A Fresh Arab Exhibitor at Tel Aviv’s Fresh Paint Fest

'I want to be part of the Israeli agenda,' says director of Nazareth gallery, the first Arab institution to to participate in the annual festival.

Farid Abu Shakra, founder of the Nazareth-based House of Culture and Art.
Moti Milrod

For the first time ever, an art gallery in an Arab city is participating in the Fresh Paint Contemporary Art Fair in Tel Aviv. Featured at the event, which opened Tuesday in the Tel Aviv Port's Yarid Hamizrach exhibition space, are works by Jewish and Arab artists affiliated with the Nazareth-based House of Culture and Art.

When the gallery, established and directed by Farid Abu Shakra, found that it would not be able to pay the requisite thousands of shekels to participate in the eighth annual fair, the organizers decided to invite it to exhibit for free.

On show during the five-day event are works by Abu Shakra himself, as well as by artists Walid Abu Shakra, Dubi Harel, Nava Shoshani, Sima Levin, Ashraf Fuahri, Essam Darawsha and Samah Shehada.

Each year Fresh Paint attracts some 30,000 art-lovers, artists and art professionals, including members of the public who purchase works by leading local contemporary artists, according to the festival website. The event takes place every year in a new venue.

Last week, speaking in his gallery, Abu Shakra, 52, seemed very excited about its debut performance. The House of Culture and Art usually receives very little exposure, in part because of its out-of-the-way location in a 200-year-old building in the Nazareth market.

Abu Shakra himself is showing two works at the fair from what he calls his “earthworks” or "sand games" series, consisting of various objects that he coats with sand and arranges in small display cases, like archaeological exhibits. In one, a dragon meets a small lamb (“Me and my ego,” he calls it); another features a toy tank covered in sand. The different sand that he uses came from different places around Israel – from his hometown of Umm al-Fahm, as well as from Megiddo, Hadera and other locals. Also on show are engravings that he calls “embroidered landscapes” and watercolors from his landscape series.

Abu Shakra was not embarrassed to say how excited he was about participating, with fellow artists from his gallery, in Fresh Paint.

A sand-covered miniature tank by artist Farid Abu Shakra, part of his "sand games" series.
Yigal Pardo

“I want to be accepted, I want to fit in," he said. "I want to be part of the Israeli agenda, with everything I have, with the identity I have, with my Arabism. And to be part of the place, to listen to it, to inspire it. The modern art gallery in Nazareth describes itself as a Palestinian Arab gallery in the State of Israel, and it is loyal to this 'triangle' [of identities] – Arab, Palestinian and citizen of the state.”

A graduate of Kalisher – The Israel Pollak Tel Aviv School of Art, Abu Shakra founded his Nazareth gallery in 2009, after establishing the Umm El Fahem gallery in 1995 with his brother, Said Abu Shakra; the two managed that gallery until 2000. Another of their brothers is artist Walid Abu Shakra, and the late artist Issam Abu Shakra, who passed away in 1990, was their cousin. Farid and Issam studied together at Kalisher in the 1980s, shared an apartment in Tel Aviv and worked at the same restaurant to support themselves. It was during those years, said Farid, that he faced racism for the first time.

“In the building where I lived, they didn’t like the fact that I was an Arab. On the floor below me lived an elderly Holocaust survivor. Said, my brother, was then a senior officer in the police, and he came to visit me sometimes in his uniform. When he came up the stairs, the neighbor saw him and told him: Mr. Policeman, an Arab lives upstairs. He makes trouble, plays his music very loudly and it bothers me. Can you possibly do something?”

“He told her: Don’t worry ma’am, I will take care of it. He told me and we laughed. You can only feel sorry for people and feel their pain. A week later, outside her door, I found her wallet, which she seemed to have dropped. I returned it to her and from then on we were best friends."

Multicultural agenda

The building in which the House of Culture and Art is located was donated by late attorney Tawfiq Muammar to the Orthodox Community Council in Nazareth for the purpose of serving as a cultural institution. The council maintains the premises and covers various expenses, but Abu Shakra says it does not interfere in the content of the gallery, which showcases Jewish, Christian and Muslim artists.

Its main agenda, Abu Shakra explains, is multicultural: “That is the main axis through which we want to forge connections and develop projects. We collaborate, also, with many institutions in Israel, overseas and in the Palestinian Authority, because this triangle is very important to us: Jews, Palestinians who are here, and Palestinians in the Palestinian Authority and all over the world. This main axis should be of importance to each and every one of us. Cooperation is the answer to all problems. I hear, speak, respond and listen – that is how it works."

'Peace Talks' by Nava Shoshani (2014).
Nava Shoshani

One of the most recent projects undertaken by the Nazareth gallery was an exhibition entitled “Stains and Staining,” launched in cooperation with the Ahoti (Sister) nonprofit organization for women in Israel. The works, based on the theme of the relationship between Palestinian artists and Jewish artists of Mizrahi (North African of Middle East) background, were shown both at the House of Culture and Art, and at Ahoti’s offices in Tel Aviv.

The Fresh Paint event this week, said Abu Shakra, offers an opportunity not only to showcase Arab artists from his gallery, but also works by everyone else that are on display there, including Jews.

“It does not seem fair to me that at a moment of such great exposure, we show only Palestinian artists," he explained. "It is known that I am a Palestinian Arab, I don’t need to emphasize it in every exhibition I do. Cooperation is very important, both with Jews and Palestinian Arabs. It is important for people to come without preconditions. We don’t need to define ourselves or to choose certain artists in order to serve a particular interest. We do [our work] with justice and honesty. The artists who have worked with us and been there with us – they will be with us the entire way.”

As for the relationships between Jews and Arabs and Palestinians, Abu Shakra said, “Zionism, like today’s globalization, brought under one tent all the Jews from the Diaspora, and told them: You are no longer American, you are not Ethiopian anymore, and not Arab any longer. You are Zionist. And that meant the destruction of everything they had had. They especially wanted to erase the Arab identity among Arab Jews and to castrate everything that was called Arab and Middle Eastern culture, in order to rebuild it from scratch.

“These same people who worked so hard to erase their culture, today are searching for it, because they have it in their genes. But Palestinian culture is not similar to Egyptian cultures, and not similar to Moroccan [culture]. And the culture in Umm al-Fahm is not like the culture of Nazareth. So you want the culture of the Jew who arrived from Arab countries to be similar to Palestinian culture? It’s impossible.

“It is possible to talk about imagination. And colors, for example. We see the same light and shadow. The Jew who comes from the Arab lands does not use light and shadow in the same fashion as the Jew who came from the West. It took [the late artist] Anna Ticho 10 years after she came to Israel to paint landscapes. She was impressed by the Mediterranean landscape, but could not see the line as clearly as she saw it in Belgium because the line [here] trembles, vibrates from the heat. And when you see the road, the road moves and the branches shake. So there is similarity between the Palestinian Arab artist and the Jewish artist who came from Arab lands, but the Jew cannot be Palestinian because the Palestinian cannot be a Jew.”

The gallery owner was hopeful that the Fresh Paint event will boost his gallery financially.

“People come to see the exhibits, but don’t buy art," he said. "There are a few Palestinian collectors [in Israel], but that's only the tip of the iceberg. I want to strengthen the sale of art. In Ramallah, by comparison, there are big collectors and entire exhibitions are sold. As for prices, they are three times higher than ours, they are astronomical. There is a vibrant market in Ramallah, and of course in the Gulf States. In Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. One gallery owner told me that in Cairo there are 25,000 art collectors.”