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Women aren’t just victims, IV: From Gaza to the World Stage — Nidaa Badwan’s Freedom-forging Odyssey

nidaa badwan100 Days of Solitude: Nidaa Badwan in her room transformed into studio in 2015. Photo by and courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

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When we last checked in on Palestinian artist and photographer Nidaa Badwan in 2015, she’d just created the photography project 100 Days of Solitude, in which she’d transformed her nine-square meter room in Gaza into a pin-hole camera with a kaleidoscopic view, the 28-year-old’s response to Hamas’s releasing her from jail after eight days only after she signed a statement agreeing to only go outside with her body fully covered and accompanied by her father or brother — using imagination to spark creation and sequestration to produce liberation. (Badwan remained in this self-imposed quarantine from late 2013 through early 2015.) “This space,” she told the television station France 24 at the time, “gave me the freedom that I couldn’t find outside — a freedom from the dullness and ugliness of Gaza, from the Israeli siege, from the impositions of the men of Hamas.” If this inventively courageous response was not a complete surprise — Badwan even refused to leave her home during the 2014 Israeli bombing of Gaza — the happy ending that followed was.

Nidaa rooster smallDescribing the impetus behind what she considers her most important photograph, part of the series 100 Days of Solitude, Badwan explains: “In Arabic symbolism, the rooster represents the man. It’s a masculine energy that wants to silence me. I have an Oud with me, a Middle-Eastern instrument. With my gesture, I invite the rooster to shut up and let me be free to express myself and my art.” Photo by and courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

If Israel had refused to authorize her to leave Gaza to attend an exhibition of 100 Days of Solitude organized by the Institute Française in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Badwan was eventually able to depart, in September 2015, when the Italian municipalities of Monte Grimano Terme and Montecatini Terme invited her to share her works and protest and, later, when she expressed her concern about her security if she returned to Gaza, welcomed by the tiny Republic of San Marino.  In April of this year, the Italian municipality of Monte Grimano Terme offered her own atelier to create art and to organize animations for the public.

Badwan’s artistic itinerary since leaving Gaza, meanwhile, has included, in 2016 alone, collective and individual exhibitions in Denmark, Berlin, the French commune of Couthhures-sur-Garonne (for the Festival Internationale du Journalisme Vivant), Dubai, Miami Beach, and New York’s Postaster Gallery, often in group shows where she’s been surrounded by a choice selection of the leading young Arab (and young, period) artists. Meanwhile, the World Bank  in Washington acquired six of her works. She capped the year back in San Marino by participating in an evening dedicated to the theme of autism in which she displayed four paintings created by Abood, her autistic brother, and four of her own inspired by him, part of a planned  solo exhibition on the theme featuring more work.  “Along with me,” she recounts, “there was an autistic boy, very young, who played Chopin. It was an indescribable and marvelous evening.” Badwan’s comments to the assemblage should be required reading for every Beaux Arts student:

“My brother is nine years younger than me, has autism, and lives in Gaza. Stepping into this world and exploring it from within is a rich and unique experience. To penetrate the meanderings of this situation is neither difficult nor easy. Abood needs nothing. He doesn’t need words — he only needs a piece of paper and a pencil. He draws his own world, and usually he asks me: ‘How do you find it?’ To his question, I spontaneously reply: ‘Nice! I want to see more.’

“As time went by, I started to observe and interpret what his drawings revealed. In his works, there are many crying faces, usually smoking a cigarette and surrounded by curvy patterns. A sole fragment of a painting can harbor the contradiction between sadness and happiness. Abood has battled with solitude, the same feeling I experienced for two years. During my isolation, he would wait by the door to make me a surprise with a handful of drawings he made around midnight. Every time he saw me crying, he would give me a new painting. He knows that this makes me vibrate. I imitate what he does; I can follow the curvy patterns and draw like he does. I needed more of these sketches, and even more. I became autistic just like him, learning how to walk through his world. I learned how to speak to him, how to make mistakes in the sentences’ structures and to mutter when I speak. This world is very rich, if the poor ones like us know the truth.”

nidaa badwan new room smallNidaa Badwan in her studio in the Italian village of Monte Grimano Terme: “New Room.” Photo courtesy Nidaa Badwan.

Since the beginning of this year, Badwan has already participated in two exhibitions in Italy, taken part in a collective exhibition in the United States, and addressed the UNESCO conference “Cultural Heritage and Identity: an Arab Youth Perspective” in Carthages, Tunisia. She inaugurated her studio in Monte Grimano Terme in May, in the presence of the mayor, the former education and culture minister of San Marino, and Palestine consul for Italy Nidal Thawabi. In June she participated in both the White Nights of the University of San Marino, creating a sculpture in real-time on the theme of femininity, and the collective exhibition “Ri-crazioni” in Prato, Italy. Through January you can catch her exhibiting with (fellow) revolutionary Arab artists in Valencia, Spain, at the Institut Valencià d’Art Modern and at the “En Rebeldía” and, currently, in a touring version of this show on display in Berlin’s Gorki Theater.

This flurry of activity doesn’t mean that Badwan doesn’t miss her nest in Gaza, where her family still lives. As for  the butterfly emerged from its cocoon, the outside world can be as daunting as it is exhilarating. “When I was in Gaza,” she tells me, “I had a small space, my little world, but I had an infinity of ideas in my head. I could only spin the world with my mind.” She was confident that “this was my world, and I could do what I want. Now, paradoxically, I have all the freedom I want to turn and create in a vast space, like the world, but I do not have my ‘world,’ ‘my’ space where I can be quiet no one can tell me to ‘go away’ if I do not pay rent,” and does not have to think about things like changing her immediate environment.

Still, I can’t help but think that Badwan’s changed circumstances must be liberating. If her previous situation inevitably made her simple act of creating art be perceived as an act of ‘defiance’ by journalists (not to mention polemicists), she’s now escaped from the box and free to find her path without the constraints of her politically loaded identity. All the better.

“I do not define myself as a political artist,” she says, “and I would not like to be. I prefer to leave politics to politicians and to the Press. Of course, I personally have my own ideas, but art and politics should not be confused, though sometimes this may happen. For me art speaks of experiences directly lived, interior and exterior. That particular experience came to me. If anything else had happened, I might have talked about something else or in another way.”

For more information on Nidaa Badwan, including more examples of her work — and to keep up with her ever multiplying cavalcade of exhibitions — check her web site.