The Kaffiyeh Art Exhibit That’s Making Israel Tremble

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Untitled, 2016-2019, by artist Yael Yudkovik.
Untitled, 2017-2019, mixed media, by artist Yael Yudkovik. Skateboards as graves.Credit: Liat Albling
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

A funny thing happened when Israeli artist Yael Yudkovik decided to put kaffiyehs at the center of her latest project.

'The kaffiyeh became an iconic symbol, and the symbol of Palestinian solidarity and the fight against the Israeli occupation'

“When I contacted municipal art spaces and private galleries, I was told again and again that the works were fascinating and the sculptures were good, but they were too political. No place wanted it because of the kaffiyehs,” she says.

“It was interesting to see how the Western art world, which portrays itself as multicultural, tolerant and pluralistic, reacted in a panic to the kaffiyehs. In the Israeli-Jewish world, the kaffiyeh isn’t readily accepted. If it’s paintings of a kaffiyeh, or a sabra bush or olive trees, it’s okay, but using it as an iconic element is still perceived as threatening."

Yudkovik says she was told that the art spaces and galleries feared they would lose government funding and their stable of collectors. They were afraid someone would try to torch the gallery.

“Nira Itzhaki of the Chelouche Gallery in Tel Aviv was the only brave one who opened her door and heart to the installation,” Yudkovik says. “She identified with the voice that I wanted to make heard. During the [first] intifada, Nira also showed the political works by Miki Kratsman about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Another piece in the exhibition is a jug topped by a kaffiyeh. The jug was once in the home of Nadia Cohen, the widow of Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy executed in Syria in 1965.Credit: Liat Albling
Credit: Liat Albling

As curator Tali Tamir writes in the text that accompanies the exhibition: “Political art is regarded with particular suspicion in Israeli culture, especially when it relates to the conflict …. Yudkovik is operating in an artistic minefield.”

Yudkovik’s exhibition, “The Annual Conference on the Prevention and Care of Pressure Ulcers,” runs through October 26 and includes representations of women, kaffiyehs, proverbs, household utensils and stones.

Yael Yudkovik. 'Nira Itzhaki of the Chelouche Gallery in Tel Aviv was the only brave one who opened her door and heart to the installation.'Credit: Michal Revivo

“I don’t get the question,” Itzhaki says when asked if she was concerned about putting on the exhibition. “Life here is complex and any form of expression when it’s good should be given a platform. I think this sculpture exhibition is of museum quality.”

Itzhaki says two of the works have already been sold. “It’s not the most commercial exhibition, but there are excellent pieces here. I have many artists in the gallery who make noncommercial art.”

When Yudkovik wanted to publish a catalog for the project, she again ran into rejection. “To my surprise, when I contacted nonprofit groups that support art – from which I had received funding in the past – I was turned down,” she says.

“Again I was told that the work was defined as political, so they couldn’t provide financial support for a catalog. I also sent dozens of emails to left-leaning people. I spent whole days trying to raise money.”

She says she also received threats – and heard some foul language – from neighbors to her studio who were shocked when they popped in for a look. “I tried to explain that it wasn’t a terror cell.”

Weaned on grief

Yudkovik’s father died when her mother was pregnant with her. “I was born into loss, I was weaned on grief,” she says. She grew up on Kibbutz Kfar Giladi in the north, did her army service in Army Radio, then earned a bachelor’s degree at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design before going on to study psychology. She has shown her art in both Israel and abroad.

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art presented her piece “Infamy Club” as part of its “Moby Dick” exhibition curated by Dalit Matityahu. The piece explored murder and gender issues. At Rothschild 69, she and Sharon Glazberg presented “Aviva – a Way of an Elephant,” a project that included the exhumation of the elephant Aviva at the Ramat Gan Safari and the reassembling of her bones, which were used as material for video art and installations.

An installation by Israeli artist Yael Yudkovik at Chelouche Gallery, Tel Aviv.Credit: Elad Sharig

“Coming from Kfar Giladi, I remember being awed by the early 20th-century photographs of people from Hashomer that were on the walls in the dining hall, showing them wearing white kaffiyehs,” Yudkovik says, referring to the early-Zionist defense organization. “The Hashomer people, like many people in the Jewish-Zionist community back then and after them, including Ben-Gurion, had respect for their Arab neighbors and wanted to assimilate in the local landscape.”

The rebranding of the kaffiyeh as a symbol began in the 1960s, when Fatah leader and future PLO chief Yasser Arafat became identified with it. “The kaffiyeh became an iconic symbol, and the symbol of Palestinian solidarity and the fight against the Israeli occupation,” Yudkovik says.

“When I looked closely at the black-and-white-checked kaffiyeh, I found two prominent images: a fence in the middle, and on the fringes, something that resembled birds in flight. This design might allude to a fisherman’s net and has origins in Mesopotamia. This discovery led me to a number of sculptural motifs.”

So why does she, a Jewish Israeli Tel Aviv artist, connect to kaffiyehs?

“I’ve been asking myself that. Is the kaffiyeh working some kind of Oriental charm on me? Western artists who deal with the East are liable to be suspected of cultural appropriation or Orientalism,” she says.

An installation by Israeli artist Yael Yudkovik at Chelouche Gallery, Tel Aviv.Credit: Elad Sharig

“License to deal with the East or with those from a weaker ethnic or geographic group, while also being seen in the Western artistic discourse, is only granted to artists from a suitable ethnic background. Maybe what I’m doing with the kaffiyeh is something else.”

A common language

After the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, Yudkovik joined the Parents Circle-Families Forum of Palestinians and Israelis who have lost loved ones in the conflict. She took part in “The Narrative” project in which the forum held get-togethers in Beit Jala in the Wyest Bank.

“I was exposed to very painful stories that roused in me a need to really delve into and examine my place, as a Jewish woman, in this arduous struggle to end the occupation. The encounters in ‘The Narrative’ project really got to me,” she says.

“Before then, I didn’t realize how cruel the occupation was. One of the Palestinians got angry when I told him that I was embarrassed by the way things are presented on television. He said, ‘You see the fire, but I’m burned by it.’”

Yael Yudkovik, Untitled, 2017-2019, mixed media.Credit: Tal Nissim

In one encounter, she was paired with a woman whose son was killed by a rubber bullet. “She told me about his childhood, about how much she loved nursing him and what she made him for breakfast on the day he was killed,” Yudkovik says. “After that, I had to tell the group the story of her loss. It was a powerful exercise that really connected me to her.”

The encounters with the Palestinians also deeply unsettled her. “There was a period when, if a terror attack happened, I’d check to see if I knew the attacker. It was a confusing feeling, even though the chances were small that someone who’d come to reconciliation encounters would do something like that,” she says.

“On the other hand, they live in hell and there can be surprises – look at what happened with attorney Tareq Barghouti, who was a prominent figure in the nonviolent struggle against the occupation.” Barghouti worked with attorney Lea Tsemel in East Jerusalem for years and was accused of involvement in two terror attacks.

How did these encounters turn into art?

The encounters with the Palestinians were so powerful that there was no way they wouldn’t make their way into the studio, but my art is always autobiographical. It took me a while to understand and process the feelings. I started with the figures. I built big Russian nesting dolls that look like rubber bullets containing an image of a baby in the belly. I realized that I wanted to connect to the parental, to the maternal, so in my installation most of the women are cast as mothers.”

Untitled, 2017-2019, mixed media. The caption in Arabic reads 'Hardship with dreams' Credit: Liat Albling

Why the title “The Annual Conference on the Prevention and Care of Pressure Ulcers”?

“The occupation is like a pressure ulcer, something lifeless. It’s static and has no blood flow. This wound requires a change of position from our side, from Israelis and Jews. I realized that I wanted to create an installation about coming together for the sake of healing.”

The works are largely made out of used materials, including kaffiyehs she received from Gaza. “Usually, my works start with me wandering around the city. I collect things and bring them to the studio, where they’re studied, handled and welded with other parts until that redemptive moment when an object takes shape,” Yudkovik says.

“This is where my deep connection with the objects begins, and they become a living, breathing entity in my mind. I talk to them and sing to them, confer with them and ask them questions.”

One of the figures in the show is a woman with a stone on her head; that could be a load she’s carrying or a weapon. “Is she a terrorist too? I see it as defense. Maybe the women of this conference will decide to ditch the instruments of violence they’ve appropriated from the men,” Yudkovik says.

Yael Yudkovik, Untitled, 2017-2019, mixed media.Credit: Liat Albling

“Defense is perceived as an essentially male thing. Women don’t express themselves as much on political-security affairs, even when they know they’re being sold untruths. The conference gives them a safe space of sisterhood; a sense of group solidarity is created that facilitates a common language.”

Another piece in the exhibition is a jug topped by a kaffiyeh. The jug was once in the home of Nadia Cohen, the widow of Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy executed in Syria in 1965.

“I took the jug from my mother’s house,” Yudkovik says. “She was a close friend of Nadia’s. I didn’t know its origin at first. When you know it, the work takes on another dimension.”

In another work, she attaches together nine skateboards wrapped in kaffiyehs – they look like small graves with shrouds. Yudkovik says that in the West Bank, the most popular sports are parkour – leaping from one rooftop to another – and skateboarding.

In a piece featuring a chalkboard, Yudkovik uses popular Arab sayings that address men using the feminine form. “In honor of the women, I converted it to the feminine,” she says.

Among the quotes: “Gauge the depth of the river before you throw yourself into its waters.” Another proverb, originally in Yiddish, goes: “The deaf woman heard that the mute woman said the blind woman saw how the lame woman ran.”

Before Rosh Hashanah, Yudkovik got to experience another unique encounter. The Shin Bet security service issued one-time entry permits to 20 Palestinians, members of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, to visit her exhibition.

“It was an event that inspired hope. Kratsman was there and told the guests how rare it is these days for a political exhibition like this to be shown, especially at a commercial gallery,” Yudkovik says.

“Despite the feeling that we’re living in a terminally ill country, there was a fleeting sense of normalization. Hope is the dream of people who are awake. The desire to be healed is an essential part of healing.”

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