The Israeli Political Artist Who Dabbles Both Inside and Outside the Occupation

For some of his works, David Reeb goes out into the field, films Palestinian demonstrations and turns them into paintings. He tells Haaretz about the process

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David Reeb in front of two of his works at Tel Aviv's Hamidrasha Gallery, December 2018.
David Reeb in front of two of his works at Tel Aviv's Hamidrasha Gallery, December 2018.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

At Tel Aviv’s Hamidrasha Gallery, the image of Ahed Tamimi, the teenage Palestinian activist, now figures prominently. Depicted with her arms being held behind her back by an Israeli soldier, Tamimi is the star of a painting by David Reeb, part of the “Interrogations” exhibitions curated by Avi Lubin. Reeb’s solo exhibition, “Disturbances,” runs through January 26 and is made up of works from 2018, including abstract paintings.

Reeb, 66, has been painting the occupation for many years. One of his biggest exhibits took place at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art after he was awarded the 2014 Rappaport Prize. A major work in that effort was his 1997 “Beautiful Architecture,” based on a photograph by Miki Kratsman. The upper portion shows the Israel Museum and the bottom shows a man aiming his rifle. The piece is part of the Israel Museum’s permanent collection of Israeli art.

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Among Reeb’s other exhibitions at the Tel Aviv Museum, his 1994 show included his 1987 painting “Green Line with Green Eyes.” The right side contains images that project fear, like green eyes, the Green Line that separates the West Bank from Israel proper, and three figures, one of them a masked Arab youth. The left side shows the total opposite – the Tel Aviv coastline in soothing shades of blue.

His work ranges from political art to abstract art to realist depictions of Tel Aviv, where he lives. Reeb says the abstract paintings aren’t connected to the political works.

“There are other things besides the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians," he says. "I’m happy and proud that some of my work is political. I wouldn’t want to touch on Israel without touching on these issues. But I also don’t want to be perceived in a schematic way. My work is composed of many things.”

In addition to the Tamimi painting, two other works on display in the Hamidrasha Gallery’s entrance space feature Ahed’s mother, Nariman Tamimi. She is shown during a Palestinian protest against land appropriations at the village of Nabi Saleh.

Reeb painted these works based on video footage he took. The protests have been held every Friday since 2009, with the Palestinians also protesting the takeover by settlers from Halamish of a spring. The paintings showing the mother depict her shouting “Palestine!” and holding her fingers up in a victory sign as she is held by soldiers. Reeb filmed her as she was about to be hustled into a police vehicle.

Fortuitous glitch

One of the paintings depicting Nariman shows the moment when there was a glitch in the video, the fraction of a second when the picture froze. Curator Lubin says this disturbance, as it were, “doesn’t recreate the disturbance that the demonstrators create for the authorities who are trying to quietly ensure a self-interested land theft, but it does sit well with the chain of disturbances at the heart of Reeb’s work.”

Two other works on display in the upper gallery space were painted in monochromatic shades and depict the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar that has been slated for demolition. One painting shows two children walking along the dirt paths on which they walk to school. Another painting shows the shacks and makeshift homes that make up the village, as well as the graffiti on a cement barrier: “We are here and we will never leave.”

There are also some abstract works: a grid of a Tel Aviv high-rise in shades of blue and green that calls to mind the gird of the gallery’s windows, and a number of colorful works on paper that include a series of numbers.

At the back of the gallery’s ground floor is a video work depicting the Tamimi family’s protest and the army’s response; the sound coming from the video includes screams that aren’t pleasant to hear as you wander through the exhibition. On the upper floor is another video work about Khan al-Ahmar.

Reeb painted many more works last year but the gallery’s space was limited. The subjects of some works not included in the show are the Vancouver skyline, colorful fish and a demonstration at Bil’in in the West Bank in which a German activist was arrested and subsequently deported. The Bil’in paintings are based on video footage of a demonstration in March.

Reeb says he has been visiting the Nabi Saleh demonstrations since 2010 and shooting video in the West Bank since 2005. All told, he has made about 400 films. He says the settlers don’t know who he is and generally take him to be one of the journalists or left-wing activists who arrive with the Palestinian protesters. “I travel with the Israeli activists and film from the point of view of the village and the activists,” he says.

How do people react to him?

“The few times I was right near them, the settlers looked at me as a nuisance. They see me with a camera and they don’t like me. The soldiers don’t like me either. If I coordinated beforehand with the soldiers, I could go with them, but that would be a different perspective,” he says.

“Sometimes the soldiers let you film close to them, as long as you don’t get too close. Sometimes they chase me off. That’s recorded on video too. Sometimes they tell us where we can stand.”

“I like the Palestinian struggle against the occupation and I’m involved in this cause and want to be there if it helps the people in the villages,” he says, mentioning the “nonviolent struggle.” His decision to be present at these events is unusual, as most artists who oppose the occupation tend to do so from a safe distance.

He’s friendly with the Tamimi family, “but I can’t say that I’m a close friend of theirs. Unfortunately, I can go to them but they can’t come to me. The last few times I saw them were in court, during the hearings in Ahed’s case” – Tamimi served eight months in prison for slapping a soldier.

Nonviolent resistance

Gaza doesn’t appear in his paintings: “There’s no access to Gaza. I can only look from the outside, and I prefer for my works to be close to personal experience.”

It was important to him to display the video works alongside the paintings “in order to show the whole process. That interests me more than showing only the peak moment that’s depicted in the painting – when the mother was arrested.”

He acknowledges that painting as documentation is absurd in some sense, “but to me a painting is more concrete and exists as an object with lyrical meaning. For me, a video comes out of an intention to document something. It’s true that I’m trying to create paintings that look like a frame of film. But in the end it’s a different language.”

Another person who appears in the video is Abdullah Abu Rahma. “He was one of the people who were present at Khan al-Ahmar during a violent struggle against the occupation .… He was riding a bicycle near the fence and was arrested for disturbing a soldier. He’s someone who represents nonviolent resistance and was apparently considered dangerous enough for them to try to pin anything on him.”

You make a point of adding the adjective “nonviolent” when you talk about resistance.

“I’m opposed to all harming of innocents. I believe in these actions because these are nonviolent demonstrations. From what I’ve seen, sometimes there’s rock-throwing because there’s a response by the army. At Khan al-Ahmar there was no rock-throwing.”

Are you afraid of the reactions you might get in this age of Facebook?

“There have been times when people have responded angrily. I’m not eager for a confrontation. I don’t want to hurt people.”

Reeb doesn’t work with any gallery because he wouldn’t accept the conditions. Asked if the paintings in the current exhibition are for sale, he said, “Sure.” Asked about the prices, he said, “First let’s see if someone offers to buy one.”

And how does his film footage differ from journalism?

“I don’t have the talents and skills of a photojournalist. I film in a simple way and edit the material in a simple way. I work from an artist’s point of view. It exists on its own also as documentation and also for legal needs,” he says.

“The painting is based on the video footage. I use frames from a video that I project on the screen and paint it. Sometimes it goes through another stage too.”

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