An Arab Israeli Artist Finds Home Inside a Suitcase

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Oh no, don't you put me in that box: Actress and video artist Raida Adon, February 2020.
Oh no, don't you put me in that box: Actress and video artist Raida Adon, February 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Raida Adon is known to many Israelis as an actress in plays, movies and TV series like “Fauda,” but her pivot to video art a few years ago has brought her to a new major stage: the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Starting this week the museum is hosting a solo exhibition by the Acre-born artist, her 33-minute film “Strangeness” and exhibits reflecting the creative process in getting the movie made. She is the first Arab Israeli or Palestinian to have a solo stint at the renowned museum.   

A year and a half ago she contacted Amitai Mendelsohn, the museum’s art curator who is also curating Adon’s exhibition; he liked what the artist had in mind.

A scene from Raida Adon's video art work "Strangeness."Credit: Tami Weiss

Adon began working on the film in 2013 “with no funding or anything, without even a studio. Only this year did the Tel Aviv municipality offer me one. I made sketches in the street, at home; some of them I drew in Paris.”

'I’m always the wife of a Hamas character, my children have been killed or I’ve been raped by my husband. In my art I create the characters I want to'

Letters Adon wrote over 11 years to a Jewish acquaintance named Noa helped bring the project to life. “I wrote her around 160 letters, some by email and some hand-delivered by me,” Adon says. “She never answered. I wrote what I was feeling – from feelings associated with being a refugee and homeless to things that came from my soul. It was part of the work process. I kept them like a diary.”

Much of what was in those letters made it into her film, “like the feeling that I didn’t belong anywhere, as if I were living in a suitcase.”

The film begins with a group of well-dressed people walking through a forest. It’s hard to discern their origins or period in history, but it seems to be the first half of the 20th century. Each character is carrying an object – a suitcase, a chair, a package. The song in the background – a Romanian lullaby – is deceptive. In the next scene, Adon appears, wearing a dramatic black dress.

The next scene is inspired by “Alice in Wonderland.” Adon sits in a tiny house that’s actually a suitcase. She made the suitcase, which is on display at the museum. Sitting in the valise, Adon listens to music, knits and falls asleep. Later, the house fills with water and she drowns. Then the group returns.

The scenes were shot in Acre, Safed, forests in northern Israel and Jerusalem. In another scene, Adon is alone in the desert (it’s the Judean Desert near Jericho), near a railway track. It’s later clear that the track is a toy track that will carry her nowhere. At the end of the video, members of the group disappear into the sea, their fate unknown.

Adon was born in Acre in 1972 into a family whose members belong to three religions, though in interviews she doesn’t go into the details. In the past she worked as a model and studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. And of course she acted in several films including “A Trumpet in the Wadi,” “Yellow Asphalt” and “3000 Nights.” On the stage she had roles in plays including “Return to Haifa,” “The Yellow Wind” and “Living Again.” She also appeared in several TV series, not just "Fauda."

Since 2001 she has been making video art that has been shown in museums in Israel and abroad. These works include “Fasatine” in 2001 and “Beyond the Walls” in 2005; both deal with the Nakba (Catastrophe), when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1947-49 war. In 2014 her film “Woman without a Home” was shown at the Tel Aviv Museum.

The Israeli security barrier stands near The Walled Off Hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.Credit: Majdi Mohammed,AP

'Banksy approved the film, the hotel owner sent him a copy, but I haven’t met him, even though I’m dying to. I was concerned about screening it at the hotel because Palestinians aren’t used to video art'

These days she’s working on many things at once, including a TV series produced by the famous Israeli film director Uri Barabash.

“It’s in English and is a collaboration with Norwegians, requiring me to study hard,” Adon says. “I’ll also be taking part in a fashion week with the Kedem Sasson fashion house. I modeled for him 20 years ago, telling him he had to make me look really beautiful.”

She’ll be going to Boston to give a lecture, and starting in July she’ll be working in Paris for six months. She’s also teaching video art at Sapir College and Bezalel.

The different types of media complement each other, Adon says. “Being an artist is like being a monk: being on your own, with yourself, imagining a world. But the world of acting is a hubbub of actors working together, with the energy of many people who depend on each other – it’s different than art, where everything is mine only.”

A scene from Raida Adon's video art work "Strangeness."Credit: Tami Weiss

She links her need for art to the types of characters she has played in films. “So far, I’ve only played Arab women. Only in my last movie, with a female Lebanese director, I was given the role of a Jewish woman,” she says.

“I also played a drug addict in ‘3000 Nights.’ That frustrates me. I’m always the wife of a Hamas character, my children have been killed or I’ve been raped by my husband. It’s always someone who has suffered a trauma. In my art I create the characters I want to.”

She easily slipped into video art 20 years ago, when the field was still in its early stages. “I started when there wasn’t yet a video art department," she says. "I came from film and acting, and it was something I felt close to. It was my baby.”

Nicely dressed refugees

The film Adon is showing at the Israel Museum isn’t associated with any specific location. “I want anyone watching it to feel confused, not knowing if they’re seeing the Nakba or Syria. I looked at pictures of Jews being expelled [by the Ottoman Turks] from the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Neveh Tzedek in World War I and of Jews being deported during the Holocaust. I feel that we’re in a circle, with whoever has more power expelling the other.”

A situation of expulsion or alienation, she adds, can beset anyone. “I asked many Israelis in Paris if they felt at home and they said they felt foreign. I feel foreign everywhere.”

You dressed the refugees well in the movie. They don’t look like refugees.

“In photos from the past many refugees look well-dressed. The Arabs who fled in 1948 – many were well-dressed aristocrats. My characters are without a defined religion. There are 100 extras in the film – Jews, Palestinians and Europeans. There are no actors, I don’t like using actors, I take simple people. I pay them, obviously.”

You play with size and scale in the film, changing sizes.

“When I enter that suitcase, it’s a metaphor for the state not being able to contain me. On the other hand, I feel safe inside that suitcase. Also, I can’t move around and the house is very small. I suffocate and drown. For me, a house is a womb and a house fills with water.”

Raida Adon. 'I started when there wasn’t yet a video art department. I came from film and acting, and it was something I felt close to. It was my baby'Credit: Emil Salman

Is the fact that you’re homeless a political statement or also a financial one?

“I live from day to day, paying rent, and I’ve lived in the same apartment in Jaffa for nine years after moving around a lot. I use my bike for transportation. But I don’t feel like a resident of Jaffa. I’m from Acre. I only live in Jaffa, my friends are there, my art is there, but I don’t feel I belong there and I don’t like living there. It’s simply cheaper than living in central Tel Aviv, where I’d prefer to live. What keeps me there are the birds in the nearby garden.”

Adon lived in Acre until she was 13, moving to Haifa until she was 24. She then moved to Jerusalem and later to central Israel. She talks about the north longingly.

“Haifa is very open regarding women,” she says. “I feel less racism there. In Acre and Haifa I didn’t feel any. It was difficult in Jerusalem. I got there when the first intifada broke out and I felt some dissonance, seeing policemen on horses, having to carry an ID. Who carries ID in Haifa? It felt hallucinatory.”

Banksy’s a fan

Adon’s film was supported by the national lottery and the Gesher film fund, which got its screening canceled at the Palestinian film festival in Paris. It was shown on the wall of Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, but Adon hasn’t met the anonymous street artist.

“Banksy approved the film, the hotel owner sent him a copy, but I haven’t met him, even though I’m dying to,” Adon says. “I was concerned about screening it at the hotel because Palestinians aren’t used to video art. For them, art means painting. In the end, the reactions were amazing.”

Do you feel comfortable taking money from institutions?

“I live here, I pay taxes, why shouldn’t I? It’s not the foundations’ money, it belongs to artists. It pays for production, for the extras. I don’t pocket any of it. The museum isn’t paying me either; they simply bought this specific piece. Who pays me when I show it? Everyone asks me about the profits I make. My profit is in seeing my child – the film – in front of me.”

Even though Mendelsohn and the museum spokesman sat in during our interview, Adon wasn’t reluctant to talk about the status of artists. “It’s incomprehensible that museums and galleries don’t pay artists. An artist has to stare at a wall in order to create. He can’t work 24 hours a day,” she says.

A scene from Raida Adon's video art work "Strangeness."Credit: Tami Weiss

“I pray that God provides for me. I’ve never had a steady salary. In July and August my sister helps me because at Bezalel I’m an adjunct teacher with no pay during vacations. In these months I have no way to pay my bills. I have to improvise work over the summer.”

And no, she has never considered leaving the country, neither for political nor financial reasons. “I’d have problems there too; I’d be a refugee again,” she says. “My life is here, with my memories. I like going places and then returning.”

What do you hope museum visitors will see in your work?

“I hope people stop being indifferent and become empathic. Everyone watched Syria from the sidelines without doing anything. Everyone will identify with what they feel. I don’t care if they say it’s beautiful or not, kitsch or not, I’ve said my piece. In general, I don’t care what people say about what I do.”

I ask her where this equanimity comes from and she looks at me piercingly. “I lived in a place where everyone was Arab. I’d return at the hours I did and everyone would ask where I’d been, who I came home with," she says.

“I’ve been dealing with that since I was 17, so do you think I care what people think or say about me? I only care about my family. That’s my anchor. They’re amazing. They never told me to get married, to have children, except my big brother. I tell him: Look where you are with three children and where I am. I’m having fun.”

I then ask Mendelsohn, the curator, what took him so long to book a solo exhibition by an Arab-Israeli or Palestinian artist.

“We’ve shown Arab artists as part of group exhibitions, and our permanent exhibitions of Israeli artists include Arab ones. That says something about our wish to give them a voice, and the trend is growing. Adon’s work is a poetic and powerful response to the situation in this country. We want to give a voice to the difficult situation of living with an identity like the one Raida Adon lives with.”

Mendelsohn also notes the change in relations between institutions and Arab artists. “In the past, Arab or Palestinian artists didn’t want to exhibit and there were difficulties with the art establishment. Ultimately, we don’t represent any community, we give a voice to good artists,” he says.

“When soldiers visiting the museum encounter work such as Adon’s, it could change something in their perspective. This work is that universal thing that puts us all on the same level.”

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