Installation view of GIL & MOTI’s exhibiton “Chickens, Dogs and Artists Tales” at Pedrami Gallery, Antwerp, 2017. Courtesy Pedrami Gallery.

GIL & MOTI, Self Portrait with Jewish and Palestinian Dogs, 2017, oil on canvas, flat screen, HD video in loop, 50×60cm. Courtesy the artists and Pedrami Gallery, Antwerp. 

Chickens, Dogs and Artists Tale

Gil & Moti

Pedrami Gallery
Israel Belgium

In Israel, where a vast majority of its Jewish population still denies its colonialist status, the multidisciplinary artist duo Gil & Moti stand out. Exasperated by the decades-long conflict that has literally placed walls between Palestinian and Jewish communities, the pair decided to relinquish their Israeli nationality in 2012 and acquire Dutch citizenship. This has allowed them to work side by side with Palestinians in the West Bank—an act that is a criminal offence for those holding Israeli citizenship.  

It was 2014 when the duo first entered Palestine to carry out art projects. Gil & Moti spent two years shuttling between Rotterdam and the West Bank, “performing” as volunteers. The artists helped both Israelis and Palestinians build houses on both sides of the security barrier encircling the West Bank that Israel began building in 2002. Some of the consequent artworks, as well as relevant creations made before the trip, were shown in “Chickens, Dogs and Artists Tale,” an exhibition mounted at Antwerp’s Pedrami Gallery.

Umm al-Fahm Two Domes (2009)—a large, impressive painting that shows the Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm, where nearly all residents are Arab citizens of Israel—primed the show. Here, Gil & Moti challenge the notion of Israel as a pure Jewish state, and shows the precariousness of this Arab community, as their town has in the past been singled out as a possible candidate for land-swaps in the stop-and-go (but mostly stop) Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The plan has been heavily criticized as an attempt by the Israeli state to maintain a Jewish majority within their borders. Gil & Moti reflect the disparate treatment of Israelis and Palestinians in their art by rendering houses on one side of the canvas in a markedly different manner from those on the other side, delivering the message that apartheid still exists.

In the main exhibition room, most outstanding was Self Portrait as Camels in a Jewish Settlement (2017), a tongue-in-cheek canvas where the artists play with anthropocentrism in the genre of self-portraits. In this painting, the artists portray themselves as defiantly grinning camels. Here, there are no checkpoints or fences or walls, which would be indicative of the conflict zone and construct the notions of “us” and “them.” The camels roam freely and eat whatever they want, even chewing on bits they tore off a house in a Jewish settlement—just like those the artists had helped build. According to the duo, camels in the West Bank enjoy ecologically friendly architecture, but not if the structure was built on Israeli-occupied land. Gil & Moti are addressing a serious issue with a touch of absurdity. Despite helping Israelis with the construction of these mud houses, the artists do not shy away from showing their antipathy to Israel’s land grabs.

GIL & MOTIUmm al-Fahm Two Domes, 2009, oil on canvas, 120 × 160 cm. Courtesy the artists and Pedrami Gallery, Antwerp. 

GIL & MOTI, Self Portrait as Camels in a Jewish Settlement, 2017, oil on canvas, 120 × 160 cm. Courtesy the artists and Pedrami Gallery. Antwerp. 

This criticism culminates in Self Portrait with Horse and Swing in a Jewish Settlement (2016) and Self Portrait with Watertank and Chicken in Palestine (2016), which were hung side by side to drive home the differences of life on the either side of the barrier. While the horse and swing indicate the luxury of leisure time in a Jewish settlement, the chicken and water tank speak to a life of subsistence. For Palestinians in the West Bank, water tanks are a matter of life and death, as the Israeli state, since 1967, has had nearly total control over the West Bank’s water supply system.

In the book On Palestine (2015), Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé wrote, “Enclaving people in villages and towns and disallowing any spatial expansion of human habitats became the hallmark of Israel’s ethnic cleansing after 1948, and is still used today very effectively.” This predicament of the Palestinians is astutely conveyed in the show’s climatic mixed-media piece Self Portrait with Jewish and Palestinian Dogs (2017), where the sunglasses in the artists’ self-portrait are cut out to reveal HD videos on loop. The embedded screen on the left shows dogs struggling to find their way out of an entrapment in the upper deck of a building. Despite their predicament, the stranded dogs radiate friendliness. Another is seen on the right screen guarding a house in a boundless land, its barks reverberating antagonistically across the exhibition room. The artists said that those acquainted with the Palestinians’ plight would immediately be able to identify which is “Palestinian” and which is “Israeli.”

Gil & Moti’s immersion in Israeli and Palestinian communities for two years may make their art projects sound like anthropological endeavours, but their emotional identification with one group and secret apathy toward the other distances their art from objective practice. The duo wears sunglasses in all of their self-portraits (except when they are camels), conveying an instinctual distance as they navigated Israel and Palestine. Can strangers relate to those whose eyes are always blocked off by reflective lenses? Gil & Moti also question the presumed non-partisanship of the artist’s gaze when it comes to depicting the landscape in conflict zones.

GIL & MOTI, Self Portrait with Horse and Swing in a Jewish Settlement, 2016, oil on canvas, 40 × 50 cm. Courtesy the artists and Pedrami Gallery. Antwerp.
GIL & MOTI, Self Portrait with Horse and Swing in a Jewish Settlement, 2016, oil on canvas, 40 × 50 cm. Courtesy the artists and Pedrami Gallery. Antwerp.

Human Scale (2016) is a sculpture comprised of a concrete pedestal on which two pairs of Dutch clogs are fixed. It was also a prop used in the performance that marked the exhibition’s opening night. Gil & Moti mounted the pedestal, sliding their feet into the wooden shoes, signifying their acquired European identity. As the artists stood on the sculpture, they each held out a rubble-shaped coin container for gallery-goers to approach and make financial donations for Palestinian children. Small screens were implanted in those coin containers, showing a looped HD video of Palestinian children running. This perhaps spoke to the futility of European intervention through financial assistance—a criticism that implicates the visitors who followed the artists’ prompts to loosen their purse strings in the gallery that evening.

Gil & Moti’s “Chickens, Dogs and Artists Tale” is on view at Pedrami Gallery, Antwerp, until May 7, 2017.

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