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One Year On, Gaza’s Young Picasso Paints the Scars of War

Valentina Primo speaks to the 13-year old that's defying all odds with a global tour of his incredible art as he aims to convey the harsh realities of living in Gaza...

As Gaza commemorates the one-year anniversary of Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli offensive that put an end to the life of over 2,200 Palestinians, young Mohamed Qraiqea, who the media has dubbed the Young Arab Picasso, embarks on a project to show Europe the marks of war.

The owner of a striking style, Mohamed began painting when he was five-years old in his hometown of Shujaiya, in the Gaza Strip, where he has already witnessed three wars. Now followed by 66,000 fans on his Facebook page, the 13-year-old artist stirs sensations in the Arab world, as TV networks and regional media shed a light on his impressive work.

His paintings, vivid and intensely symbolic, often portray the hardships endured by Palestinians in Gaza, from the nine-year asphyxiating siege to the destruction left by bombings, assuming at times a humanitarian role: last August, as shelling hailed over the tortured strip, Mohamed’s colourful portraits brought a smile to Gaza’s children living amongst the thunderous noise of bombs.     

In August 2014, he was able to leave Gaza for the first time after an arduous journey through the Rafah crossing in Egypt, when he was invited to a festival in Tunisia to present his work. Since then, the young painter has showcased his portraits in Lebanon, Iran and Turkey, and now aims to show the true colors of Gaza to different regions across the world.

The project, entitled Free Bird, consists on a humanitarian tour through France, Germany, Spain, Poland, Serbia and the UK, where young Mohamed aims to exhibit colourful paintings that blend unpolished realism with the fantasy embedded in his message of hope. “I paint from the painful reality that we live in, because I believe that great art comes from great pain,” he says, his words not mirroring his age.

“I feel that this project will inspire a lot of people to support my cause, and will be my gate to the world,” he tells CairoScene. “A lot is being said in the media about Palestine, but it's more authentic to hear the story from a Palestinian who lives through the conflict on a daily basis.”

Taking on subjects such as poverty, women and child oppression, the young prodigy sets out to inspire the international public with his ability to defy borders, get through obstacles, and make his voice heard all over the world. Together with a friend who translated the project to English, Mohamed put together an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to finance the tour, where he aims to raise $60,000 to cover travel expenses and rebuild his studio, destroyed by bombings in 2014.  

The initiative is sponsored and organised by the Palestinian Foreign Affairs Ministry, who is responsible of all coordinating with the hosting countries and their embassies for the exhibits to take place. Each exhibition will be held for seven days under the supervision of each embassy, although the specific locations are not confirmed yet. “I'm cooperating with our embassy in the countries we're dropping by and they are the ones who will decide where the exhibition will be held,” he explains.

“Through my art, I plan to tell the story as is, without any alterations,” he says, as he sets to break a World Guinness Record as the artist to perform the largest tour across the world. But one of the most important aspects of Free Bird, he says, is its social scope: throughout the tour, there will be an auction for the paintings the profit of which will be serve humanitarian causes such as poverty relief, employment programmes and education efforts for young Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. “I plan to donate the money for the sake of humane cases in Palestine; there's no specific organisation in my mind right now, but I think I might do it myself,” he explains.

Representing a free bird crossing through borders to fly with a humanitarian message, Mohamed aspires to highlight the role of youth in the Palestinian reality and “prove that any young person can be an ambassador to his own country through showing the best picture of his country,” he says. An ambitious artist, Mohamed has not only managed to overcome the loss of the art studio he had set up in his parent’s two story house, but also to represent Palestine extensively in the Arab world.

Now eager to participate in international conversations and learn new techniques, Mohamed has contacted plenty of embassies abroad and created the full crowdfunding campaign on his own, striving to take on an ambitious journey to spread the message of freedom Palestinians aspire for. “The place I dream of visiting the most is Italy because, as far as I know, it's the capital of art and artists,” he concludes.