Rawan Al Asaad founded Canvasat, which aims to hire artists and raise awareness about Palestine's culture through art Image Credit: Nida Qatamish

Rawan Al Asaad from Palestine is a semifinalist in “The Queen”, an initiative of the Arabian Media Network (AMN) in Cairo. The new TV show aims to recognise the social responsibility and creativity of ordinary Arab women and crown “the queens” for their proactive work that benefits their communities.

I meet Al Asaad at a coffee shop in Ramallah. She greets me with a charming smile, and her warm personality and bountiful energy can’t be easily missed.

So how did she learn of the programme? “I came across this TV advertisement asking potential contestants to apply. I sent a video explaining my initiative in Palestine. After two weeks I was selected to represent Palestine. There were 30,000 applicants in all, and now I am a semifinalist with 30 others,” she says. “This is vital for Palestine’s culture of art which promotes peaceful existence and resistance.”

Growing up in a conflict zone, her childhood wasn’t easy. Yet it was art that drew her in. “I started painting at 3; I painted every wall in our house. My parents were not upset, instead they invested in me through art classes in Palestine. I expressed myself best through painting.”

Al Asaad grew up in the Kalandia Refugee Camp, where she still resides. “Clashes were very frequent and there were Israeli soldiers around our house. In the early 2000s I was 14 when I witnessed six children, who were all under 16, shot for throwing stones. They died in my dad’s clinic [her father is a doctor] in the house. I saw death. Our house was covered with sandbags to protect it from bullets, my dad once suffered a heart attack when gas bombs landed in his clinic. Mum was shot in her head. No ambulance was allowed into the war zone. Luckily my father saved her life. And it only got worse. One day, a child threw a Molotov cocktail at the soldiers, near the Kalandia Airport. The soldiers then uprooted 100 of our olive trees. My grandmother was heartbroken, and died a few weeks later. Olive trees mean the world to us Palestinians. This loss and growing up in the frontline of clashes took me away from my art. All I saw from my window was a block of ugly grey cement covering the sky [the separation wall].”

After completing high school, Al Asaad enrolled in Palestine Technical Colleges for Fine Arts and just after the first semester, she topped her class. On obtaining her diploma, she became a junior designer in graphic design and branding, working in the private and public sectors as well as for various NGOs.

In 2004, Al Asaad experienced something that was instrumental in changing her life positively. “Arafat was ill, and I texted schools to march to his mukata [headquarters]. I did not obtain any permission from the authorities and it was not organised properly. I was only 16, but 2,000 students turned up. We faced the Presidential Guard, demanding to see Arafat and as the leader of the marchers, they took me inside.

“I thought I was being arrested as I was taken to a small room, but to my surprise I saw Arafat. He asked, ‘Is this chaos because of you?’ I was awestruck and dumbfounded in his presence. Finally, I said, ‘You are ill and we wanted to visit you.’ Arafat then met the students, insisting that I accompany him to the stage. Holding my hand, he said to all of us, ‘A flower, a Palestinian girl, will one day hold the flag of Palestine in Jerusalem’.”

Al Asaad feels that the incident not only inspired her but made her believe that she has innate leadership qualities that she needed to utilise for the betterment of her people.

“On September 14, 2014, I got back to painting. While working professionally, I had lost my identity, but this time I was doing it alongside a full-time job,” she says.

“It was then that I discovered a discord in the Palestinian arts scene, and identified three major problems — there was a gap between the arts scene and society, the high prices of paintings in comparison to Palestinians’ average monthly income of $460 [Dh1,689] and there was the complex message of art, the lack of communication between artists and society.

“After much research, I learnt that we have 4,000 unemployed, educated artists under the age of 30, with seven colleges teaching art, five in the West bank and two in Gaza, over the past 10 years. Many of these artists have nowhere to go and few of them ever get a chance to become artists. I was thus determined to start an evolving art community offering services to these artists and enabling them to be the artists they want to be, without starving,” she says.

“This is how Canvasati came into being, and for which I am the semifinalist in ‘The Queen’. Our strategy is simple — we aim to hire artists, increase awareness about the importance of art for the Palestinian struggle, document the Palestinian struggle and culture through art and provide affordable art to the majority in the Palestinian society.”

Al Asaad made a life choice this year and quit her full-time job on January 1.

“Today, we have 41 resident artists, a workshop in the Kalandia Refugee Camp, but every commissioned artist works from home and we meet casually once a week. Ninety per cent of our artists are women and most are conservative,” Al Asaad says.

“The arts scene does not cater to the diversity in Palestinian society. These conservative artists wear the hijab, and because of their religious and cultural beliefs they were perceived as outcasts in the arts scene. When they joined, they could not afford brushes and canvases.”

Al Asaad has self-funded Canvasati with her life savings. “I don’t want to be told by funders what to do and how to do it. This way, we maintain our independence and with our small start-up, our artists are now selling their artwork and buying their own paints, brushes and canvases to continue doing what they love.”

Coming back to “The Queen”, Al Asaad believes she has the full support of Palestine, and as the first Palestinian contestant she will do her best. She even recently met President Mahmoud Abbas to brief him about the programme, and he also supports her initiative.

On the role of women, Al Asaad says, “We are here to create a better understanding of the need of every woman, we are the society, we are superheroes by nature.”

So who does she think will win the show? “There are other programmes in the running — a woman in Libya is setting up a hospital that will provide free medical care, and another in Syria that supports refugees. May the best woman win.”

Rafique Gangat, author of “Ye Shall Bowl on Grass”, is based in Occupied Jerusalem.