Born in tent, died in tent: In memory of Palestinian artist Fathi Ghaben

Fathi Ghaben. (Photo/Motaz Alaaraj)

Iconic Palestinian artist Fathi Ghaben – who documented the Palestinian resistance with bold, colourful strokes – passed away at the age of 77 in Gaza after Israeli authorities denied him permission to leave the besieged enclave for medical treatment he urgently required.

Ghaben was reported to be suffering from chest and lung problems, and the smoke and dust-filled air in the ravaged enclave led to the swift deterioration of his health condition.

That his death came amid the brutal war on Gaza since October 7, 2023, makes him yet another victim in Israel’s genocidal military campaign against Palestinians.

But Ghaben’s body of work will ensure that he will continue to inspire the resistance long after his death.

Ghaben's artwork, created amid the challenging conditions of occupation and scarce resources, portrays the everyday resistance of his people, adorning walls throughout the occupied lands of Palestine.

"My paintings are not filled with smiles; they are not loud, flashy or without a deep thought. I draw the national Palestinian issues and the reality of the Palestinian struggle," the artist once said.

He lived his life in a tent and died in a tent, the Palestinian Minister of Culture Atef Abu Saif said in a poignant tribute to the artist.

Yet, his artistic presence transcended tents and even borders.

The artist received the Medal of Sword of Canaan from the former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. (Photo/X)

Who was Fathi Ghaben

Born in Gaza's northeast Harbia village in 1947, when the Nakba was around the corner, Ghaben and his family experienced displacement numerous times due to Israeli occupation.

His family was among the 750,000 Palestinians forcibly expelled, finding themselves in Gaza. Ghaben spent most of his life at the Jabalia refugee camp.

Fathi left primary school at 15 and sold newspapers to support his family. Even from a young age, he used his artistic talents to earn a living, crafting small stories for children.

Recalling his life before the 1967 war – which brought the Israeli occupation - he described it as "very poor but harmonious and dignified".

Amid two Intifadas, he was initially compelled to work in Israel to support his family and eventually transitioned to full-time painting as his talent started to blossom.

Though he created commercial artwork to sustain his impoverished family, he believed art should not be a money-making proposition.

After he managed to purchase a home in the Jabalia refugee camp, his paintings increasingly reflected the pain and suffering of his nation, he recalled.

Ghaben held ten solo exhibitions. (Photo/@PalAcievements/X)

The artist worked at the Al Naser Islamic school for 13 years and gave private art lessons to students. He faced difficulty purchasing paints and tools due to poverty and minimal resources under siege.

In an interview, he expressed frustration, stating that life's necessities have overshadowed his artistic ambitions. "I cannot afford paint and tools, so I cannot fully engage in my art, and the children need food on the table daily—it's a big dilemma," he said.

Ghaben also served as an advisor in the Ministry of Culture. In 2015, the Palestinian state awarded him the Order of Culture, Science, and Arts on the Creativity Level, and he received numerous international honours, including the Order of Hiroshima and the Order of the World Federation of Societies of Tokyo.

He held ten solo exhibitions and received accolades, such as the Medal of Sword of Canaan from Yasser Arafat and the Annual Media Freedom Awards Appreciation Award from the Palestinian Press House.

He was a founding member of the Association of Fine Artists and Artists in Gaza and established the Fathi Ghaben Center of Arts to nurture young talent in the region.

The artist showcased the rich cultural heritage of the Palestinian people in his paintings. (Photo/@PalAcievements/X)

Reflecting on his tumultuous past in a 2008 interview, Ghaben expressed a “strange” pride in surviving the hardships of 1947.

“I am strangely very proud that I was alive during the hell of 1947 and forced to leave our lands with my family – among tens of thousands of other Palestinian families … We left in haste; we were not able to take our belongings with us, everyone had only one thing in mind, to escape the horror,” he said.

When one of his sons, Hossam, had intestinal cancer, Ghaben was detained in an Israeli prison. Hossam did not receive treatment and died at the age of 18.

“I keep asking myself if my children will live under continued occupation, or will it ever end? How long will they suffer? We are all still trapped here inside Gaza,” he said upon this loss.

During the 1987 uprising, the artist witnessed the harsh treatment of residents by Israeli occupants at the Jabalia camp, including numerous arrests and torture. Despite all he had been through, he recalled his life in the camp as intact in the unity between the residents.

"Being a sensitive artist soul, I believe the colours appropriate for our life in Jabalia and the individual perception of them are the warm, dark and earthly colours – with a grasp of hope, maybe half of that dark brown, dark blue, but with orange, yellow and a mixture of white and yellow, these light colours reflect glimpses of hope in this hell on earth," he said.

Throughout his lifetime, the artist was arrested several times, sometimes because his resistant art was deemed to be “inciting violence” by Israeli authorities, often without any evidence. His arrest during the second intifada sparked demonstrations by Palestinian and Israeli activists, demanding respect for freedom of expression in art.

Despite his reputation transcending Gaza, his larger paintings couldn't be displayed at exhibitions due to the Israeli siege on the coastal enclave.

Press House-Palestine (BAS) gave an appreciation award to Fathi Ghaben in 2023. (Photo/BAS)

As his health condition deteriorated, Ghaben's request to go abroad for treatment was denied by Israeli authorities. Amid a severe shortage of medicines and oxygen, he stood no chance and passed away on February 25, four months into the Israeli offensive, which has killed almost 30,000 civilians.

The death departure of the artist, who dedicated himself to teaching Palestinian youth both the resistance of art and the art of resistance, was "a loss to Palestinian art," the Palestinian Ministry of Culture stated.

The months-long Israeli air strikes have profoundly affected the cultural landscape of Gaza, leading to the loss of numerous talented individuals across various artistic disciplines. Moreover, destroying cultural hubs such as centres, museums, and libraries has intensified cultural devastation.

The exact number of artists killed remains unknown, highlighting the extent of the tragedy endured by the artistic community.

Today, Fathi Ghaben's words resonate as a representative voice for all Palestinian artists who have endured the heavy tolls of occupation and used their art as an active resistance force.

"I never created artwork to make PR for myself. I consider myself a bright light, a burning candle, regarding the struggle of the Palestinian people. I yearn to express myself through my art and I want the viewer to know that my paintings reflect my soul, a mental, social and deep national ocean of passion and compassion. My paintings are not filled with smiles; they are not loud, flashy or without a deep thought. I draw the national Palestinian issues and the reality of the Palestinian struggle."


Source: TRT