When You’re Palestinian, American and Jewish, Life — Like Your Art — Is Complicated

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Jordan Nassar’s “The Sea Beneath Our Eyes” exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv
Jordan Nassar’s “The Sea Beneath Our Eyes” exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv.Credit: Eyal Agivayev
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard

In late September, a strange sight greeted visitors to Tel Aviv’s Center for Contemporary Art. The entire first floor had been transformed into a small and cozy apartment, replete with some 150 household objects that had been locally produced. The biggest clue that this was not a genuine living space was the uniformly green color scheme.

A sign at the door, scrawled in Hebrew, Arabic and English, featured the name of the supposed resident of this temporary home: Nassar.

The man behind this project, titled “The Sea Beneath Our Eyes,” is American-Palestinian artist Jordan Nassar. The quintessentially Israeli apartment he designed from scratch is the result of a year-long journey through Israel and the Palestinian territories, where he assembled all the featured objects from local craftspeople. It’s the home he envisions he could have lived in if he ever made good on his right to return to his ancestors’ homeland.

The 34-year-old, who was raised in the United States by a Polish mother and Palestinian father, recently discovered he also happens to be Jewish: His maternal grandmother was a Catholic convert whose last name was originally the commonplace Jewish name “Davidovich.” Nassar says the shock discovery, which took place a few years ago, “didn’t lead to soul-searching because I grew up so culturally Jewish in New York and spent so much time in Israel — so I feel very culturally Jewish anyway.”

The artist affirms that he identifies as Jewish, but says he is “not interested in practicing Judaism” because he doesn’t see himself as a religious person. He is quick to note, when asked about his Jewish identity, that he “is also connected to the Palestinian side of the story — the idea of the grandmother keeping the key to her house and always dreaming of going back one day.”

Jordan Nassar. "I can go into Ramallah one day, and go to Ra’anana for Shabbat dinner at my husband’s family the next. That’s my life, that’s who I am."Credit: Alexander Rotondo

Vision of a home

Nassar’s unusual background, coupled with the fact that for the past six years he has been married to an Israeli man, has nurtured his strong desire to explore, both personally and artistically, “the land between the river and the sea” — the name he prefers to use instead of “Israel” and “Palestine.”

Speaking to Haaretz by phone from New York, he explains why he doesn’t fit into any particular mold, however much others may want him to. Speaking with a distinct New York accent, he sporadically uses words in Arabic and Hebrew to emphasize his point.

“My message is that it’s complicated,” says Nassar. “There are things that from a New Yorker or American perspective don’t make any sense. For example: I can go into Ramallah one day, and go to Ra’anana for Shabbat dinner at my husband’s family the next. That’s my life, that’s who I am.”

The artist, whose main medium is embroidery work, acknowledges that “for an American Arab or an American Jew, that’s very confusing. I want to be a poster boy of that. I want to open their minds so they think, ‘Oh, maybe I don’t understand the situation. Maybe it’s not as simple as Arabs hate Jews and Jews hate Arabs.”

Nassar often comes to Israel, where he collaborates with Palestinian women in the West Bank on handmade embroideries, which are the focal point of artworks he has exhibited worldwide. “I have them do their usual thing, but I change it just a little bit,” he says. “I change the colors, or I change something about the pattern.”

When he was invited by CCA director Nicola Trezzi to showcase his work at the center, Nassar drew inspiration from his regular work process and decided to “extend that same approach to other crafts. I wanted to capture the living, cultural aspects of these crafts and their history.”

“The Sun Has Sulfuric Dreams” (2019) by Jordan Nassar.Credit: Jordan Nassar / Anat Ebgi Gallery

Trezzi explains that he decided to display Nassar’s work after encountering it in previous shows overseas. “I knew from the start that his show at CCA Tel Aviv would not be like any other show. We both immediately understood that this was an opportunity for him (and us) to experiment with something he never did before,” he says.

With encouragement from the center to keep exploring until he settled on a theme, Nasser approached numerous craftspeople throughout the country, visiting their workshops and commissioning items that are unique to the show. He involved artisans from myriad minority communities: From Ethiopian basket weavers to Jaffa-based manufacturers of hamsas (the Middle Eastern, hand-shaped amulet that traditionally symbolizes the hand of God), to crafts from Druze and Bedouin.

Nassar stresses it was important for him to include artifacts that would reflect the diversity of the Israeli population as he himself experiences it. “There is Palestinian stuff, and then there is stuff that you can call Israeli. But it’s much broader than that, because in Israel you have Jewish immigrants from all over the world who have come and made aliyah and who are now Israeli. So what does ‘Israeli’ mean?

“I thought it was interesting to call attention to that, because publicly the image the government and the Israeli Culture Ministry project is very white,” he adds.

The artist’s interactions with local craftspeople were as complicated as the reality on the ground. “It was interesting to work with the different craftspeople, because some of them were just like, ‘Who is this guy? Get out of here, what do you want from me?’’ he recalls, laughing. “Others were really excited about doing things that are different from what they usually do. Some of them came to the opening of the exhibition.”

Some of the craftspeople were reluctant to alter their usual techniques, he says. The glasses displayed on the kitchen cabinets, for example, were made by Palestinians in Hebron who “did not have an interest in trying something new. So I asked for normal glasses, but that they make them green.”

The artist says he picked that color through a process of elimination: He thought red would have violent connotations, while blue would be associated with the Israeli flag. Green, Nassar explains, is symbolic of rebirth and renewal — which links to the exhibition’s theme of returning to an unknown home and starting life anew. “It’s in no way related to the Palestinian flag,” he insists.

Jordan Nassar’s “The Sea Beneath Our Eyes” exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv.Credit: Eyal Agivayev

When told that the exhibition feels like one has stepped into a typical, knickknack-laden Tel Aviv apartment, Nassar enthuses that such reactions show he achieved his goal. “It’s not about every object being a crazy sculpture” or about making “strange, cultural items,” he says. “It’s about the whole vision of this being a home.”

Trezzi echoes Nassar’s sentiment that it was important for the exhibition not to become a spectacle that would forcefully try to lure visitors in. Asked whether he pondered asking the artist to physically live in the apartment, in order to lend the artwork interactive and performative aspects, the curator says this was never an option.

“We never considered this because this show is not about functional art,” he explains. “This show is about memory and fantasy. It takes the personal history of the artist, his connection to this land, and links it to what period rooms — such as those you can find at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or in several encyclopedic museums in the world — can do to our understanding and misunderstanding of history.”

Blending in

Throughout our conversation, Nassar repeatedly brings up his relationship with his Israeli husband, fellow artist Amir Guberstein. He reiterates that the shared life with his partner — whose abstract, political art offers commentary on the situation in the Middle East — has helped both Israelis and Palestinians understand that he has a legitimate stake in the conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nassar is adamant, though, that his queer identity isn’t a core element in his artwork. “When I’m asked to take part in queer-themed exhibitions, I say that my work is not about that at all,” he says.

Indeed, his frequent visits to the Palestinian territories have forced him to confront a reality where his gay identity is not entirely accepted in a traditional environment. “When I go to an Arab country, I do feel this nervousness about seeming gay around them,” he says. “When I go to Ramallah, my cousin reminds me to take off my jewelry and cover my tattoos. It’s vaguely about me being gay, but it’s also about not calling attention to ourselves and blending in more.”

Having to conceal his identity is “uncomfortable, because even as a child I was very bad at hiding it,” he recounts. “It makes me uncomfortable as an adult to be in a position where I kind of have to go back into the closet — because I was never good at being in the closet.”

“The Lost Key” (2019) by Jordan Nassar.Credit: Jordan Nassar / Anat Ebgi Gallery

Even during his visits to the West Bank to work with local Palestinian embroiderers, Nassar’s gay identity looms over the professional dialogue. “People ask me a lot about working with embroidery, because it’s a woman’s craft. When I first met the Palestinian women, they were a bit embarrassed to work with a man and they were not sure how to take it. It was weird for them that a boy is doing this embroidery,” he recalls.

So how did those tension eventually subside? “They got over it because I’m good at it and they respect that. Then they also realized that I’m Palestinian,” he explains.

While the artist insists that “working with this medium is not about breaking gender norms,” he is willing to acknowledge that the liberty to choose an unconventional craft is strongly linked to his personal journey: “I was very flamboyantly gay my whole life and I think that what it did for me, in a funny way, was that it made me really free.”

Both sides now

Being well-versed in the history of the conflict, Nassar was concerned that the decision to showcase his art in Israel might be misinterpreted. When asked why he didn’t opt to display his work in the West Bank, he explains that “the reality of the art world is such that I can only do a show where I’m invited to. No one in Palestine asked me to. I would love to show in Palestine, too — and hopefully I will one day.”

As for exhibiting in Tel Aviv, he says he had conversations “with Palestinian-American friends about showing in Israel and [the concern over] being tokenized as a Palestinian American. I thought about it a lot and realized that it’s not really fair to call me a Palestinian American — because if you want to go into identity, you have to really get into it. Talk about my Jewish background; talk about me being married to an Israeli; being part of an Israeli family. I am not a tourist. I am part-Israeli, basically.”

Trezzi, who immigrated to Israel from Italy, says he shares that same awareness and sensitivity to the complexity of the situation in Israel. “We both know that every action we do, every position we take, every statement we associate ourselves to, is probably more scrutinized than anywhere else. Artists are human beings who decided to look for complexity — and perhaps there is no better place than [Israel] to think, make and present art,” he says.

That complexity was the inspiration for the exhibition, in which Nassar offers his national-political twist on concepts like belonging and home. Two large windows in the exhibition’s apartment echo the duality of his identities: One overlooks a painted view of the sea in Jaffa; the other displays views of the West Bank.

Nassar says he’s been thinking a lot recently “about the ancestry of immigration and nostalgia for the homeland. I realized that a show in Israel about this diaspora experience of growing up and looking toward Israel and Palestine all the time is a unique perspective that is maybe not your average topic of conversation in Israel. I am a member of both diasporas that are dreaming of returning to this homeland, which is the same place,” he reflects.

The next issue Nassar tackled when he began contemplating the subject was where exactly he would be returning to. Thus, the idea of an apartment was born. “Think about the poetic power of the notion of returning,” he says. “For me, the show was the way to express how normal it could be for me to live there. After generations of yearning to return to this place, I liked the idea that it could feel so normal. It’s an ordinary apartment.”

When asked why he chose such a subtle platform to craft political art and why he refuses to “pick” a side, Nassar again declines to be constrained by a simple definition. “I’m not a Palestinian artist,” he says. “I’m a Palestinian, Jewish American who has a specific story whose work relates to that. I consider myself to be on both sides. I’m fluid between the two; I go back and forth. My whole goal is to make it hard for people to put me in a box.”

“The Sea Beneath Our Eyes” is at the Center for Contemporary Art, 2 Tsadok HaCohen Street, Tel Aviv, until November 16.

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