Tel Aviv Art Show Exposes the Aesthetic of the Occupation

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From the painting 'My Father and in the Background the Flight of Palestinians from Haifa (April 22, 1948),' Abed Abdi, 1988.
From the painting 'My Father and in the Background the Flight of Palestinians from Haifa (April 22, 1948),' Abed Abdi, 1988. Credit: Ouzi Zur

The first time I came to the group exhibition “Bad Taste: The Fiftieth Year of the Occupation,” red-and-white ribbons blocked the entrance to Minus1 Gallery in Tel Aviv, warning of the danger posed by the building above, which was undergoing renovations. Visitors to the show thus encountered a vivid association with our political situation, hesitating whether to violate the prohibition, ignore the barrier.

The exhibition, curated by Efrat Livny, is complex and multilayered, political art at its finest, speaking in a sane, decent voice. It’s rare these days to see an exhibition in which equal weight is given to both the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab narrative and the Jewish-Israeli one.

The exhibition seeks to cope with and dispose of the fixation surrounding “50 years of occupation,” and as such possesses historical depth that transcends 1967. It exposes an aesthetic of occupation, protest and oppression. The entire exhibition seems to be beckoning to the people who are considered expendable.

“Wanted #3” by Miki Kratsman is an outsize, close-up photograph of the face of Omar al-Hassan, a Palestinian who was on the wanted list of Israel’s security forces. The viewers, their bodies, their whole existence seem to be swallowed up in his gigantic face, in which reflected neon stripes are like tracks into his inner being – an attempt to decipher the human enigma.

"Wanted #3” by Miki Kratsman, 1998.Credit: Ouzi Zur

In counterpoise, there are three wall sculptures by Mahmood Kaiss (an important local artist), allusive and delicate. These lovely reliefs exist in a state of fraught tension, a mosaic of thousands of burnt matches with a shifting flow, an overview of different regions in a scorched topography. A lone line of varying thickness made of matches painted in green passes through the topography, substantiating the abstract, planted deep in the annals of art between East and West. And David Reeb’s “The Red House with Green Line #2” is one of a series of works in which the Green Line is actualized, seeable and touchable.

Like every child, after I learned the language of maps, the first thing I looked for on the world map was my country, Israel – a search that ended in frustration in the face of the tiny, plain dot I found. Deganit Berest transforms the child’s disappointment into a series of enlarged maps from an atlas, in each of which the pre-1967 maps of Israel becomes progressively blurred until only a stain remains. It’s a concise allegory whose moral fluctuates according to the observer’s political viewpoint.

In “Self-Portrait with Goat” Durar Bacri paints himself in an indigenous scene of shrubs and a tree, from a low angle that magnifies his figure against the landscape. The artist’s saliently urban image seems to be wondering about the lone goat, which for its part is trying to figure out this apparition that belongs yet doesn’t belong here. It’s a lush painting, saturated with color and light. In contrast, Emi Sfard’s “Soldier, Settler, Terrorist,” from the “Made in Israel” series, constitutes an illuminating fusion of the shaping of the conflict’s stereotypical lexicon. The perfect toy figurines in their packages give rise to woeful laughter. One can imagine a settler child playing with an armed settler doll and a Palestinian child playing with a suicide-bomber doll, or perhaps the other way around.

"Self-Portrait with Goat” by Durar Bacri, 2008.Credit: Ouzi Zur

A poetic lament

Thalia Hoffman’s video work “Sham (There)” is a filmic allegory of the apocalypse that awaits all the inhabitants of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. It evokes the poetic-symbolic determinism of Amos Kenan’s dystopian novel “The Road to Ein Harod,” tinged with the atmosphere of Theo Angelopoulos’ films about divided Europe, as an allegory. A truck stands on the Judean plain. Over an entire 24-hour period, increasing numbers of refugees come to the truck, carrying meager belongings, speaking Hebrew and Arabic, women, men and children, stranded in a limbo of time and place, unified in their fate, in a kind of Samuel Beckett-like anticipation of something unclear and unknown. A wandering troupe of singers comes and goes, as in Fellini. In the catalogue, the curator, Efrat Livny, terms the work a “poetic lament,” and it is indeed a lament for two states and two nations.

Lamentation also infuses Abed Abdi’s 1988 painting, “My Father and in the Background the Flight of Palestinians from Haifa (April 22, 1948),” which transposes the painterly language of the iconic Israeli artists Nachum Gutman and Reuven Rubin – the childlike naivete of the biblical landscapes of the Land of Israel – to the wound of the Nakba. The figure of the artist’s refugee father is seen against the background of the mass uprooting from the city, between the receding river of refugees and the figure of a keening woman, with abandoned houses bleeding and warships on the sea.

Livny has created an impressive diptych of two photographs by Pavel Wolberg. In “Gaza Envelope” a large group of Palestinian men are packed into the cargo holder of a military vehicle, their eyes covered with flannelette and the pointed edges of their handcuffs protruding above the sides. This “spectacle” can be observed in a general view, or one can approach closer and examine each individual separately, their heads bare under the pitiless sun, faces sunk in enforced blindness and straining to see something, helpless and anonymous. The viewer can feel guilt or persist with vacuous thought. In “Qalandia Checkpoint,” a large crowd of Palestinian women masses against the separation fence, waiting for a miracle that will not happen. Faces are almost impossible to see. A symbiotic connection involving the difference faces of the oppression is created by the two halves of the diptych: a contrast between feminine power and masculinity whose strength has been sapped; and the absence of the “master.”

"The Green Line" by Farid Abu Shakra, 2008.Credit: Farid Abu Shakra

There is also a wonderful work by Farid Abu Shakra. In his print, as delicate as a Japanese representation of a mist-covered mountain, small-scale warplanes fly amid the mist, and a single green thread cuts across the print lengthwise, the needle dangling below. The result is aesthetic beauty in a silence amid which alarms wail. And the six flags of Moshe Gershuni evoke his paintings of bleeding cyclamens. Blood-spattered flags, flying on a hilltop, torn by the wind as a divine punishment.

Views of Jerusalem/Al-Quds from the Mount of Olives (without the city’s western part behind it) appear in the classic paintings of Ahmad Canaan, which are overlain with ghostly images, in one case of a Palestinian refugee, in the other of the knight and warrior Salah e-Din, mounted on his horse as a savior. Rupture and dream permeate the beauty of the city and the land.

This is but a sampling of the exhibition, which – like all the exhibitions from the Haaretz Collection in Minus1 Gallery – is accompanied by an in-depth catalogue (in Hebrew, Arabic and English) that enhances the show’s impact. The advantage of the “Bad Taste” catalogue is that the photographs were taken (by Elad Sarig) after the exhibition was mounted and they focus on its placement in the gallery space, thereby preserving the memory of the exhibition as a totality that accumulates from the power of the works that comprise it. The catalogue’s designer, Maya Shahar, has found a distinctive language, like a work of art in its own right.

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