The first time I painted, I felt that art is my sanctuary—it’s like my shelter. —Malak Mattar
Malak Mattar, age 19, is an artist of startling originality from the Gaza Strip who paints powerfully expressionist faces, figures, and semi-abstract designs. She first started painting at age 13, during the 51-day Israeli military assault on Gaza in 2014. Forced to stay inside for her own safety, she felt a compelling need to release all of her negative energy—fear, anxiety, and sheer terror. She started painting with art supplies from a government school, basic watercolors on paper. This opened up a world of self-expression for her. In the first two years, Mattar produced over 200 paintings.
Unable to leave Gaza due to restrictions of the Israeli occupation, Mattar showed her paintings to the world via social media, on Instagram and Facebook. On her fourteenth birthday, she began offering her paintings for sale in local exhibits. She also began selling and mailing paintings to buyers around the world. Within two years, she became financially independent. Mattar’s artwork quickly began to garner interest from galleries beyond Palestine; her first international exhibition was in Bristol, UK, in 2017. Since then, her artwork has been featured in individual and group exhibitions in Jerusalem, France, Spain, Costa Rica, India, and in the Art Under Siege exhibit held in the Rayburn House Office Building, US House of Representatives, Washington, DC.
While developing her artistic talent, Malak Mattar has also excelled academically, achieving the highest grade point average in the Gaza Strip in 2017, her senior year of high school, and the second-highest grade point average in all of Palestine that same year.
One of Mattar’s paintings features a woman with an ocean-blue face and a meditative expression, her profile emerging, like the dark side of the moon, from an orange planet. The whorls of her curly hair encircle the planet, with some curls breaking free to float infinitely in space. "It's my favorite painting. She is a woman who has no limits,” Mattar says. The motifs of her paintings range from visceral feelings to dream visions to abstract concepts—one painting is called “Fear,” another “Nightmare,” another “The Flutter of Hope”—to portraits of Ahed Tamimi, Frida Kahlo, and other well-known figures, to interpretive renditions of her grandmother’s house and the experiences of Syrian children in war. While Mattar acknowledges Pablo Picasso as one of her influences, there is no doubt that her artistic vision is her own and deeply internalized. Her art resists direct representation: “I do not draw what I see, but my vision, my thoughts," says Mattar.
Malak Mattar now paints in acrylics on canvas, and lives in Istanbul, Turkey, where she is looking forward to attending Istanbul Aydin University on full scholarship in fall 2018.