Badwan, 28, says she chose physical isolation – on her own terms – over the daily oppression, by Israeli authorities and Hamas militants, that is beyond her control. Her nine square-metre bedroom in the southern Deir al-Balah district of Gaza became her permanent refuge starting in December 2013, and it has turned into a wellspring of artistic freedom.
"Isolation is the only way I found to escape the burden of society. It is the only place where I feel I can express myself freely. My room has become the only place I can breathe," Badwan told FRANCE 24 in a recent email.
Her self-imposed seclusion is a serious enterprise, and full of contradictions. She has lined the room’s walls with egg cartons to cut down on sounds from the outside world. The only new words and images that reach her now are the ones she seeks on her computer.
Yet, holed up as she is, shunning ordinary contact and communication, in a non-descript building in one of the most destitute corners of the world, Badwan is garnering the kind of the attention other young artists only dream of.
Armed with a single digital camera, she has turned out a collection of photographs she named “One Hundred Days of Solitude”, in honour of the late Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s literary masterpiece. She says she re-read the book in the first weeks of her confinement.
Garcia Marquez’s work is a multi-generational family drama, but Badwan is the only heroine of her story. Staged self-portraits show her weeping next to a pile of onions and large cabbages, threading a needle over an antique sewing machine or applying makeup at a mirror.
Badwan recounts that some photos took several weeks to achieve, requiring the careful arrangement of props and just the right dose of sunlight creeping through her bedroom’s arrowslit window. Her pictures, sculpting shapes from shadows and colour, are like modern-day still lifes recalling the Flemish masters from the 16th and 17th centuries.
"Everything in the room influences my work in one way or another. The sunlight that enters the room, the simple objects that are part of my everyday life, the music I listen to and the reading that takes up long hours,” she said.
A child of war
The threat of war and violence is not directly on display in “One Hundred Days of Solitude”, even if Badwan has first-hand knowledge of the subject and has treated it in previous works.
Born in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi in 1987 to Palestinian parents, Badwan has lived in Gaza since she was 11 years old. In 2000, less than two years after her family returned to the enclave, the second Palestinian Intifada broke out.
In an environment dominated by deprivation, perpetual war and strict religious norms, Badwan sought to develop her art, enrolling in the Faculty of Fine Arts of the Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, from which she graduated in 2009.
In the winter of 2008, while the Israeli military operation Cast Lead killed more than 1,300 Gaza residents, Badwan opened her first-ever exhibit in the ruins of the Red Crescent Theatre. One of the few places in Gaza to host cultural activities, the building was destroyed by Israeli bombs.
Her paintings – red and blue swirls – made reference in part to the colours of UNRWA, the UN Office for Palestinian refugees. “Blue is the colour of refugees,” she told local press at the time. “My family and I are refugees, and I'm always conscious of it."
Badwan was arrested by Hamas morality police on December 18, 2013, during an open-air performance piece. The morality police beat her when she tried to explain. The next day, outraged, she locked herself in her room.
She said the first two months of isolation were a nightmare. The young artist spent most of her days lying on mattress on the floor, refused to eat and was regularly overcome with tearful convulsions. She even tried to commit suicide. She remembered that she gradually learned to accept isolation and then finally decided to find whatever "love and beauty" it had to offer.
Posted on the Internet, her photos grabbed the attention of Anthony Bruno, director of the Institut Français de Jerusalem, a cultural centre linked to France’s Foreign Ministry. Bruno decided to organize an exhibition for “One Hundred Days of Solitude” at the al-Hoash Gallery in East Jerusalem.
It was November 2014 and Badwan was ready to break her vow of solitude to join friends and fans at the exhibition’s opening. But Israeli authorities denied her the visa she needed to travel outside of Gaza. She joined the event via Skype, from a hotel in the Palestinian enclave.
Staying in Gaza
She left her room again a few days later for a doctor’s appointment. She emerged veiled, headphones wedged in her ears, and eyes nailed to the ground. “I did not want to break my isolation again, I did not want to see Gaza,” she told the New York Times, which ran a front-page story on her on February 27 of this year.
But if Badwan is reluctant to look at Gaza, she is also reluctant to abandon it. While she has been invited to bring “One Hundred Days of Solitude” to Paris, New York and Berlin, she has so far decided to remain in her bedroom.
“One Hundred Days of Solitude” is showing at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in the city of Ramallah in the West Bank until May 14.
The exhibit’s future, like that of Badwan, like that of Gaza, remains uncertain.
“When I was little, I dreamed of having my own city. I drew a map, its buildings and streets. I painted it with the colours I saw in my mind, and I chose its people carefully. My room has become that city,” she said. “I will go outside the day my city becomes as beautiful as my room.”
Ahram Online has a partnership with France 24