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Palestinian-Kuwaiti artist traces struggle on digital canvas

Between sharing accounts of the atrocities committed by the Zionist occupation in Gaza and staying on top of news coming from the besieged territory, Heba Haji has been glued to her screen since October 7. The Palestinian-Kuwaiti artist and designer who usually expresses her emotions through art has been too frustrated to put her paint brush and pencil to use.

“Whenever I start doing something I either end up being so angry to the point where I ruined what I’m making. Or I ended up crying so much because I can literally see the children’s faces or hear their mother crying,” she said.

Haji first got interested in art as a way to connect with her Kuwaiti paternal grandmother, who didn’t know how to write and read but bonded with her granddaughter through pencil drawings. “I vividly remember being so little sitting beside my grandma, and she patiently taught me how to draw a palm tree,” she said.

Over the years, she found herself turning to her sketchbook as she explored her Palestinian-Kuwaiti identity. Through it all, her art has always been influenced by her Palestinian ancestry – the symbols, the themes and the emotions she portrays. Palestine is still always on Haji’s mind, even when she advocates for other issues close to her heart.

“If you look at colonialism, the greatest example of this right now is Palestine. If you’re talking about Western military imperialism, the biggest example of it is Palestine. If you look at racism and discrimination, the clearest example is, you know, Palestine. Whenever you’re tackling social issues, Palestine always pops up and I feel like in my art, it almost always pops up,” she said.

No stranger to pain

Women are central to Haji’s art, a quick look at her Instagram accounts @fathomtheroad and @sittisloudartist clearly shows. She says it’s in part because she’s a woman herself, but also because women’s struggle is more prominent. “Because it’s their fathers, their brothers, their children, that are going through all of this as well as them. ... The pain that women feel is so much louder and easier to connect to,” she said.

Haji describes her multimedia art as “defiant”. “When you look at the images, it almost stares right back at you. ... You could tell that this person to become strong, had to go through grief, had to go through pain.”

Like the women portrayed in her multimedia art, Haji is no stranger to pain — she carries the weight of Palestinian grief stemming from 75 years of occupation and the intergenerational trauma of having her Palestinian maternal grandparents, both from the suburbs of Akka, forcibly displaced from their homes during the nakba in 1948. Her grandmother, who passed away recently, was too shocked by the ordeal that she never spoke of it. But she managed to interview her grandfather who through the pain, was able to tell her a lot of what he remembered.

“Parents hid their children in caves beside the village because they were too young to run. And in the morning, the parents would go back to the village, leaving the children without guarantees that they would be back,” said Haji.

The families eventually took their children and fled from village to village, chased by Zionist tanks, until they reached Lebanon. That’s where her grandparents grew up, met and got married before coming to Kuwait in the 50s.

Haji’s grandparents remain a source of strength and inspiration. Her Instagram account @sittisloudartist is a tribute to her late maternal grandmother’s life, who pushed her towards her passion for art. She donates most of the money she makes through selling art pieces and offering classes in her grandmother’s honor.

Don’t turn a blind eye

Palestinian love for life and resilience also show through the colors and facial expressions Haji gives people in her drawings. Their solidarity with those who face injustices is another important influence in her work. “We can’t watch somebody struggle, and not speak about it, because we’re people who have struggled for so long,” she said.

When the Sudanese revolution broke out in 2018, Haji says she was among the first artists to create digital art in support of the Sudanese people’s fight for freedom. “That’s when I feel like I really understood that my artwork doesn’t have to be just for me to express how I feel. But it also could help other people. It became a way for us all to connect using art. (This) made up a big part of my artistic identity.”

Now that Haji’s artwork on Palestine is also gaining traction on social media, she says she feels conflicted. “I’m very grateful that people are listening right now. But I’m also very angry that they should have been here from day one. People could have woken up a long time ago,” she said. “It’s frustrating. 75 years later, we’re still hearing the same excuses. We’re still listening to the same blank both-sides statements when historically, it’s quite obvious who the oppressor and who the oppressed is.”

Haji pleaded that people would not turn a blind eye to Palestine anymore. “I want the world to understand that they’re supposed to feel this anger. They’re supposed to feel this pain. They’re supposed to bear witness to all this that’s happening whether it’s Palestinian genocide, or whether it’s the Sudan genocide, or whether it’s the Congo genocide,” she said.

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