was Pomegranate in Palestine, painted from the image of a pomegranate photographed in Palestine by journalist Yousef Qutob in 2019, which I had found in an online Palestinian archive. 

The second piece, (make it white with a long tail), was in response to the murder of professor, writer and activist Refaat Alareer, drawing on his poem If I Must Die.

The final painting, and perhaps the most popular, is called Bisan’s Orange. The painting depicts the breakfast of journalist Bisan Owda on 11 December 2023 which was a mouldy orange, due to food shortages as food and water are being withheld from Palestinian citizens during the unrelenting attacks on Gaza.

Why are you doing it?

I was looking at how I can contribute to make the plight of the Palestinian people known. My contribution as an individual may be small and unnoticed but, as part of a group, the collective contribution has an impact.

What has the response been?

This was the first time I participated in an auction and all my pieces have been sold. Bisan’s Orange hit home for many people, some getting choked up at the realisation of knowing that a real person who they see and hear on social media had gratefully eaten the mouldy fruit as hunger has been weaponised in this war on all Palestinians in Gaza.   

Why do you believe it is important for you as a South African artist to be making this art?

As a daughter to parents, family and the community who have fought against apartheid, I must use my voice. I have been given an opportunity to speak through my work. 

Being born after 1994 I was fortunate enough not to be subjected to the oppression and injustice of apartheid but, until now, my parents’ experiences have always been more abstract to me. There is nothing abstract now as we watch the Palestinians being genocided for more than 100 days (and 75 years). 

As South Africans, we cannot allow such injustices to continue and acknowledge the impact of the support of many nations around the world in the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.

Can art make a difference?

Definitely. Art conveys and translates otherwise abstract emotions and experiences. Art is a means of “documenting” events, recording our history. 

Viewing art not only allows us to see the thoughts and emotions of the artist but it expands the mind and opens the heart of the viewer. It increases our understanding of, and empathy and tolerance for, those who are different than ourselves.

Leila Khan is based in Johannesburg and works as a popular educator. In her spare time, she practises and teaches printmaking through a small platform she created last year called Kanaladorp Press (Instagram: @kanaladorp.press). Kanaladorp is an early name for District Six, where her mother grew up, in Cape Town. 

The name is thought to refer to the Malay word “kanala”, meaning “please”, and the practice of community members helping each other. 

Khan is interested in forms of printmaking which are considered “democratic”, such as linocut and screen printing, for their accessibility and the ways they can be used to support organisations and movements. 

She  has been printmaking for around seven years and has tried as much as possible to create work for and with progressive working-class organisations during this time. 

What work have you been producing in reaction to the war in Gaza?

I have produced posters which incorporate slogans, demands and popular symbols of resistance in support of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. These designs are freely available for download and use. 

Working with other artists and comrades, I have also made use of street art techniques and tools, such as wheat pasting, spray painting and graffiti rollers, to contribute to the broader effort of raising awareness about the genocide in Gaza and the campaign to boycott Israel. 

Leila Khaled Kdp 2023 Page 0001 (1)
A poster by Leila Khan

Why are you doing it?

I have been involved in Palestine solidarity organising and campaigning since 2013, most significantly through the Palestine Solidarity Forum during my time at the University of Cape Town. 

The issue of Palestine is important, not only because of the long history of solidarity between Palestinians and liberation movements all over the world, but also because it lays bare the violence of colonialism, capitalism and Western imperialism.

Art has a critical role to play in illustrating this, in countering misinformation, and in mobilising people to support the Palestinian struggle for freedom. Many artists, including myself, have been able to use art to fundraise for organisations such as Gift of the Givers, to support relief efforts on the ground in Gaza.   

What has the response been? 

There has been overwhelming support and demand for this kind of art in this moment. This is clear in that Kanaladorp Press was able to raise just under R40 000 for Gift of the Givers in the space of a week from the sale of linocut prints. 

In addition, the freely downloadable designs have been reproduced around the world by individuals and organisations on T-shirts, banners, stickers and as placards at protests.

Why do you believe it is important for you as a South African art collective to be making this art? 

Working in collaboration with other artists and activists ensures the political messages contained in an artwork are collectively determined and understood and that printmaking skills are shared widely so people are empowered to create their own media in support of their organisations and communities. 

Can art make a difference?

Art is an important organising tool that can be used to build strong movements. The cultural interventions within this moment of unprecedented global solidarity with Palestine have illustrated that artists have a critical role to play in shifting narratives, documenting people’s histories and inspiring action towards liberation. 

Richardt Strydom has been a contemporary artist since 1994. In his artmaking, he explores themes of identity, agency, body politics and the abject, often drawing on his personal archive of childhood memories. His art is concept-driven, so he works in several mediums, including photography, ceramics, painting, and most recently AI-imaging — whatever suits the idea best. 

What work have you been producing in reaction to the war in Gaza?

I’ve been responding to events reported in the news. Balancing mainstream Western media reports with counter-narratives, first-hand witness reports and footage on X. 

There are so many complex entanglements and repercussions stemming from this conflict, it’s impossible to restrict to a singular response. I see what I’m doing as bearing witness and I hope I can create visual memorials for the victims of this horrible violence. 

I must concede, it’s a conundrum, on the one hand having the agency to respond to the violence perpetrated against another who has been deprived of their own agency, and on the other hand, there is the option to stand by as a silent witness. 

Silence in the face of the violent atrocity of this conflict is not an option and art is the only language I have when I don’t have words. 

What has the response been?

I hope these images can make people think about what is going on and provide an entry point to engaging with the magnitude of this event, which might still stand as a test for our humanity in the 21st century. 

I’ve had quite a few responses —  mostly direct messages. Some simply said “thank you” and others have expressed how they have been at a loss to articulate their own responses and the images made them react emotionally. 

Why do you believe it is important for you as a South African artist to be making this art?

For the same reason it was important for South Africa to bring this case in front of the International Court of Justice. 

As a nation, we are still grappling with the violent legacy of systemic oppression daily. Collectively, we’ve seen both sides of apartheid and we can bear witness to its inhumanity. 

But we are also in constant conversation with post-coloniality and decoloniality which brings a unique and invaluable contribution to discourse in the 21st century. Western hegemony has had its day.  

Can art make a difference?

I believe images, not just artistic expression or interventions, have a unique ability to spark something inside us. It can make you stop and think or it can touch your emotions in unexpected ways. It can make you see this from a different and unexpected perspective.