Fathi Ghaben, Renowned Painter and Arts Educator in Gaza, Has Died at 77

Fathi Ghaben, a renowned painter and a pillar of Palestine’s artistic community, died on February 25. premium77

Palestine’s Ministry of Culture said this week that Ghaben died after appeals from his family to Israeli authorities that would have allowed Ghaben to leave the Gaza Strip to seek medical aid.

In a statement, the Palestinian Ministry of Culture said that Ghaben was suffering from chronic chest and lung illness, and had been unable to find help in Gaza’s healthcare system, which has collapsed amid repeated Israeli airstrikes in the region.

In a video uploaded to Facebook on February 19 by a relative of Ghaben, the ailing artist makes a desperate appeal for aid, saying, “I am suffocating. I want to breathe, I want to breathe.” He repeats those words until he is overcome by violent coughing. premium77

Gaza’s health ministry reported on Thursday that the number of Palestinians killed since October 7 has exceeded 30,000. Among the dead are artist Heba Zagout and scholar and poet Refaat Alareer. ARTnews has contacted the IDF for comment on the death of Ghaben.

Ghaben was one of Palestine’s most prominent painters, having gained renown in the 1970s and ’80s for his exuberantly colored paintings that memorialized Palestinian resistance. He was also a fierce advocate for arts education in Palestine and was a founding member of the Association of Fine Artists and Artists in Gaza and established the Fathi Ghaben Center of Arts.

“Palestine was always present in all its details in Ghaben’s works,” Palestinian Minister of Culture Atef Abu Seif said. “He immortalized the life of the Palestinian village that the Nakba wanted to erase, remembering the village of Harbia, in which he was born.” 

“Ghaben’s departure constitutes a loss to Palestinian art,” a statement from the culture ministry noted.

He was born in 1947, one year before Israel forcibly expelled 750,000 Palestinians from the land they called home. That event is communally called the Nakba; its name translates to the Catastrophe. Ghaben’s family resettled in the Jabaliya camp in Gaza, where he lived for most of his life. Having left school at age 15, he supported his family by selling newspapers, all while teaching himself to paint with the supplies that he managed—often with great difficulty—to find.

He transitioned to painting full-time, transmuting the suffering of his neighbors and nation into symbolic, defiant portraits. In some, swelling crowds flood the street while horses, painted as large as the sky, rear and fight against their shackles.

“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 taught art at the Al Naser Islamic school for 13 years and expressed with frustration with how the struggle to meet basic needs impeded artistic ambitions in Palestine. “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 adviser in the Ministry of Culture, during which time he gifted the building multiple beloved murals. In 2015, the Palestinian government awarded him the Order of Culture, Science, and Arts on the Creativity Level, and later, he received the Medal of Sword of Canaan from Yasser Arafat and the Annual Media Freedom Awards Appreciation Award from the Palestinian Press House. His international accolades included the Order of Hiroshima and the Order of the World Federation of Societies of Tokyo.

Speaking to ARTnews, prominent Palestinian painter Samia Halaby recounted her decades-long friendship with Ghaben: “His best work and professionalism depended on the revolutionary optimism of the Intifada,” she said. “His best work had a combination of symbolist attitudes and Cubist form. Like all the artists of the First Intifada, Fathi was proud to have a cause and was loyal to it.”

Halaby continued: “My last visit with him was in a tent in Gaza, probably during the 2000s. I could see from the test that a sniper tower was nearby as he told me of the continuous sniping and the absence of any defense against it living in a tent. In that tent, he received me with traditional Arabic hospitality offering gracious welcome, coffee, his cigarette smoking, and conversation.”

Ghaben was arrested by Israeli authorities on several occasions, sometimes because of his art, which was deemed to be “inciting violence.” These events were described in the catalogue for a joint exhibition of Israeli and Palestinian artists held in 1984 in Tel Aviv titled “Israeli and Palestinian Artists Against Occupation.” That show was closed abruptly by the Israeli Military, and multiple paintings were confiscated.

During one such imprisonment, one of Ghaben’s sons, Hossam, succumbed to intestinal cancer after failing to receive medical treatment. Hossam died at the age of 18.

Recalling the realities of life in Gaza, Ghaben once said: “Being a sensitive artist soul, I believe the colors appropriate for our life in Jabalia and the individual perception of them are the warm, dark and earthly colors – 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 colors reflect glimpses of hope in this hell on earth.” premium77


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