Arts Center in Gaza Destroyed in Israeli Hospital Siege

Shababeek for Contemporary Art was the last established visual arts center still standing in the enclave

Destruction of the arts center
Shababeek for Contemporary Art was leveled during an Israeli military campaign in late March. Shababeek for Contemporary Art

A renowned visual arts center in Gaza was destroyed by Israeli forces late last month during a two-week raid on a nearby hospital.

The center, Shababeek for Contemporary Art, contained more than 20,000 works. It suffered irreparable damage in late March as the Israel-Hamas war raged on, reports the Art Newspaper’s Sarvy Geranpayeh.

The attack was the Israeli military’s second siege of Al-Shifa Hospital, previously the largest health care provider in Gaza. Officials have long insisted that Hamas used the hospital as a command center—a claim that’s been the subject of extensive debate throughout the war. 

Shababeek for Contemporary Art was located next to the hospital. During the earlier siege in November, the center had suffered some damage to its third floor, but last month’s operation “leveled the entire building,” reports Hyperallergic’s Rhea Nayyar.

Crowd of people at the center
The arts center hosted workshops, exhibitions, seminars, children's programming and other events. Shababeek for Contemporary Art

For 15 years, Shababeek for Contemporary Art had been an important hub for artists in Gaza. (Shababeek means “windows” in Arabic.) In December, Israeli forces destroyed the only other established visual arts venue in the territory, called Eltiqa Group for Contemporary Art.

Shababeek was created in the early 2000s, when three artists—Shareef Sarhan, Basel El Maqosui and Majed Shala—began organizing events, and they formally launched the center in 2009 when they rented a house in Gaza City.

Running the arts center had its challenges. When Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a strict blockade on the territory’s borders, making it challenging to get basic necessities, let alone art supplies. Still, the center hosted seminars, exhibitions and workshops, per the Art Newspaper. It also offered arts-focused mental health programming to support children growing up amid the wars and blockades.

A group of people in the gallery
Hundreds of artists have worked with the arts center since it opened in 2009. Shababeek for Contemporary Art

In 2018, the center received funding from the Swedish government by way of the Al-Qattan Foundation, allowing it to expand its offerings. With the money, Shababeek launched Gaza’s first artist residency program, per the Art Newspaper. Over the years, the center has worked with more than 500 artists.

At the time of its destruction, the venue was full of sculptures, paintings and photographs. Among them were about 5,000 pieces created by co-founder Sarhan, representing 30 years of work.

“All my artwork, my archives, all my memories are in this place,” he tells the Art Newspaper. “My wife called it my second home, but actually it was my first home. Every day, from morning until night, I was there.”

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Sarhan and his family were in Istanbul when the conflict began. For the past six months, they’ve watched it from afar.

The Israel-Hamas war broke out when Hamas militants killed an estimated 1,200 people and captured 240 hostages during a surprise invasion of southern Israel on October 7. In response, Israel declared war on Hamas and launched an ongoing invasion of the Gaza Strip. The death toll in Gaza is now at more than 33,000.

“Sometimes when I see the photos, I can’t believe that I’ve lost everything—even the little brush that I’ve used for ten years,” Sarhan tells Hyperallergic through a translator. “I’ve been thinking all along that I want to return to Gaza as soon as possible, but after losing Shababeek, I’m not in a rush anymore.”

Paintings on a gallery wall
The center housed more than 20,000 works. Shababeek for Contemporary Art

Meanwhile, one of the other co-founders, El Maqosui, has been living in a tent in Rafah, the city in southern Gaza next to the Egyptian border. While there, Sarhan says, he’s been hosting art workshops for women and children, transforming his dwelling into “Little Shababeek” in the process.

“Shababeek is not just a place,” Sarhan tells the Art Newspaper. “It is an idea.”

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