Umm al-Khair, a Bedouin hamlet in the South Hebron Hills, suffers from systematic harassment at the hands of the residents of the adjacent settlement of Karmel.
“There is no need to elaborate,” Gideon Levy wrote in 2009. “The homes of the settlement of Karmel, two-story structures with red tile roofs, electricity and water in abundance, stand in contrast to the ungainly sprawl of tents and tin shacks of Khirbet Umm al-Khair, which has no electric power, hardly any water, inhumane living conditions and a stack of demolition orders.”
Scattered among the squalid shacks and the sheep pens are scraps of plastic and metal from which Eid Hadaleen, a self-taught artist from the village, fashions perfect miniatures, using pliers, cutting and hammering tools, and iron wiring that has been heated up. The works are on view at the Minshar Gallery in Tel Aviv until July 6 (and at https://vimeo.com/110759077), in an exhibition curated by Oded Yadaya.
The originals of the miniatures are Hadaleen’s everyday fare: bulldozer, helicopter, digger, tractor, truck. Modes of transportation and construction wielded against people whose mobility is severely restricted and who live amid destruction, and military machines against those declared the enemy. Through the use of wood, iron, rubber, plastic, glass, parts of furniture and accessories, the occupier’s tools are superbly reconstructed by the skilled hands of the occupied.
The self-evident thrust of this ostensibly childlike project stems from a nave observation of the instruments of exercising dominion over the land that are wielded by the settlements and the army, and the artist’s act of precision-engineering mimicry of those instruments, which are aimed at eradicating him. There is a connection between them and the village, Hadaleen says in a video also on view in the gallery, in the sense that they come and wreak destruction. The miniaturization technique he adopts evokes a process of domestication, the taming of a wild animal.
“Objects that, in the Zionist context, imply construction – tractors, trucks, bulldozers, etc. – are used for destruction within the reality of the inhabitants of Umm al-Khair,” writes Tamar Berger, a lecturer in culture studies, in a text that accompanies the show.
“Eid Hadaleen, the perfectionist,” she adds, “does not allow these objects to remain destructive in a generalized meaning, but rather, presents them individually, separately, with all their detailed particulars. He differentiates between them and thereby concretizes not just their nature, but the particular way in which each object destroys.”
Hadaleen creates his work from materials that he gleans from his immediate surroundings. These can include shirt buttons, light reflectors and parts from DVD players. He is meticulous about providing the little vehicles with axles so that they can imitate the movement of their real-life, full-sized counterparts. The wheels of the truck rotate, the scoop on the bulldozer works, the helicopter’s blades revolve. The works, then, are not just part of background settings, not art in the sculptural sense, but genuine toys.
The perfect execution of the miniatures stands in fierce counterpoint to the grinding poverty of the village as seen in the background photographs on the gallery’s walls, which depict Hadaleen’s living and working environment. The barren, rocky landscape contrasts starkly with the mansions of the Jewish settlement that loom on the horizon.
By comparing the images of the surroundings with the created objects, the viewer’s gaze may miss a simple conclusion: The exhibition is simultaneously meager and rich, and the more meager it is the richer it is. Inventiveness and resourcefulness manifest themselves in the hostile surroundings: getting along from nothing, exercising manual skill.
It’s clear from the perfect replication (without sidestepping toward the critical, subversive, political or ambiguous), together with the classic artistic technique of creating from observation void of interpretation, and the integrity and modesty the artist displays in removing his subjectivity from the work in favor of a precise mimetic naturalism – that this is a link in the chain of popular art. More precisely, the art of the oppressed, which is created alongside the history of canonical art, as a decorative, muted companion.
From nave to escapist
The fact is that Hadaleen’s work resembles that of prisoners, residents of slum dwellings, and camp and ghetto inmates across the world and across history. It’s made of recycled remnants, the world of the images usually ranges from nave to escapist, and the means available betray severe living conditions but reflect individual freedom in the face of harsh oppression.
Complex relations prevail between folk art and canonical modernist art. Folk art usually takes place within a closed, intimate community; displays a close association with the work and manual labor of the community within which it’s created; makes use of found, meager, recycled materials; and aims its symbolic meanings inwardly, at the community, not outwardly at an imagined audience. By contrast, high art dissociates itself from precisely these values and is directed at a different ethos. It targets a broad, universal audience and sanctifies innovation, originality and the creating artist.
But the relationship between the two is more complicated. Throughout the 20th century, high art set itself apart from folk art while making use of its aesthetic and its forms, appropriating its mode of activity, impoverishing it and harnessing it to its own needs. Thus, artists such as Picasso and Miro turned to the nave and the primitive, as did the Arte Povera movement and, in a slightly different manner, pop art. (The latter ostensibly wanted to eliminate the dichotomy between high and low, between academic and popular.)
Now, in the era of globalization and commercialization, folk art is being recreated as nave, this time for commercial purposes, marketing the “authentic” as rare and valuable. On the other hand, it is stirring renewed interest among critical researchers of visual culture, as reliable testimony about the extent to which a particular culture has stagnated or flourished, or about the dynamics that are playing out within it.
Popular objects of art can attest to the non-material aspects of culture, on the assumption that they were created in order to respond to needs and that their materiality embodies beliefs, norms and values. The critical potential of folk art – as a kind of litmus test of the society within which it is created (more accurately, outside it, on the fringes, along with the persistence of the excluded) – has been revealed, along with the possibility of placing it within a tradition of resistance.
Thus, despite the iconic resemblance, and despite the preservation of functionality within Hadaleen’s reconstruction and miniaturization, what all his objects have in common is that they are witnesses to the settlement project. They are settler items as perceived from the Bedouin hamlet in Area C. We judge them not as innocent toys (the world they ostensibly intersect with), but as objects that attest to the essence of the settlements.
The story of the occupation extends beyond the abuse meted out by the army, the Civil Administration and the settlers; the story of meager-rich artistic creativity is also one of its salient products.
If the Bezalel art school founded at the beginning of the 20th century by Boris Schatz in Jerusalem constitutes the reference point for the birth of the creation of Hebraic objects – then Hadaleen’s work occupies a place of honor in the lexicon of Palestinian objects, along with the burning tires, the graffiti on the separation wall, the slingshot. It’s the “aestheticization of the political” from a different direction.
We should not make do with an anthropological view of Hadaleen’s work; one should not ignore its political clout. His objects do not so much tell us about him as they possess the trenchant force of the slave’s testimony against his masters. If, one day, someone wants to learn about the culture of the occupation, Hadaleen’s folk art will provide a more reliable description than the canonical art of the period.