A Jerusalem Art Show Revives the Ghosts of 1948

The exhibition ‘Properties’ in Jerusalem’s Talbieh neighborhood is a brave event. An in-depth look at the area, it features works by Palestinian and Israeli artists who present a sophisticated take on the hurts of 1948

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Ron Asulin, “Khushmantaush,” 2018, from the exhibition “Properties.”
Ron Asulin, “Khushmantaush,” 2018, from the exhibition “Properties.”Credit: Kira Klatski
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter

Jerusalem is a city rife with festivals. Every month there seems to be another art festival. Late last month we had Manofim: Jerusalem Contemporary Art Festival, which this year celebrated its 10th anniversary. It featured dance and performance art, home tours, meetings with artists, a conference on art, evenings of homages and a 10th-anniversary party.

The main exhibition of Manofim, curated by the festival’s directors, Rinat Edelstein and Le Hee Shulov, is on view for a full month and transcends the festival’s boundaries. Titled “Properties,” it’s set in the Talbieh neighborhood and focuses on the historic layers of the area, its buildings and institutions, the transformations that occurred in its social fabric and its character in the past and the present. Behind this multiplicity is an exhibition that revolves wholly around the wound of 1948. The exhibition is taking place amid hot public debate over the government’s proposed “culture loyalty” law, which would deny funding to cultural institutions deemed disloyal to the state. In short, this is a brave exhibition – and an intriguing one.

Last year, by comparison, the venue of Manofim’s central exhibition was the Mormon university on Mount Scopus; it offered a panoramic view of sacred paths in both heavenly and earthly Jerusalem. That fine exhibition was held in a tricky space, in which the artworks had to compete with the spectacular view of the city from the campus. However, the show, which dealt with the theology of the city, avoided any direct reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – even though it overlooked the Temple Mount – and featured only Jewish artists.

This year’s exhibition comes back down to earth, and instead of an overarching view from on high presents an in-depth street-level look at one neighborhood. Many of the artists are Palestinians, and quite a few of the Jewish Israeli artists are also occupied in their work with the Palestine question. It’s a disjointed exhibition, without a single space, without a central venue. Its point of departure is a walk through Talbieh, the neighborhood built by the Palestinian bourgeoisie in the 1920s, inhabited by an Israeli bourgeois population after 1948, and currently mostly in the possession of a Jewish bourgeoisie that lives outside Israel. The major works of the exhibition are located in six of Talbieh’s mansions – private homes that afterward became public buildings, or buildings that remained private residences but underwent a change of ownership.

At first, the route of the exhibition seems to be a typical real-estate walk of the kind that has become popular here, which delights in the size of homes and the stateliness of their facades, the furniture and the wall decorations, the excellent gardening and the clean neighborhood – an urban pearl of tranquility and sedateness. The walk through Talbieh reveals that its tranquility is of a ghostly character, that the neighborhood’s past hovers over its present and clings to it tenaciously. It’s the past of a place that today is a ghost neighborhood, where few of the homeowners live on a regular basis and where many of the homes are empty for most of the year.

“The Crier,” 2007-2018, Elham Rokni. Credit: Kira Klatski

Trespassing and encroachment

Instead of the smooth language of the aesthetic explanations that usually accompany tours of homes, a sign in front of each structure taking part in the exhibition tells the story of its construction, ownership evolution and current usage or non-usage. These are the opening terms of the artistic exhibition currently placed in each building. The transition between the different exhibition sites, the entry and exit from house to house, do not add up to a thrilling outing among buildings and objects. In the progression through the neighborhood, visitors to the exhibition personify the trespassing and encroachment that formed the historic consolidation of the present serene atmosphere. The exhibition takes the standard tour of properties, inverts it and turns the gaze on its component parts: The properties on exhibit are those of “absentees,” and the absentees are manifested in them through the prism of the artworks.

The works denote different strategies of manifestation. On display in the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, which is located in a residence built in the 1920s for the distinguished Nashashibi family, manifestation takes the form of historic documentation in an exhibition titled the “Archaeology of the Address,” guided by Tovi Fenster, a professor of geography and human environment. It traces the evolution of the ownership of houses in Jerusalem through an archival work that turns up purchase documents, architectural designs and photographs, alongside interviews with tenants. A similar project relating to homes in Jaffa was presented two years ago by the Zochrot NGO, which promotes awareness of the Palestinian Nakba, and paved the way for the “Properties” exhibition in Jerusalem. Opposite this is a para-fictitious manifestation in an installation by Maya Attoun, which reprises the residence of the last private tenant in the building. Attoun has recreated a room from what remained in it and from materials of her own, without the viewer being able to distinguish sharply between the two. A rhetoric of artworks counterpoised to a rhetoric of revivification – and both existing concurrent with the daily work of the institute, whose staff are ensconced in their rooms as they conduct their research, so that the work of the past melds into the work of the present.

Matters are less mixed in the building of the Israel Psychoanalytic Society, which was erected in the 1920s by Dimitri Hanna: The analysts suffer less from uninvited visits. But multimedia artist Nadav Assor has laid cables on the walls of various rooms in the building, and with the aid of a listening device the visitor can eavesdrop on a network of monologues that revive the home’s Palestinian past. It’s a kind of mental work of restoring the repressed that the building itself conducts, and as such offers an alternative to the analysis of the individual.

There are more fine works in the exhibition, and their cumulative effect at the different sites succeeds in breaching the hermetic structure of an art exhibition. At their best, they tell the story of the place, not only didactically but phantasmatically as well. The temptation to wander amid the highly impressive buildings of Talbieh is great – through the eye it’s sweet as honey, but it fills the gut with bitter acid. These really are real-estate properties: mobile populations, people and objects that moved to and fro, and only the buildings remained intact.

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