By HG Masters
There are innumerable walls, lines and divisions running through the landscape between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Some are concrete, many are demographic, many more are imagined and almost all of them are contested. But for many people living in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, daily life entails leaving the perimeters of their communities and navigating the stratified districts of others and the ideologies they embody—whether one wants to accept them or not. In such a fraught context, whether within Israel or in the Palestinian territories, these encounters can become tales of maddening bureaucratic fiascos, violent or dehumanizing incidents and occasionally absurd scenarios of the darkest humor or pathos.
In attempting to capture a portion of the region’s complexity as experienced by those working in the field of contemporary visual art, ArtAsiaPacific and Artis, a New York-based nonprofit that supports and promotes contemporary visual artists from Israel, are collaborating on the essay series “Within/Without.” Based on their respective experiences, the two organizations jointly conceived of the project in order to present stories from individuals whose professional and personal lives compel them to reflect on what it means to live, work and produce exhibitions or projects in Israel and in Palestine.
Our four contributors are engaged with the region in a variety of ways. Said Abu Shakra runs the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery in northern Israel and explains the origins of his vision for a museum of contemporary Palestinian art and local heritage. From Jerusalem, Jack Persekian recounts a hairraising encounter with an Israeli military patrol, a story that is also representative of the challenges facing the al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art, the organization he runs in the Old City. Artist Ronen Eidelman reflects on his collaborative project with Guy Briller, “Nine Days in Av,” for which they recorded conversations with people from across Israel and Palestine. Raphael Zagury-Orly, head of the MFA program at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, elaborates on what it means to teach art in a contested political arena.
Together, these stories represent efforts made despite and because of the difficult political and social realities that unite and disunite the region— whether in the context of Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine, or the international cultural boycott of Israel, and with consideration of the diverse personal histories of those brought up in the region.
By Ronen Eidelman
On the seventh day of the journey, drinking morning coffee in the garden at Dedi Ben Shaul’s home, in the village of Ilania, Galilee, something unexpected happened. Ben Shaul, a known painter and former director of the department of fine arts at the Bezalel Academy in the 1970s, as well as the father-in-law of Guy Briller, my partner on the project “Nine Days in Av – A Journey Between the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River,” began to verbally attack us and our journey.
“You can make terrible mistakes. This documentation will become art. This is a very sensitive game, because people will read the political in the art. It is one of the most dangerous things. You distort reality because you are thinking about art and not the political reality and survival.”
Ben Shaul, a veteran artist, who makes wine, paints landscapes and sculpts in this peaceful village, became a prophet of doom, a nationalist, shooting difficult words at us with rage and anger. Feeling unwelcome, we left quickly, clearly upset but also confused. How should one feel for being accused of making dangerous art?
A week earlier, we had set off on a nine-day journey throughout historic Eretz Yisrael-Palestina (“Land of Israel-Palestine”), traveling in the footsteps of past destructions and in fear of (god forbid) the destruction that could come. The journey took place in a caravan that had been converted into a mobile studio with solar-powered electricity and multimedia equipment that enabled full-time interventions in diverse urban and open spaces, which we then transmitted via the internet in real-time video.
Throughout the journey we met with many people active in their various communities: political activists, neighborhood organizers, union members, artists, religious leaders, poets, philosophers, refugees and unrecognized citizens, both Arabs and Jews. We had conversations with many people we didn’t agree with, and heard upsetting things. But those voices shifted the way we thought.
Over the course of the project, we found that we have a more common language with people who we perceived as our ideological enemies than with those who are supposedly closer to us. A secular artist such as Ben Shaul turned out to be a greater opponent then a religious poet living in a West Bank settlement. Shaul saw us as dangerous not because of our expressed opinions, but because we were calling ourselves artists. He was furious at us because he understood the power of the art that was coming out of our worldview.
Artists can say whatever they want and can be as radical as they like in talking about the occupation, criticizing Zionism or post-Marxist revolutions, the evils of the government—but there is one condition. The artist has to do it inside the art system. As soon as artists step out of the art world, then they are told that they are not good artists, or even something as evil as a political activist. The professionalized identity of “artist” comes to resemble a shield, a safety net, a reason not to venture out and cross the border.
Many boundaries of division and separation started to collapse, categories started to change. This journey that started as an art project became part of a political shift for me. The beginning of its results could be seen on the streets of Israel this past summer, when hundreds of thousands marched in the roads and over 90 tent camps were erected throughout the country, with many artists taking leading roles. Besides the specific struggles for cultural rights and better financial support, and the long-overdue protest against the Tel Aviv Museum management, artists squatted in abandoned buildings to encourage the creation of art and community centers, such as the Levinsky camp in South Tel Aviv, one of the most destitute neighborhoods and home to many refugees. In the parks, streets, squatted buildings, public assemblies, and even on the internet so many great projects have been created and displayed. The border between life and art was crossed so many times that looking at the designated art world now seems almost irrelevant. Why should one confine oneself to the gallery when the Rothschild Boulevard tent camp became the greatest art installation ever created in Tel Aviv? Why should one care about the ArtTLV biennial when, for example, there is an art festival going on every night at the independent cultural center of Beit Ha’am?
According to Adorno, art that serves a political party is a betrayal of art’s power of resistance. He took the position that art cannot instrumentalize itself on the basis of political commitments without undermining the autonomy on which it depends, and thereby undoing itself as art. This may or may not be true; however, I’m not talking about art that serves a party, but about art that is a party: not instrumentalized art, but the artwork as the political party.
In June, a month before the tent protests, we left for a “Journey to Liberate Jerusalem” with the same tools from “Nine Days in Av,” accompanied by a printed magazine in Hebrew and Arabic that includes articles and artworks, asking about “the liberation of Jerusalem.” In the publication we wrote: “There are no concrete political proposals here of the kind one can take to the negotiating table in Washington, Cairo or Ramallah, but rather propositions that recognize that liberation is first and foremost a state of consciousness. The way to Tahrir Square passes through art, poetry and writing; it is time for Jerusalem to step out of its wintry gloom and join the spring of nations flowering around it at this very moment.”
Ronen Eidelman is an artist, activist and founding co-editor of Erev Rav and Maarav magazines. For more on his projects, visit roneneidelman.com.
By Said Abu Shakra
The idea of establishing an art gallery in Umm el-Fahem, as a forerunner to the first museum of contemporary Palestinian art in Israel, has developed in a complex reality, a world of many contrasts and rigid, unequivocal social codes.
Umm el-Fahem is a densely populated Palestinian-Arab city in northern Israel. About 45,000 residents make up the core population of its older neighborhoods in a fascinating social and cultural weave. Early each morning more than 20,000 people leave for work in the industrial areas of distant Jewish cities, earning Umm el-Fahem its designation as “a workers’ hotel.” Socially, this means that parental authority is absent most of the day, and this has many ramifications for the city’s youth. On the other hand, the city’s density and its economic and cultural hardship serve as a firm basis for a religious and traditional society. For this reason, Islamic movements have controlled the mayor’s office for the past 25 years.
The history of the Wadi Ara region is a long one. The first settlers arrived in the hilly area of Umm el-Fahem about 800 years ago. They tilled the land for hundreds of years, and this was a source of pride, honor and income. They created a fascinating culture characterized by unique developments in clothing, embroidery, pottery and construction techniques. A tradition of values developed, defining interpersonal and neighborly relationships and cooperation within the community at large and among the clans. This remains the basis for society here to this very day.
Yet, when the 1948 war came to an end and the State of Israel was founded, Umm el-Fahem’s thriving social fabric was smashed. Thousands of refugees ended up homeless, many in distant lands. Their centuries-old culture was left behind in villages that were abandoned and destroyed. Their agricultural lands were confiscated and they became subject to military rule imposed on them by the new state. Umm el-Fahem, so rich in land, was transformed into an impoverished settlement. Its people became caught up in a daily war of survival. The new reality led to clearly defined channels of protest that serve to this day as an important landmark for all of Israel’s Palestinian population.
Into this reality the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery was born in 1996. The idea to establish the gallery began as a personal dream. It began to grow in a very small and hesitant way, with almost no funding or budget, and no clear concept for its future.
Establishing the gallery has helped me to become reacquainted with myself in a unique way. It enabled me to learn how important the past is for me, to imagine the city’s future and get in touch with my biggest fears as well as with the emotional strength that they bring with them. I had to find the courage to think “outside the box,” the courage to break down centuries-old social codes, and examine them once again. I felt strongly the love and pride in our culture and in our elders’ work, but also the need to enjoy support and security from a new generation.
The gallery gave me the reason and the occasion to be able to say: “I am here.” I am here to accept responsibility for the failures and successes of the past, and also for the hopes of the future. In so doing, I also say “never again” to a reality in which important agendas are dictated to us, leaving us with a complete absence of pride, with no sense of belonging and with no personal or collective initiative. My responsibility is to initiate—to research our culture, preserve and perpetuate it, and place it on display in a manner that is both worthy and accessible.
My initial goal in setting up the gallery was to bring quality art to Umm el-Fahem. Soon afterward the gallery developed as a platform for Palestinian art, as well as art from all over the world. Along with contemporary art we have taken on ourselves the responsibility for preserving local historical memories based on the archive we have built, which contains collections of photographs and oral testimonies relating to Umm el-Fahem and the Wadi Ara region.
The accelerated process of transforming the gallery into a museum has thrown us into ongoing discussions and dilemmas on issues of culture and identity. What we know for sure is that the museum will serve as a hospitable venue for cultural dialogue between equals, and everyone will be invited to come. We will look into the eyes of one another and share one another’s pains, and past historical and cultural memories.
The thousands of school children that visit the gallery every year and enjoy its activities will undoubtedly be the basis for the future generation that, in turn, will take responsibility to develop the museum and the idea it represents well into the future.
Said Abu Shakra is director of the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery, in Umm el-Fahem, Israel, and is leading an effort to establish a museum of contemporary art and Palestinian culture in the city.
By Raphael Zagury-Orly
In this sense, one must be very hesitant—trembling, even—before using the term “Israeli context” regarding the cultural scene here in general, and most particularly for what is happening in art and through art in Israel. The first commandment for the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, as an art school, is precisely to be obliged to respect these differences and multiplicities, which express themselves both inside and outside of Israel, inside and outside of Judaism, even inside and outside of the Middle East. Which is why art in this context is always a profoundly diversified and demultiplied act, which, far from simply being labeled as “political” or “apolitical,” never ceases to clash oppositional concepts, and to create from this perpetual conflict other performatives irreducible to any type of contextualization. Art here is at the crux of all these events that never cease to traverse the context, creating an impossibility of fixing artistic expression into one form or content. Thus art in the “Israeli context” remains this type of piercing that awakens other languages, other expressions, and events other than the ones we would likely expect or foresee.
This otherness comes from an elsewhere not external to Israel but rather from the very core of the country itself. In a profoundly undecided manner, this otherness turns around or over the very concepts of what is exterior or what is interior, what is inauthentic or authentic. It voids them from their very essential definitions, and at this point where these concepts are liberated from what they signify, or what they could mean, arises an unforeseen, novel and unedited idea of . . . what? Yes, that is precisely the question . . . I would say: of something still in need of a name, but something that nonetheless would always be dissatisfied with any name whatsoever.
Of course, this may seem abstract. And in truth it is—abstracted from any context or contextualization. To be a little more concrete: I never stop thinking, when reflecting on Bezalel, about what it means to be an active art school, forming artists who act in the complex environment named the “art world,” and in this country, Israel, with its own terribly complex political situation, where frontiers are not stable, where identities (national, cultural, linguistic, etc.) are mixed and diverse, in this space where religions of all sorts (and not only the three monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam) come into constant contact, but where there is also a very important secular tradition. The list here could go on and on; I never stop thinking about the endless displacements, and the innumerable shifts of all these concepts.
In this sense, I believe that the primary task of an institution such as Bezalel is not simply to condemn the hegemonic tendency or gestures here and there, in art or elsewhere, but rather to penetrate the space of these movements, differentiations and transformations. I would even be tempted to say that the critique of hegemony—despite the importance it had in our cultural heritage—has served its time. This is because—and here is where I see Bezalel being engaged—everything is already and always differentiated, decontextualized and demultiplied, torn between its own innermost idea and that which is most foreign, other, alien.
It is perhaps this undecidability working everywhere that signs and marks every human being as such, and which I feel to be particularly true here. Such, anyhow, is the idea I feel the closest to: proliferating proliferations, multiplying multiplicities, differentiating differences. The questioning that arises from this idea is far greater than the one of simply attacking and condemning the hegemonic structure of such a body or another form of expression. In other words, rather than sitting on top of the world and judging and questioning a structure for being hegemonic, I believe the time—our time—has come to think toward that which the multiplicities of our creations, as effects of the incessantly reiterated multiplicities of our “contexts”—which are no longer contextualizable—give and offer. In other words, to permit our students to work, for they are producing these multiple spaces far beyond and before any context can be attributed to them or their work.
Raphael Zagury-Orly is the director of the MFA program at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Tel Aviv.
By Jack Persekian
Revolted and enraged, I made my way on the only path left home. All the other streets and alleys were blocked, obstructed with rubble, rocks and garbage. I hate this path. I hate having to pass through it.
I was aware of the military jeep patrolling the street and, while hesitant to risk confrontation on such a dark, moonless night, I had no other choice. The searchlight punctured the darkness as it scanned the vicinity.
As I approached, the soldiers greeted me with their blinding light. All other details fell to the wayside as the street was flooded with a stream of ghostly light, at the end of which was my home. The only home I have.
I continued at a slower pace, taking shorter, cautious steps. A voice pierced the still coldness of the night.
I froze in place. The profile of the soldier wielding a large gun moved to the center of the light. Was the gun pointed at me? Of course . . .
I get nervous every time this happens, and it happens all the time, especially crossing checkpoints. What if, by accident, unintentionally, the trigger goes off? Or it is pressed? Accidents happen, they happen all the time.
I’ve never held a gun—how does it feel? Is one overtaken by a singular sense of power and superiority?
What if a cat . . . or any other animal—not that I have anything against cats, I even have one at home, her name is Zizi, she was a Christmas present for my son Amir; she gave birth to five kittens, I don’t think we can keep them much longer—jumps in front of a soldier? It could frighten him, startle his nerves, especially in the middle of such a taut confrontation like the one happening now.
My very body is the possibility of a threat to this soldier’s life, so he thinks, or so he is taught to think. And he is a threat to mine with a gun loaded and pointed at my chest. I have nothing to defend myself with. I am helpless. Adrenaline pumps through my veins. Even the cold westerly air gushing through this deserted street in a godforsaken northern Jerusalem neighborhood does not affect me.
He shouts again. He must. We are at least 20 meters apart. Shouting is about exercising authority, after all. I know that for a fact, as my wife and I do it all the time. It’s the children I feel the worst for.
The soldier’s words were clear. He spoke perfect Arabic. He must be an Arab. An Arab Jew? A Druze? An Arab from the Galilee? What do I care? A soldier is a soldier, it doesn’t matter who he is. I’m glad I was born in a place without a mandatory draft; I see what it does to Israeli society. It resembles those menacing meat-grinding machines that transform a variety of meats—good, bad, distinct, mediocre—into a uniform miscellany of tasteless sausages.
RAISE YOUR SWEATER
I have seen this on television but it never occurred to me that it would happen here, right in front of my own home. I lifted my arms. He raised his gun.
I AM TELLING YOU: RAISE YOUR SWEATER
I had to concede, what other choice did I have? I raised my sweater, but there were a couple of problems. First, my jacket was still covering part of my stomach and back. And second, I had a shirt on under the sweater.
TAKE OFF YOUR JACKET, PULL UP YOUR UNDERSHIRT
Now this was really complicating things. Where would I put my jacket? There was no way I would put it on the wet, dirty ground. I love this Bally jacket. I had walked up and down Kurfürstendamm in Berlin agonizing over buying it; too damn expensive, I thought. I finally decided that I had worked hard that year and I deserved a treat. I turned to the soldier: Could you please hold my jacket while I pull up my sweater?
DON’T MOVE, KNEEL DOWN AND PULL UP YOUR CLOTHES
His voice was getting louder and angrier. I tried to explain: But my name is Jack Persekian, I live right here. You see me every morning.
I didn’t know which soldier he was, I couldn’t see his face . . . My wife’s name is Hania, and my sons Rami, Amir and —
SHUT UP AND GET DOWN ON THE GROUND
He was loading his gun. I took off my jacket and held it with one hand. Without letting the jacket touch the ground, I pulled up my shirt and sweater with my other hand. Like a ballerina twirling in a music box, I performed an impressive pirouette for the soldier. Again I attempted: I have nothing. I live right here. Here is my ID. Check me out. Please, please don’t make me fuck up my clothes on this filthy ground. My home is right here. My name is Jack Persekian. My wife is . . .
OK, OK GIVE ME YOUR ID
I approached him, feeling like shit. Without a word, I handed him my ID.
He went to the jeep, checked my identification and name. I was snubbed, vulnerable, humiliated. But I hadn’t completely conceded to his barks—after all, my clothes were still clean. He returned my ID.
I mounted the staircase home, bending down to eye the soldier huddling in the jeep for warmth. I shouted so that my voice would stab the thick bulletproof glass: Come in and have a cup of coffee or tea. He lowered his head as if to read something or perhaps to ignore me. Could it have been a sign of shame? Shame on you people.
Jack Persekian is the founding director of al-Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem.