Arab Artists Back Out of Regional Show in Israeli Arab City

Artists, hailing from France and Lebanon, say they weren't notified that their works would be exhibited; Curator in response: Collective withdrawal due to BDS influence

Third Mediterranean Biennale curator Belu-Simion Fainaru, right, at the opening of AMOCAH, the Arab Museum of Contemporary Art and Heritage, in Sakhnin, in 2015. From left are Sakhnin Mayor Mazen Ghnaim; Nechama Rivlin, wife of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin; and Arab artist Mahmoud Badarna.

Five well-known Arab artists whose works were supposed to be shown at a regional exhibition later this week in the Israeli Arab city of Sakhnin have asked that their works be withdrawn from the event.

The five artists whose works were to be on display at the Third Mediterranean Biennale are Zineb Sedira, a French Algerian; Bouchra Khalili and Yto Barrada, both French Moroccans; Walid Raad, a Lebanese American; and Akram Zaatari, a citizen of Lebanon. The theme of the biennale, which opens Thursday and runs through December 16, is "Out of Place."

The curator of the biennale, Israeli artist Belu-Simion Fainaru, said that about 18 months ago he had contacted FRAC, a contemporary art museum in France, and asked to borrow video works by the artists. FRAC consented, in exchange for payment.

But when Haaretz contacted the artists, they said they had only discovered last weekend – thanks to an online newsletter put out by the e-flux publishing platform – that their works were going to be shown at an Israeli exhibition. They immediately contacted FRAC’s director, Pascal Neveux, asking him to tell curator Fainaru to remove their works from the biennale and their names from all its advertising materials.

In his email to Fainaru, a copy of which was forwarded to Haaretz, Neveux said the artists hadn’t received the necessary documents from organizers of the biennale including a press kit and press releases, so that they could consent to the use of their names and their art.

Zaatari told Haaretz in an email that FRAC has general permission to loan the artists’ works to others, but wrote that as a Lebanese artist, he is forbidden by law to exhibit in Israel. He said that he respects this law, has never agreed to exhibit in Israel or sell to Israeli collectors, and considers FRAC’s decision to lend his work to the biennale to be nave and irresponsible.

Moreover, Zaatari wrote that he doesn’t want his work to be a vehicle for transmitting nationalist ideology, and he disagrees with the European view that artworks should be able to be shown anywhere.

In a Facebook post, Zaatari said he was shocked that FRAC didn’t know that Arab artists typically refuse to exhibit in Israel, and that it had evidently failed to understand his work, choosing to use it as a sort of diplomatic currency.

The work FRAC had loaned to the biennale, he noted, was “Saida, June 6, 1982,” which is based on photographs he took as a 16-year-old teen on the first day of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Zaatari added that he had spent the next three years of his life under Israeli occupation.

Artist-curator Fainaru called the collective withdrawal of the artists from the exhibition a political decision influenced by the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, whose aim is to target Israel in every possible realm, including the arts.

“Unfortunately," he wrote in a statement, "art has become political and is losing its real power, which is to create love and solidarity between people.”

Fainaru noted that the works in question were slated to be shown “to the Palestinian population of northern Israel, in the towns of Sakhnin, Arabeh and Deir Hanna.” The biennale’s goal, he continued, “is to create a platform for dialogue and coexistence throughout art, while opposing the increase of hatred and enmity via the boycott.”

While the curator acknowledged that he never contacted the artists personally, he said this is not uncommon, noting, “When I participate in exhibitions, I’m not always informed, or I’m informed belatedly."

He also said he didn’t know there was a law barring Lebanese artists from showing their work in Israel.

When Haaretz noted that an internet search would have quickly revealed that all five artists boycott Israel, Fainaru retorted: “As an artist, I don’t understand boycotts. I was born in Romania under a harsh regime, and I believe art is something that can surmount all walls. Foreign ministers might not be able to meet [up with each other], but artists? The purpose of my biennale is to break down walls.”

Asked whether organizing an exhibition like the biennale – an alternative event, held in private homes and even tents rather than in a gallery space – doesn’t demand a dialogue with the artists themselves, he replied, “The curator is no less than the artist. The curator is himself a creator who gives a new interpretation to the work, an angle the artist himself never thought of.”