When Chenchil Benga decided to draw Jerusalem, in his mind's eye he apparently saw neither a wall nor a tower. The Indian artist, who has been living in the capital's Katamonim neighborhood for the last few years with his Israeli wife and their two children, drew a bridge that seems to brutally penetrate the painting's sweetish pink sky, forcing itself on the panorama. Next to the giant bridge are three resting gazelles, dwarfed by its size. In the distance, a piece of disconnected urban scenery sneaks in: miniature buildings and trees, entirely out of context in the pink universe.
This surrealistic work, expressing the fear of predatory urbanization's damaging nature, is far from the norm among the works displayed at the exhibition of Jerusalem panoramas, organized by the Jerusalem municipality in honor of the closing of the celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the city's reunification. Indeed, Benga's painting even strives to undermine the exhibit. Yet his is also one of the nicest and most thought-provoking works on display. Ahead of the exhibition, "Israel draws Jerusalem," which will open on June 1, the municipality organized five marathon days of painting in eight different neighborhoods.
Seventy artists from across the country accepted the invitation and came to paint, including many immigrant artists from Russia, foremost among them Yosef Kaplian, one of the founders of the artists' colony in Sa-Nur, who has been living and working in Netanya since the disengagement. Kaplian made sure to attend all the art marathons. Amateur artists and those studying art at municipal art centers or in other neighborhood and private frameworks also participated in the marathons. The end result was a mix that reflected the fabric of the city's residents: ultra-Orthodox women, for example, from the Romema Community Center, who painted in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood, and Arab women from Beit Safafa who painted in their neighborhood. From among the pool of works, 180 were selected. They are supposed to represent the city's different sectors and will be displayed in the Alrov complex on Mamila Street.
Perhaps because of its communal nature and nationalist context, the call to artists to participate did not attract any of Israel's popular contemporary artists. According to Yonit Mena-Guttman, the director of the Jerusalem municipality's plastic arts department, who also serves as the exhibition's curator (with Tzipi Vital), the fact that the works will be displayed in an open space and are not insured deterred well-known artists whose works are too valuable to be part of the exhibition. But it seems that the controversial context marking 40 years since Jerusalem's reunification was another deterrent. In addition, many artists are emotionally removed from Jerusalem. Or as artist Avi Sabah, one of the initiators and managers of Jerusalem's Barbur Gallery puts it, "Jerusalem as an art scene is a painful subject."
Creating without the historical baggage
Sabah bemoans the fact that although the city boasts many schools that teach plastic arts, as soon as the students leave, they don't look back. Sabah and two other artists who established the Barbur Gallery - all graduates of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design who chose to live, work and create in Jerusalem - were of course invited to take part in the "Israel draws Jerusalem" exhibit. But after conferring, they decided to turn down the invitation. "We have a hard time with events that impose works," explains Sabah. The gallery, he says, already did its share, by hosting artists and storing some of the works.
But it seems that the Barbur artists - Sabah, Masha Zusman and Yanai Segal - mostly felt uncomfortable with the exhibit's subject: Jerusalem. How is it possible for those who consider themselves to be social and political artists not to deal with this complex city? "We want to create and exhibit art, but without this city's heavy historical baggage," Sabah says. "Besides, drawings of Jerusalem tend to make up and prettify the city. It seems very kitsch to me. Once, this romantic idea of an artist going out with an easel and a palette and drawing the city was a necessity. As artists, Jerusalem certainly seeps into every painting of ours, but we thought it would be a mistake to limit ourselves to such classic drawing."
Sabah even prefers to refrain "from events that are nationalist in nature." And in the case of the reunification of Jerusalem, he really has trouble identifying. "What is a city that was reunited," he wonders. "Although it was transformed into a single urban entity, that doesn't change the fact that this is a socially divided city, replete with problems. As far as I'm concerned, Tel Aviv is a lot more unified than Jerusalem." According to Sabah, one can sense this problematic atmosphere even in the Nahla'ot neighborhood, where his gallery is located. "There are ultra-Orthodox people living here with whom we share no common language, and extremists who aren't interested in our being part of the neighborhood," he says.
As expected, even though no restrictions were imposed on them, most artists preferred to draw the city's panoramas and symbols, without addressing controversial subjects: a view of the Old City walls and the Dome of the Rock from different angles, for example, or the Yemin Moshe windmill. Even images of fairly stereotypical characters (an Arab on a donkey, an ultra-Orthodox man, and others) could be found among the works. To a large extent, these works continue in the tradition of creating romantic photos or drawings of the city, as if the longing for Jerusalem in the imagination is still alive and well, while the city itself is ignored - as is the case for the Jewish-Arab conflict that hovers above it, the fear of terrorist attacks, the economic misery and the neglect. In this regard, the exhibit suffers from anachronism.
The absence of any kind of conflict or critical review in the exhibition can easily be blamed on its patron, the municipality. By definition, municipalities strive for quiet and avoid provocations and affronts to religious sensitivities. Against this backdrop, only a few artists save the exhibition from degenerating into kitsch, and it is regrettable that many other artists did not take the opportunity to make a meaningful and contemporary comment about Jerusalem. It could have been interesting to see artists dismantle the usual presentation of Jerusalem or its representation in art.
Redefining the olive tree
The only artist in the exhibition who addresses the city's symbolism through her own personal interpretation is Rouan Abuhawa. One of the works by Abuhawa, a student in Bezalel's plastic arts department, features an Arab woman in traditional garb with the lines of her face highlighted. Green olives fall through her hands, which are raised toward her face, in an exaggerated and empowered motion, flying in the air in front of her face. Abuhawa's second work displays an olive-tree stump. In both works, the artist's choice of olives is not coincidental. "We can't escape politics," she says. "I could have drawn a panorama. But I chose to talk about culture, about my culture. I drew a woman, because I'm also a woman. I don't see the same scenery that everyone sees. I see something personal. And this woman represents my village - and to me this is Jerusalem." Undoubtedly, hanging this work will appropriate the symbol of the olive tree in Israel culture and that is an interesting choice.
The artists from the Katamonim neighborhood also did not adhere to the exhibition's bon ton. The troubled Benga draws as if he were sitting in his home, looking out the window at the Valley of the Gazelles, constantly under threat by real estate projects. Dudu Penso also chose to draw the gazelles in the valley. His work shows them grazing in a burning orange field that is completely closed in by ugly railroad buildings. Both these artists - the first in his modernist style and the second by means of his naive style - identify with the environmental campaign, waged about two years ago, over the fate of the nearby Valley of the Gazelles. The group of artists from Katamonim (which also includes Eran Ofir, whose works are also on display at the exhibition) was active in this battle. It seems as though none of the three is interested in deceiving himself for even a single festive moment. They do not intend to abandon the fight over quality of life, and for what they consider the future of the city.
The works by the Russian artists present the exact opposite - showing the perfect idealist image of Jerusalem. "This is the Jerusalem they yearned for and longed for when they were in exile," Mena-Guttman says. As such, Ana Zarnitzky, a well-known artist in Holon's Russian community, always draws Jerusalem - in an abstract fashion - as the object of a dream, as a city that one makes a pilgrimage to. The fact that she took part in the marathon, held in the Valley of the Gazelles, next to Benga and Penso, did not affect her at all. "We weren't born here," says the artist who drew five works, including a Jerusalem panorama filled with pomegranates and with an eye set into the top of the portrait (the Shekhina [or Divine presence]). "And we will always see Jerusalem as a symbol of peace, of the connection between people, between religions. After all, it is possible to photograph the city endlessly, but an artist has the task of saying something about the city, not just conveying an atmosphere. And for me, it's important to convey the historical depth of Jerusalem, to tell its story and to say that it's important to protect it."
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