Pablo Picasso once said, "All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up." Mhammed Qriqi', a14-year-old from Gaza City’s Shuja’iyah neighborhood, is determined to stay an artist—despite a culture and economic conditions that would defeat most ordinary people. And he already is compelling artists outside of Gaza to take notice.
Mhammed's extraordinary talent was first noticed when he was five years old by his brother. Malek, 24, recognized that his little brother's drawings were far more elaborate and skilled than those of other children his age, and that this extraordinary talent would require support and encouragement to develop.
Malek’s insistence on nurturing his brother’s talent came from the hurt of having his own artistic talents wither without support from those around him, including his own family. "Money is all they care about, to support the family," Mhammed agrees with a sad smile. His words reflect the harsh realities in Gaza. In a place where families can barely afford the basic costs of living, art becomes an extreme luxury, and talent for such a luxury is rarely something anyone can afford to nurture.
The Qriqi’ family didn’t have enough money to send Malek to university, so he started his own business–selling clothes in the Bastat, a traditional Gazan market.
Knowing his brother would give up, just like him, if no one encouraged him, Malek has gone to great lengths to ensure this will never happen. The money from his business not only helped him earn an undergraduate degree in medical records administration, but also gave him the resources to support Mhammed with art supplies, including brushes, charcoal pencils and paints. (Mhammed delights in experimenting with different materials to make his art, even using coffee to create a different effect.)
Malek cleaned the attic of their home and turned it into a studio for the young artist. Most importantly, he believed in his little brother; he stood firm against the doubters among his own family members and neighbors who tried to dissuade them with their endless challenges and discouragement.
When Mhammed talks about his brother, he is direct and unabashed: "He's everything to me." Mhammed understands well his brother's sacrifices for him; the biggest painting in his humble studio depicts the boy climbing a ladder, held and steadied by Malek. In return, Mhammed works hard. While his peers spend their time playing football, watching TV, visiting friends and going to summer camps, he draws. He spends seven hours a day drawing, with Mhammed giving up other childhood activitis so that he can create with "the big heads" as his brother puts it. He has no true friends his age. He doesn't complain, though; he says his friends are well-known artists in Palestine and elsewhere, and he finds that "cool.”
Just how much his art means to him, and yet just how much of a "kid" he still is, became apparent when I asked Mhammed two simple questions:
- What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you start a painting? "How I'm going to finish it."
- And what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you wake up in the morning? "The bathroom."
"A day doesn't pass without me drawing something," Mhammed said when asked what he does when he is not drawing. "I either draw or sleep….Oh, and I go swimming too."
When I inquired how he balances his studies with his passion for art, Mhammed quips: ""I draw more when I have exams. And I got a grade of 96 for the last semester.”
The trophies and certificates displayed in his proud older brother's room are evidence of the numerous contests Mhammed has participated in and obviously won. Gaza is usually the main theme of his paintings.
"I draw to empty my painful feelings. But I also draw imaginative natural scenes for my own pleasure. They give me feelings of peace and tranquility.”
One of his biggest challenges is the scarce electricity in Gaza. In the summer war of 2014, Israel bombed the main source of electricity for more than 1.5 million Gazans, which reduced the production of the power station to less than half of its capacity. With less than eight hours a day of electricity, Mhammed was forced to make do with the dim light of flashlights and USB bulbs (a “specialty” of Gaza, in which small bulbs are connected to each other to make a mini torch). He once began drawing a picture of the famous Palestinian singer Mhammed Assaf, and when the electricity shut off he refused to stop; instead, he re-did the picture three times until he got it right despite the dim light.
With a number of exhibits and awards to his credit, including a trip to Tunisia last year in which he met the country’s president, his persistence, sacrifices and hard work are focused now on what he hopes will be the biggest achievement of his young life. He plans to travel with an exhibit of his work around the world, starting in Gaza and ending in Europe. The paintings will be sold in an auction and much of the proceeds will be dedicated to social causes. The tour’s name: Free Bird, because, he says, "it reflects me.”
Due to the lack of artistic institutions in Gaza, Mhammed wants to study abroad if he can earn a scholarship. Nevertheless, he insists he wants to return to Gaza no matter what the world offers him. When asked why, he tilted his head and said with a smile, "Shu malha Gazza? Helwa!” [What's wrong with Gaza? It's beautiful."]