Wall of Rot: Historic Murals Neglected for Years

It takes a group effort to restore some of Israel's most famous murals, painted by renowned Israeli sculptor, muralist and painter Avraham Ofek.

David Amitai, a kibbutz research director, recently traveled to moshav Kfar Uria near Beit Shemesh to see one of Israel's most famous murals, painted by renowned Israeli sculptor, muralist and painter Avraham Ofek - and left the place in dismay.

"I never imagined this is what I'd see," says Amitai, director of Yad Yaari - the research and documentation center of the Hashomer Hatzair movement and Kibbutz Artzi Federation. "Instead of a national heritage site a la Diego Rivera (a prominent Mexican painter and muralist in the first half of the last century ), I found rusty doors, peeling plaster, broken windows and a floor strewn with plastic chairs."

Ofek, who died in 1990, created the wall painting in the moshav's community center in 1970. Since the building was locked, Amitai was spared the sight of the fresco stained by bird droppings and ravaged by dampness.

After years of efforts by restoration specialists and Ofek's family to restore this fresco and five other Ofek murals, the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites will ask to include this project in its program next year.

Ofek, one of Israel's greatest artists, was born in 1935 in Burgas, Bulgaria and immigrated to Israel at 14. He settled in Kibbutz Ein Hamifratz near Acre and started painting under the tutelage of the artist Aryeh Rotman.

In 1959 he traveled to Florence and studied various mural techniques, specializing in fresco. Returning to Israel he painted six large, impressive frescoes on public buildings throughout the country, beginning with the one in Kfar Uria. In the '70s and '80s he taught mural painting as a professor at Haifa University.

Famous murals of Ofek's can be seen at Haifa University and Jerusalem's main post office building. The latter was painted in 1972 at the initiative of then-Communications Minister Shimon Peres. This fresco too has been damaged by dampness and air conditioning, says Itzik Shweky of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites.

Ofek believed in art for society. He thought art should be taken out of museums and be exhibited in public for all to enjoy, not only for museum-goers and collectors.

"My father said that if he could, he would have dedicated his entire life to painting for society," says preservation architect Avner Ofek, the artist's son, who came this week to examine the condition of the mural in Kfar Uria.

"My father believed art is for the society in which the artist lives, not a personal whim or a means for satisfying personal needs," he says.

"This painting in Kfar Uria tells the story of our society and culture. It's not something internalized and private, it's public, social, national," he says.

Ofek came to Kfar Uria in 1970, when it was a desolate place inhabited by farmers from India. "That was the most suitable place for his art - painting for farm laborers in their community center," says his son.

The mural, painted on three walls, each 12.5 meters long and three meters high, tells the story of Israeli society. One wall tells the story of immigration, another is about building the country and the third depicts family and Jewish tradition.

Shweky has been campaigning for years to persuade the decision-makers of the need to restore Ofek's frescoes. He says two of Ofek's murals in Jerusalem schools in the Bayit Vegan and Kiryat Hayovel neighborhoods are in even worse condition. In one place the fresco was covered with a curtain and concealed by a television screen.

"It's absurd that we go to Rockefeller Center to see Diego Rivera murals while here important frescoes are slowly being destroyed," says Shweky.

Ofek says that while it is possible to restore the fresco in Kfar Uria, it is not far from "complete destruction."

Ofek and Shweky both believe that after the fresco and community center in Kfar Uria are restored, the site will attract visitors from all over Israel and the building could become a music and art school.

Michal Fattal