In a brief and apologetic essay posted to his Hebrew-language blog in January, art historian Gideon Ofrat explains the reasons for his own near-total neglect of Palestinian artists. "How is it," he asks himself, "that in my decades of writing Israeli art history and curating local exhibitions I avoided, almost completely, to consider the Palestinian who live among us?"
He goes on to cite three reasons. First, it is because Israeli art - in a sweeping generalization of its 100 years - is, at its very heart, Zionist art. This is linked to the second reason, that most Palestinian artists are not interested in the Israeli embrace and in fact vehemently reject it. "They have galleries in East Jerusalem, the enormous exhibition hall in the Jaffa port, the gallery in Umm al-Fahm ... and, in short, they don't need our patronage," Ofrat writes.
And then he gets to the third reason: "It is naive to think that the bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict would stop at the boundary of the art world, just as it naive to believe that the conflict would skip over the electricity grid, for example," he writes. "The partial gap in the level of sophistication and contemporaneity of certain Palestinian artists is enough to compel the Israeli critic and/or historian to point out an awkward technique, shallowness, etc. that can be typical of some Palestinian artwork." Such a judgment will inevitably be perceived as patronizing condescension and even as neocolonialism, Ofrat states, adding, "it's a trap."
He argues that to understand Palestinian art one must be familiar with Palestinian cultural complexities, language and history, and therefore any attempt by an Israeli art historian or critic to analyze Palestinian art is doomed to failure. A "lose-lose situation," in his words. And, he adds, it is lucky that Palestinian art is separate from "us" and can be ignored and we won't be accused of being patronizing. So, the chances of a Palestinian artist establishing a presence and receiving a focused, honest review of his or her work are nonexistent.
But in the same breath, Ofrat cites examples of learning about the other that are not difficult for the human powers to handle: an encounter with the mosaic from Hisham's Palace, near Jericho, in order to comprehend the "Jericho First" series by Palestinian artist Sharif Waked; the history of Yibna, Yalu, Imwas and Bayt Dajan to understand Sliman Mansour's paintings; traditional Arabic calligraphy to understand Taleb Dweik's paintings; the concept of tsumud (steadfastness, in Arabic ). Anyone who grasps the philosophical principle underpinning Kazimir Malevich's "White on White," for example, can surely comprehend the traditional foundations of some Palestinian art.
There is no need to glorify or trouble to understand an unwillingness to make an effort. In any event, it is not the "Palestinian" component in two exhibitions addressing issues of local identity that opened in Tel Aviv in early December that are problematic. On the contrary. Neither Manal Mahamid's "Ana Min Hona" nor Raafat Hattab's "Ma Shenotar Lakhhem" - both artists are self-declared Palestinian artists - errs in the direction of esoteric intra-Palestinian historical complications. Rather, they employ artistic tactics, syntax and materials that are familiar with user-friendly, contemporary international art.
Both artists rely heavily on artistic references and accessible metaphors. In both exhibitions, this is actually the obstacle: In the spirit of new, cosmopolitan art, the metaphors are too accessible, explained in advance and create a longing for some localization.
Mahamid presents a large installation composed of a wooden deck with interior lights, on top of which is a large container filled with concrete - a sculptural piece, somewhere between the separation fence and a sarcophagus. The edge of the wooden ramp follows the corners of the gallery and is embraced by the exhibition space. The deck is scattered with colorful stained-glass houses. Above them are four black ceramic vultures, wings spread. A sort of threatened village is created - vulnerable, feminine in a Freudian sense - with the houses shining like small greenhouses or decorated jewelry boxes.
The community that Mahamid has built appears to be a dormant kingdom, lacking a central plaza. Every house is unique, and all are impenetrable and radiant.
Mahamid's "here," in the name of her exhibition, therefore, does not symbolize only Palestinian affiliation with the place. It is also the "here" of home, of being part of the contemporary art world, of the gallery. The decorative techniques of the objects - stained-glass and ceramics, associated with folk art and hobbies, confront the ambition and "yuppiness" of the wood deck and lighting and in the use of photography.
In a photo hanging next to the installation, Mahamid, in a black outfit, lies on and is almost swallowed up by a dark background; only her unclothed hands and feet are visible. The glass boxes rest on her body as if on fertile soil that makes the desert bloom earth, the kind that should be covered in concrete and cement. She is thus turned into a woman-house, after Louise Bourgeois' "Femme Maison" (1946/47 ), a defining and key work of which there are countless versions and citations. And it is important to stress that when Bourgeois created her work in the mid-1940s it embodied the power of the anti-metaphorical. It is charged with political force precisely because of the absolute literalness by which Bourgeois attached the woman to the house, which replaces her head.
Bourgeois created effective anti-patriarchal caricatures. Her woman-turtle carries her house on her back and therefore is essentially homeless everywhere. "The vision of a little girl trapped and looking out at the world," Bourgeois said of the woman-house in one interview, "On the one hand you are trapped by the past, and there is nothing you can do about it except running from it ... the art comes from those unsatisfied desires."
Bourgeois' laconic drawing has declined since then and taken on a vague symbolic meaning - the woman as belonging to the home, as its queen, as a rounded, organic shape enclosed within angular walls, and in sexist versions the naked woman whose face can be covered. How is Mahamid likening the female body to territory? It is not entirely clear, but given the general feel of the installation it seems that the focus is toward the romantic, which associates femininity with the earth's womb. The exchanges, of home and homeland, homeland and woman are present in both exhibitions. In Hattab's work, it is in "The Bride of Palestine," which is none other than Jaffa, which is depicted in the videos and other works as a drag queen. After getting himself tattooed with the words "Palestine Bride" to show his irrevocable affiliation, after rolling around on the beach wearing only a flipper, like a mermaid flitting among different genders and species, territories and breathing styles, now he breaks down this persona into its theatrical components and parts from it.
The exhibition, which consists of scraps of materials and documentary clips from earlier works, seems like an epilogue. It includes a space in front, at the center of which is a mechanical knitting machine he used in the opening installation. A white sleeve is gradually knitted, yarn in the colors of the Palestinian flag fluttering from the sides, feeding it and being fed by it. There are also threads stretched across the gallery ceiling that gather into an empty gold frame hanging on the wall, creating an image of a wooly vagina. The machine itself also resembles a vagina and appears to be a womb with teeth. The back section features photographs, include one of a wilted bouquet and an image of the artist in a white bridal dress, the veil fluttering behind him like angel's wings. There is also a kind of dowry chest, the dress and flag tossed together endearingly as if in a bargain box to complete the melodramatic setting and Hattab's typical obsessive style. The place then is personified in the work of both artists in the form of a woman; in Mahamid's work she is a genital Pandora's Box and in Hattab's work, she is a barefoot bride.
Each exhibition represents, in its own way, longings for place which is depicted as fragile, vulnerable, in need of protection, naive and virginal, painted in shades of romantic innocence, an idyllic sought-after place that protects itself from the outside. Both create an allegorical show, fictional, with simple symbolism, and are flawed in the use of childish cliched language. The metaphorical, spiritual Palestine. In both there is a predominance of insufficiently integrated artistic influences that come off as verging on imitation of feminist or queer art, syntactic hybrids that do not necessarily create a new and productive world of images.
Must the entire weight of the discourse on colonialism be dragged in every time a Palestinian artist exhibits their work? The answer is not clear. In any case, it's better to risk an Ofrat-style privileged lose-lose situation. It is better not to capitulate in a kind of empowering submission by virtue of affirmative action, on the level of sophistication and up-to-date feel, as Ofrat puts it. One should insist on this so that Palestinian artists can emerge from the ghetto of the discourse of folklore to the discourse of art.
Manal Mahamid, "Ana Min Hona." Julie M. Gallery, 10 Bezalel Yaffe St., Tel Aviv. Mon.-Thur. 12 A.M.-7 P.M., Fri. and Sat. 11 A.M.-2 P.M., through January 5.
Raafat Hattab, "Ma shenotar lakhem," Alfred Gallery (19 Ben Attar St., Tel Aviv. Tues.-Thur. 5 P.M.-9 P.M. Fri. 10 A.M.-2 P.M., Sat. 11 A.M.-3 P.M., through December 20.
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