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  • Mar 05, 2024

Fathi Ghaben, 1947–2024

Portrait of FATHI GHABEN. Courtesy Press House-Palestine. 

The renowned Palestinian artist Fathi Ghaben has died in Gaza after being refused permission to leave the enclave for emergency medical care. He was 77. The Palestinian Ministry of Culture announced the artist’s passing on February 25, noting that his chronic lung and chest issues had significantly worsened amid Israel’s bombing campaign of Gaza. 

Ghaben was born in 1947 in Hiribya, a former Palestinian village that was conquered just one year after his birth during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Known to Palestinians as the Nakba, meaning “catastrophe,” the mass displacement and relocation of Palestinian people following the war led to Ghaben’s family resettling in the United Nations-established Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza. Despite limited sources, Ghaben taught himself to paint when he was a child. As a teenager, he left school and sold newspapers to support his family. 

Ghaben often depicted the resistance of Palestinian people against devastating human rights abuses: “I draw the national Palestinian issues and the reality of the Palestinian struggle,” the artist was quoted as saying. His paintings are also treasured for capturing the Palestinian landscape, especially as much of the scenery has since been destroyed or altered beyond recognition. “He immortalized the life of the Palestinian [villages] that the Nakba wanted to erase, remembering the village of [Hiribya], in which he was born,” the Ministry of Culture commented after his death. 

By the 1980s Ghaben had become one of Palestine’s most acclaimed artists. He was a founding member of the Association of Fine Artists and Artists in Gaza, and advisor in the Ministry of Culture. Along with teaching in the Al Naser Islamic school for 13 years, he also established the Fathi Ghaben Center of Arts which  supported emerging artists. In 2015, Ghaben was awarded the Order of Culture, Science, and Arts on the Creativity Level by the Palestinian government.

Over the years, Ghaben was arrested several times by the Israeli authorities, who accused him of “inciting violence” through his artworks. After his passing, his longtime friend and fellow Palestinian artist Samia Halaby referred to him as an artist “loyal to his cause” and suggested that he was full of “revolutionary optimism.”

Although Ghaben’s family had repeatedly appealed to the Israeli authorities for his immediate evacuation, the artist was unable to flee the Gaza Strip, where the healthcare system has collapsed due Israel’s continuous aerial bombardment. According the the Gazan health ministry, up to 41 cultural figures in Palestine have perished in the war since Hamas’s initial attack on October 7. The Palestinian death toll has climbed to 30,000, leading to international outcry, calls for an immediate ceasefire, and petitions to boycott Israel. 

Responding to the devastation, more than 9,000 artists, curators, writers, and cultural workers have signed an open letter calling for the Venice Biennale to prohibit Israel from participating in the upcoming 60th edition, which opens in mid-April, over the state’s “engage[ment] in ongoing atrocities against Palestinians in Gaza.”

Arphy Li is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific. 

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