Expat photographer living in Paris takes camera back to the Negev
Refugees, Bedouin, IDF dominate Assaf Shoshan's exhibit 'Territories of Waiting.'
In one part of Assaf Shoshan's trilogy, we see Ta'aban, a refugee from South Sudan, running in a gulch in the desert landscape near Eilat. In the background is a mountain ridge, located in the vicinity of the area where he crossed the border about four years ago. Dressed in a striped shirt, reminiscent both of Joseph's coat and prisoner's garb, he runs at dawn and under the noontime sun, and finally disappears into the sunset.
This video project is currently on display in Shoshan's exhibition "Territories of Waiting," which deals with the gray, peripheral areas of the country and society. It is Shoshan's first one-man show in Israel, and its showing at a small, peripheral art gallery - Dana Galley at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai near Ashkelon - only enhances its messages.
For 12 years, photographer and artist Shoshan has made Paris his home. Since making the move, he has come to Israel once every few months to visit family and his childhood Negev landscape. He met Ta'aban, now 35, whose name in Arabic means "tired," a few years ago when he visited Kibbutz Eilot in the Negev. In 2007, the kibbutz agreed to put up 30 Sudanese refugees, a move that, given the worsening situation and the disgraceful attitude of the authorities, may be considered heroic. The refugees were placed in the Nof Eilot Guesthouse and Magic Sunrise Hotel. Since then, their numbers have grown and their living conditions have deteriorated. This year, the kibbutz administration announced it was closing the school for the refugees' children, attended by some 50 youngsters.
When Shoshan was visiting the kibbutz, Ta'aban told him that his wife and two kids had gone back to South Sudan. Heartbroken and desperate, he was left on his own in a country that rejects him after the long journey he took to get here. "He felt as if he was constantly running and not getting anywhere," says Shoshan.
Ta'aban, who like Shoshan's other subjects was paid for the day of filming, was happy to participate in the Israeli's creation and identified strongly with it. Shoshan showed the films to all his subjects before including them in the exhibition. About six weeks ago, Ta'aban also returned to South Sudan, to his wife and children.
"Ta'aban" is the third part of the trilogy Shoshan filmed in Israel with the help of his younger brother Yiftah. The first, "Unknown Location," made in 2007 and also in the exhibition, was filmed in an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev. It depicts a large Bedouin tent standing alone in the desert dunes. Throughout the film, screened in a loop, women, old men and children enter the tent but no one is seen exiting.
These two video works are notable for the poor picture quality - grainy and wavering. Both may be compared to continuous mode photography, emphasizing the sense of time and waiting.
The second film in the trilogy, unfortunately not shown in the exhibition for lack of space, is called "Barrier." It was filmed in 2008 at a crosswalk on Rehovot's main thoroughfare, Herzl Street. In it, people are waiting for a green light. They cross when the light turns green, but two Ethiopian men are left standing at the curb. The scene repeats itself, and the number of Ethiopians remaining on the sidewalk grows, becoming a kind of human barrier representing a minority community in a racist society.
In his works, Shoshan presents a world where borders fade and reconstitute daily, where time means something different. The combination of documentation, reconstruction and outright staging, in terms of narrative and medium, provides an appropriate response to some of the ethical questions raised by this sort of endeavor. Before coming to the gallery at Yad Mordechai, the trilogy was shown at different European venues. For three months it was also available for viewing as part of the movies offered to travelers with Air France, the result of a unique cooperative venture between the airline and artists.
Another series created by Shoshan, shown at the exhibition on tablet screens suspended on the walls, portrays a closed military area at Sde Boker in the Negev during 2005, and a military camp filmed at night in 2007 with long exposure, so that the photography also shows satellites in the sky. This work is similar to creations by Trevor Paglen, an American photographer and geographer, whose pictures were recently shown in the exhibition "According to Foreign Sources" at the Israeli Center for Digital Art in Holon.
In the bunkers of Normandy
Shoshan, 39, says that for years he's had an approach-avoidance relationship with Israel. He's participated in very few group shows here and only recently joined Tel Aviv's Inga Gallery of Contemporary Art.
Shoshan's artistic path was neither unbroken nor establishment-oriented. He completed an undergraduate degree in philosophy at Hebrew University. "The studies were excellent, but I'm dyslexic and expressing myself in writing is very hard," he says. "I read and write very slowly. I was considering continuing with film studies, thinking I'd be able to express myself more easily through that medium." He took the entrance exams to the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem and got a two-week-long take-home assignment. "It was the first time I ever tried to express myself through photography and I got really excited by the immediacy of the result. I'd film in the morning and by evening I'd already have prints. I was also captivated by the independent nature of the work," he says.
He started to study photography at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, but after two years decided to leave school and Israel. "I was 27, and after five years on Mount Scopus I felt the need to get out," he says. He left for Paris without any concrete plans and has been there ever since.
Shoshan is the oldest of three brothers; his father is a doctor, his mother a nurse. Born in Jerusalem, he grew up in the Yamit settlement in Sinai, where his parents were working at the time. Afterward, the family moved to Dekel, a moshav in the Negev. When Shoshan was 15, the family moved to Washington for a year because of his father's work. "My conclusion from that year was that I'm an Israeli no matter what," he says, "and that has nothing to do with my wishes or conscious thoughts. So when I went to Paris it wasn't out of any desire to become French. I just needed to be someplace else."
He spent his first year there trying to make ends meet and survive in one of the world's most expensive cities. Afterwards, "by accident," he says, he started to take portraits for various newspapers and magazines, including Marie Claire and Le Figaro. The most important portrait he took, he says, was of American author Dennis Cooper for a gay Parisian journal. "He asked me if I do anything other than work," says Shoshan. "We met after the photography session, I showed him my portfolio, and he got very excited and said he'd write something for me any time I wanted." A few years later, Cooper wrote a text that accompanied Shoshan's first one-man show, "Origins," shown in 2006 at the Le Pave dans la Mare art center in Besancon, France.
Although Shoshan didn't know a word of French at the beginning, today he is fluent in the language. He lives in Paris' 11th arrondissement and tries to stay away from commercial photography to concentrate on his art, which has received a lot of attention lately. Since 2007, he has worked with the Polaris Gallery in Paris; starting in 2009 he lived for 18 months in the Cite Internationale des Arts, the international artists colony in heart of Paris; and this year he was invited to a program hosting artists in the French seaport town of La Rochelle.
Stepping back for perspective
Still, Shoshan has so far photographed mostly in Israel. He says that even as a student at Bezalel, he used to photograph the Negev, but stepping back from the desert and the country as a whole has sharpened his perspective. "My stay in Paris has made me much more critical of politics and society," he explains. "The encounter with other people, getting to know a range of opinions and points of view, and exposure to a different culture, are the reasons. Things that are at the center of the Israeli experience are viewed differently there. Take the army, for example: From their perspective, being a soldier is appalling."
The first few times he came back to Israel, he filmed only at night, first on the beach in Tel Aviv and later in other locations. "At night it was easier for me to digest the charm and the fear of this place, which both attracts and repels me," he says. "In recent years I realized that I have to return to the Negev. I also realized that I have to visit Yamit. And that's impossible; it doesn't exist anymore. It's in ruins."
Beyond the biographical connection, what is it about the Negev that makes him want to go back?
"All sorts of things happen in the Negev. It's a bit of a no-man's land. It's the setting for many issues. The population is made up of refugees, Bedouin and the army - three groups all opposed to one another, but all to a great extent representative of the tension between human beings and nature, and between culture and society."
Shoshan has also photographed and filmed places that have been abandoned because of border changes: Um al- Shaqf in the Hebron hills, Jordanian army buildings near Kalia at the Dead Sea, and the Tegart Fort near Kibbutz Gesher, south of the Sea of Galilee.
Even though the focus of his work is here, he says: "I have a hard time seeing myself living in Israel, even though I define myself as someone having an active life here, and not just emotionally. Still, every time I consider it, something political happens that puts me off. Over there, I think and consume culture. Over there, I live with and from art. I am now, for the first time, working on a project that will be photographed and filmed in France and will deal with France."
French historian Laurent Vidal, who has taken an interest in Shoshan's work for several years, introduced him to the directors of two art institutions in La Rochelle, Vidal's hometown. One invited Shoshan to be a guest at his institute's artists colony and the other suggested a one-man exhibition in March. The name of the current exhibition, "Territories of Waiting," is taken from an essay Vidal wrote about populations on the move.
As a guest in La Rochelle, Shoshan will have a studio and living quarters, and he'll be dealing with questions of borders and populations. To further this, he is now working on two series of photographs, one of abandoned bunkers built during World War II era along the Atlantic coast near La Rochelle and Normandy, the other of people who fought with the French resistance and are now upwards of 90 years old. To create the second series, he uses old slide films he found from the early twentieth century, on which time has left its stamp.
"It's an insane project," says Shoshan. "Meeting these people is very emotional. After a few minutes with any one of them, my eyes well up. Years ago I filmed by grandfather. I have about 80 hours of interviews with him, done over several years, soon after my grandmother died. I talked to him about his life, but mostly about the war. The stories I'm hearing now are somewhat similar. And the look in their eyes is so fierce. It's not like looking at the eyes of young people."