Chris Gazaleh has painted Palestinian faces onto an apartment building at 23 Elgin Park St. that overlooks one of San Francisco’s busiest thoroughfares. They’re the faces of the old and the young, of people who seem happy, solemn, and everything in between. Scaffolding and black tarpaulins still rim the building that Gazaleh has worked on for months, but he’ll remove those barriers in the coming weeks, and then everyone who walks or drives by — which is tens of thousands a day, since the building is next to the Octavia Boulevard connector to Highway 101 — will see Gazaleh’s perspective on life in Gaza, the West Bank, and historical Palestinian land that’s now in Israel.
One Palestinian woman holds an orange — a symbol of the groves Palestinians nurtured on property they were forced to relinquish in the aftermath of Israel’s 1948 founding. Several Palestinians are climbing over a wall that’s like the West Bank separation barrier Israel has built during the last 20 years. Clashes between Gaza Palestinians and Israeli troops — which have dominated headlines from the Middle East for months, and have killed more than 100 Palestinians and injured thousands — are absent from Gazaleh’s multi-sided mural, for now. With the building’s owner, who is also of Palestinian descent, Gazaleh debated how much of the country’s history to include in his pictorial representation.
“I wanted to put an Israeli tank falling off a cliff on the [mural’s] main wall, but he wasn’t really feeling it,” Gazaleh says. “He doesn’t want to put anything that has violence.”
A San Francisco native, Gazaleh is a longtime muralist who has done work around the Bay Area, including Clarion Alley, a short walk from his new Elgin Park project. His work has a political edge, and often centers on Palestinian culture, history, and current events. Gazaleh last visited Palestine in 2007. His new work, he says, shows five generations of Palestinian life, and what life “could have been and what things are.” One of the depicted women is super-sized, a fictional figure, really.
“She’s kind of like a superhero. She’s giant and bigger than the other characters, and a protector of the land,” Gazaleh says. “She has a key in her hands, and is handing the key to kids who are climbing over the wall. In her other hand, she has an orange. In the history of Palestine, on the coast, there were tons of orchards back in the day by Palestinian Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and they all got along. They worked together.”
“When the Nakba happened, hundreds of thousands of farmers were displaced from this huge industry,” says Gazaleh, using an Arabic word for “catastrophe,” which is how many Palestinians reference Israel’s 1948 founding and subsequent Palestinian displacement.
Gazaleh says his artwork, which features a quote from the late Palestinian academic Edward Said — “humanism is the only resistance we have” — may be controversial.
“People aren’t going to know what it’s about at first, because I use multiple styles of my art,” Gazaleh says. “It has realistic things and conceptual art. I want it to be visually pleasing. I want people who even hate it to love it.”