In Fantasy, Druze Artist Embodies His Hybrid Existence in Israel

Druze artist Asad Azi has split his new exhibition, 'Wandering Rider,' between two museums – one in an Arab town, the other on the site of an old kibbutz.

Tomer Appelbaum

When the Druze artist Asad Azi was a child, his mother decided he must study at a Jewish school. She enrolled him at a school in Kfar Ata, believing the education among Jews was better. As a child from the northern Arab town of Shfaram, he decided he must introduce his Jewish classmates to Druze foods, so he brought za’atar-filled sambusak to class. After they tasted it, Azi recalls, half the class threw up.

The incident didn’t discourage him. To this day, approaching 60, in both his art and being he continues to examine the deep significance of living in a place that’s both foreign and familiar, and among a society that both accepts and rejects him. He has stubbornly maintained a unique viewpoint that’s full of paradoxes – for instance, he is completely opposed to being called a painter, even though he’s been painting for 40 years.

These days, Azi has a new exhibition that just opened in two spaces: at the Ein Harod Museum of Art and Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery.

“What I’m actually trying to do is talk about society, people, relationships, life and struggles,” Azi says. “I want to understand life through art. It’s a tool. Maybe it would have been better for me to study social work. All in all, though, this world is beautiful – or not – based on the relationships between people. It can be heaven or hell. There is nothing else.

Asad Azi, 'Anger', 2009. Photo by Yigal Pardo

“Tradition has values that are incredible, but they’re disappearing – and this heralds alienation,” says Azi. “My father was killed when I was five, and for three years people in the village wouldn’t turn on a radio, to make sure no music was playing in case someone from my family happened to pass by. Today, my village could host a wedding and a funeral at the same time. It’s appalling. These are the kind of phenomena by which I read human relations, and that seeps into my work.”

According to Azi, all this is expressed in his work, where, in recent years, he has completely abandoned painting everyday scenes of humanity. His works feature forests, sirens and centaurs. “I flee toward fantasy, to a nonexistent ideal. It comes with time, with the years. I got tired of talking. Because how much do paintings really matter? And if they do matter and they study your work in schools, then that particular artwork is just a tiny part of all my work, and they chose to teach the most interesting one in order to teach someone a lesson – not necessarily my lesson.”

Azi is talking about his work “My Father is a Soldier,” which is taught in Israeli high schools as part of the art curriculum. The painting – based on an old photograph of his father who died during his service in the Border Police – was the centerpiece of the solo exhibition curated by Meir Aharonson at Ramat Gan Museum in 2009, which included many depictions of the artist’s father. Many other works on various themes were also displayed, including depictions of erotic moments and self-portraits.

“For me, my erotic works are more important, but for the Culture Ministry it’s more fitting to recruit people into the army – so they decided on that image of my father. It says a lot to me about Israeli society, which has its bourgeois, nouveau riche, high-tech side, while at the same time still kisses mezuzahs. I completely agree with Yair Garbuz, who is a prophet as far as I’m concerned, and spoke pure truth [Garbuz labeled mezuzah kissers “fools” during a preelection rally in March]. This society lives at the edge of current, postmodern life, but its essence is still a conservative, tribal society. That tension can be felt in the struggle between two worlds.”

‘Nudity is catastrophic’

Azi says that he and curator Gilad Melzer began to imagine an exhibition a few years ago, one that would focus on what he calls a “new fabric of Israeli society.

Asad Azi, 'Envy', 2010. Photo by Yigal Pardo

“In 2012, I approached Said Abu Shakra, director of the gallery in Umm al-Fahm, about an exhibition in two years’ time. While working, Gilad and I saw that themes he wanted to focus on – or some of them, at least – weren’t appropriate for Umm al-Fahm. The eroticism, freedom of opinion, politics with self-criticism – we realized we couldn’t put this on display there.” The erotic paintings – including images of naked women, as well as nudes of the artist himself – are on display at Ein Harod instead.

What would have happened if you’d put those works on display in Umm al-Fahm?

“The gallery in Umm al-Fahm is a wonderful, important place. But we must also recognize that it’s trapped in a very complex society, a big part of which is traditional, another part religious, and it’s a place where political struggles are very difficult. A place like that cannot handle struggles over nudity or self-criticism. One day, when that museum is built, it will need to deal with this – at the cost of protests and threats. In the meantime, the place is still in its infancy and cannot deal with all those issues. For Arab society, nudity is catastrophic. Hanging nudes in a gallery would shake the foundations of Arab society, with its tradition and morals.”

You don’t see this as yielding to conservativism?

“I could have told Said that, without those works, there would be no exhibition. But then, the art lovers among Arab society would lose out – those who want to see quality art, those who have yet to be exposed to art because they don’t come to Tel Aviv. Then the solution would be to find another place. Galia Bar Or in Ein Harod came onboard and threw herself into the task, and we produced an exhibition that focuses on local existence, one that is very complex. We took this weakness and used it as leverage in both places.”

Don’t call it a retrospective

The exhibition is comprehensive and includes works from various periods of Azi’s life (the exhibition’s catalogue was designed by Magen Halutz). Curator Melzer stresses, however, that it’s not a retrospective. Melzer and Azi both believe a retrospective should be held at one of Israel’s biggest museums, in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. As for the division between Umm al-Fahm and Ein Harod, “it’s significant that both institutions are neighbors on the road between Wadi Ara and the Jezreel Valley, and that Asad is from Shfaram,” says Melzer. “Instead of all the nonsense and noise about the periphery, here’s an exhibition that isn’t in central Israel, but in a place that makes itself a center by hosting important work, for many years, without waving the flags of nations or struggles.”

Azi says both parts of the exhibition present his true experiences, comprised as it is of two entities: the one growing up in a Druze village, alongside the one where he was educated in Jewish-Israeli society from age 12, including high school, army service and the University of Haifa.

Asad Azi, 'Napoleon', 2010. Photo by Yigal Pardo

Although the idea for the split was from necessity, in retrospect it seems to have been the best option. “As a minority, if I manage to get people to go to Umm al-Fahm and Ein Harod in order to see something in full, I think that’s my purpose; the reason I wanted to be part of Israeli society in the first place. I wanted to give Israelis a taste of everything Druze society has to offer. Once, I even considered selling labaneh [strained yogurt].”

Azi vividly recalls the culture clash he experienced as a youth. “It’s like crashing into a wall at 350 kilometers per hour. My face was totally crushed. I got off the bus in Ata and I saw the houses, one next to the other, gardens and clean streets. In our [Druze] town, there was garbage everywhere, the streets curving between houses. Order and chaos. Only later could I appreciate the pagan power of chaos.

“In my opinion, it’s possible to do both. I’m that way – I’m pagan and passionate. This place could have taken the Mizrahi temperament, which is more fiery, hotter and more familial, and domesticated it, turning it into something more logical and organized,” he says, referring to Jews of Middle Eastern origin. “That’s what I’m trying to do with my work. I make hybrids that don’t remain hybrids. New creatures.”

The exhibition is called “Wandering Rider.” Azi notes that “a rider is generally not wandering – he’s serving some prince or king, or defending something. A wandering rider is someone looking for a kingdom.”

Do you feel like an outsider?

“I don’t feel like I belong to any group. For me, there is no absolute truth. My language doesn’t swim in the local, dirty swamp of tribalism. My focus in art is dealing with its legacy, with Western art. I’m not trying to see what’s allowed and what’s forbidden, morally or emotionally. I’m not trying to use Jesus or Mary, or Moses, or a symbol like a Magen David. It’s a kind of culture and language that is not bound by the everyday politics of this world.”

Artists, says Azi, have a moral position that allows them to say things that society has a hard time hearing. Although he says it’s their obligation to do so, he believes it’s a stance they’re abandoning. “Postmodernism has done wonders for the artist’s power to be like a prophet. Yair Garbuz spoke a difficult truth. He said it because he’s a painter and writer, because he has a moral status that affords him the right to say things like these. But most artists give in, and make more and more personal statements. They develop a name for a few years, then disappear. I’m for art remaining pure. I still think that art’s status, and the status of the artist, is the moral equivalent of prophecy and prophets.”

Is that how you see yourself? As a prophet?

“I’m in a place where I have no right to answer questions about who is a Jew, and I don’t have the right to answer questions about when, and where, a Palestinian state will be, or what the future holds for Syria. I don’t have that status. The only thing I’ve seen fit to do is paint. Maybe one day, a group will come along and look for a prophet, and it will find me. Or it will discover this prophet doesn’t leave any real spiritual legacy, except for dancing in the forest, drinking and celebrating.”