Jewish and Palestinian Women Create Together. But Don't Call It Coexistence

A new exhibition features religiously observant Jewish and Palestinian women artists, who are struggling for legitimacy in both societies

“Aisha” by Bat El Elfasi.
Bat El Elfasi

When artist Yael Serlin went to Studio of Her Own in Jerusalem’s downscale Katamonim neighborhood, she was carrying her third child in her arms and came with a girlfriend who helped her carry the art works. She had already obtained an art degree from Emunah College of Arts and Technology in the city. But when she applied to the renowned Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in the center of Jerusalem to do a master’s, she was told, “Your work is amazing, but with four children you can’t do art.”

Another artist, Nasrin Abu Bakr speaks of circles within circles in the Israeli art world and says that religiously observant women, both Jews and Palestinians, need to breach them. “The Moon’s Reflection on the Asphalt,” an exhibition currently on show at the art gallery of the Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center in Haifa (until June 28), tries to open up at least some of these circles.

Underlying the exhibition is a project called “Women’s Leadership in Culture,” initiated by Tzippi Mizrachi, a social activist, educator and founder of Studio of Her Own, and Yeala Hazut Yanuka, a former curator at Beit Hegefen Gallery and presently head of the arts department at the British Council/Israel. The two met while participating in programs for directors of cultural institutions and promoters of social change run by the U.S. Embassy in Israel. The embassy also supported the leadership project. “Our main goal is to make it possible for female artists from a religious-traditional background to become professionals,” Hazut Yanuka explains.

In an effort to create “a space for an encounter between Jewish and Palestinian female artists,” she says, three groups of such artists, most of them young, met over the course of a year in Lod, Haifa and Jerusalem. “It’s not some sort of prettified project,” says Abu Bakr, who was part of the Jerusalem group. “It’s a series of meetings that encourage women to speak out in our society, which is extremely patriarchal on both sides. It manifests in problems we run into if we want to exhibit, in stigmas about traditional art in both societies. There’s a monopoly on art. It’s always an Ashkenazi elite – if not a man, then a woman – and religiously observant artists always remain on the outside.”

Abu Bakr was initially hesitant about taking part in the project. “I was reluctant,” she says, “because what do I have in common with female religious artists from the Jewish society? I never sat at one table with them.” Indeed, both she and Yael Serlin describe highly charged, very political meetings.

“Moon” by Nasrin Abu Bakr.
Nasrin Abu Bakr

At the same time, Abu Bakr notes, “It was never a case of pointing an accusing finger, despite the difficulty that exists in this country.” Serlin, for her part, relates that “after the first meeting I couldn’t sleep at night. Everyone showed works they had done and it was all very charged emotionally. On the other hand, there was great hope, because I saw the desire to meet.”

In that first meeting Serlin brought a very personal object – a kerchief she had received from her grandmother, who was born in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. “When my great-grandfather made aliya, he was photographed with this kerchief by a journalist as a distinctive Arab image. That photograph led me to research my grandmother’s village in depth. In the meeting I talked about my close identification with the Palestinian artists.”

Most of the works in the exhibition, curated by Hadas Glazer and Yael Messer from Beit Hagefen, were created after the artists’ meetings. Serlin’s work, for example, is the product of a cooperative effort with the artist Kamer Badran. “In one of our meetings, Kamer took me to a cave beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulcher,” she recalls.

“She sang there with a huge echo, and it was incredible. In that cave I was able to disconnect from the place and listen to her voice. I photographed her there and created an installation of five sound sequences, which constantly form new compositions. Within the sequences you can hear Kamer’s voice, dripping sounds, a passing tourist, a choir from above, peddlers in the market.” Both in this work and in the journey of discovery she embarked on in the wake of her grandfather’s kerchief, “I wanted to find things below the surface and bring them to the surface. I evoke and reconstruct memories that no longer exist and which I am unable to touch.”

A different voice

“This project has a place for the voice of a woman, which is the central voice in my works,” Abu Bakr notes. “If in European art the individual – usually a man – is positioned at the center, in my work the woman is at the center. She is always at the center of the painting, hurt, unquiet, exposed, unclothed. She is not shown in her glory or her beauty. My works are always political,” she adds. “In the past I perhaps spoke in a more bellicose language and my political images were more direct, but now, too, when I am insistent about making my statement in the realm of art, I am engaging in a political act.”

“Portraits of Generations” by Lamis Shahout.
Lamis Shahout

One of the meetings in Jerusalem was scheduled for the day on which the U.S. Embassy was officially transferred to the city, Tzippi Mizrachi recalls. “The Palestinian artists didn’t show up that day and there was no meeting. But immediately afterward the meetings continued as usual and everyone came. That was a surprise for us. Despite all the disparities, the connecting element is the identity of a religious woman who is coping with similar issues – the way you dress, the expectation of a wedding, of giving birth, your activity as an artist that no one really values.”

Mizrachi has been working with religiously observant female artists for 20 years. At first, within the framework of the Education Ministry, she spearheaded the establishment of art tracks in Jewish religious schools in Israel. “There were no art tracks in the religious community,” she relates. “After we started art tracks throughout the country, geared exclusively to girls, there was a tremendous blossoming of art studies in the religious community. Years later, my students entered academia. When I saw their works I realized that they have a different voice, another language, they come with a social identity that bears investigation.” She is currently conducting that investigation as part of her doctoral thesis.

An opening, but no horizon

She became aware of the plight of young religious women who were arts graduates from institutions of higher learning when she interviewed them. “It’s extremely difficult for them to penetrate the art field and obtain mainstream recognition,” she says. “On top of which, they get no support at home. They told me how stifled they feel, about their powerful wish to create art and how this has no legitimacy in their society, which treats what they do as a hobby. They marry young, have children and are drawn into domestic chores. The fighters among them create art between midnight and three in the morning on the kitchen table. I felt bad for having forged an opening for them but not a horizon. That was the genesis of Studio of Her Own.”

Opened in 2010, the studio, in which some 40 female religious and traditionalist artists have been active, allows them to acquire professional and commercial tools, connections with other artists and with galleries, and public exposure through exhibitions. For women creating art in Jerusalem, these activities take place within a social-political context that is difficult for them to avoid. For example, Mizrachi relates, in the first meeting at the studio, the artist Hannan Abu-Hussein, a graduate of Bezalel who lectures on issues of gender and women in a traditional society, commented that “in order to succeed, she needs to forgo a relationship and the possibility of becoming a mother. She told the group about what her decision to study art meant to her family, and the Jewish artists identified with her completely.”

At the same time, Mizrachi emphasizes, the essence of the meetings was never coexistence. “We want to create a women’s leadership based on the common aspects of our coping,” she explains. “If something is fake, it doesn’t last. There can be extreme differences of opinion, but when the points of connection are true points, it works. It works first of all because these are women, and second because no one is required to be someone she is not. No one forgoes the tradition, the identity, the culture, the agenda.”