When Is an Arab Museum Not an Arab Museum?

Is the Umm al-Fahm Museum or the Arab Museum of Contemporary Art in Sakhnin the first Arab museum in Israel?

Belu-Simion Fainaru

Last week a new exhibition opened up in Sakhnin, called “Hiwar,” Arabic for dialogue, featuring works by Israeli, Palestinian and international artists. The exhibition’s curators and managers, Belu-Simion Fainaru and Avital Bar-Shay, noted that the exhibition marks the opening of the “first Arab museum” in Israel. “The Arab Museum of Contemporary Art will present artists of all backgrounds, Jews, Arabs, Christians and Druze, religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sephardi,” they say.

But Said Abu Shakra, director of the Umm al-Fahm Gallery, is furious over Fainaru and Bar-Shay’s statement and says there is no basis for defining AMOCA as a museum, certainly not the “first Arab museum.”

“It is reckless and insults the intelligence of Palestinians in Israel,” says Abu Shakra, adding, “two Jews think they’ve come to start a revolution and found the first Arab museum. But a museum is more than just a space, it’s also a statement – it’s a process that takes time and has to include people and the community.”

Abu Shakra, an Umm al-Fahm native, founded the gallery in 1996 and has been praised for the exhibitions and works by important local and international artists he showcases there. The gallery’s collection totals some 400 works and features pieces by Palestinian artists from both Israel and the West Bank, including Suleiman Mansour, Abed Abdi, Nabil Alami, Khaled Hourani, Assad Azi, Ibrahim Lubani, Ahmad Canaan, Manar Zoabi, Anisa Ashkar and Assem Abu Shakra, as well as Israeli artists such as Benny Efrat, Michal Heiman and Ruth Schloss.

The Umm al-Fahm Gallery. Gulf States refused to donate to the gallery after they heard it gets funding from the government. Photo by Tess Scheflan

In 2008, an architectural competition was held to choose the plans for what Abu Shakra envisioned to be the first Arab museum in Israel. But after the architects Amnon Bar Or, Lior Zionov and Lior Vitkon won the competition from among many Jewish and Arab architecture firms, there was trouble raising the necessary funds. The cost of building the museum, planned to be 15,000 square meters, would have been $25 million. It was supposed to have been dedicated in 2013. In addition to exhibition space, the structure was meant to hold an archive of the city, as well as an auditorium and artists’ dwellings.

Abu Shakra planned to raise the funds from donations and the Culture Ministry. He intended to ensure that 40 percent of the funds would come from Arab donors, though he found that there were few in the Arab world who were willing to donate to an institution in Israeli territory, even an Arab institution.

“I hoped that philanthropists from the Gulf States would give money, but everyone who heard we were an Israeli institution and get funding from the government said they wouldn’t contribute. The Arab states see us, the Arabs living in Israel, as assimilated,” he says.

Abu Shakra was forced to give up on the plan to build a new museum, and instead decided to try and get recognition as a museum in the gallery’s current 1,700-square-meter building.

While waiting for recognition from the Culture Ministry, he continues to try and adapt his space to criteria set by the Museum Law, which include measures for climate control to preserve the collection, making the structure accessible to the disabled, and improvements in safety and lighting.

The new exhibition in Sakhnin has also yet to be recognized as a museum by the Culture Ministry. Why then, are its curators calling it a museum? The Museum Law stipulates that the term “museum” must not be used for an institution that has not been recognized as such, though private institutions can be referred to as “private museums.”

According to the law, it is allowed to call the museum in Sakhnin a private museum. Why are you against that?

Painting by Assad Asi. Photo by Yigal Pardo

“I’ve been active for 20 years, I have an incredible collection and archive of photographs and documents, and I still don’t declare myself a museum, or a private museum. It stems from a sense of responsibility to the space. The danger is in deceiving people, saying it’s a museum though it actually isn’t. I’m afraid that the project in Sakhnin won’t last, but people will still think there’s an Arab museum there, even after its gone. If they know there isn’t a museum, they would support building one, even demand it. But if they think it already exists, they won’t try to make it happen. In the end he’ll say that he founded a museum, and will blame the municipality for not knowing how to maintain it. It’s reckless. Every statement should be a careful one.”

Further angering Abu Shakra is Fainaru and Bar-Shay’s decision to decide for themselves what kind of museum Sakhnin needs. “Everyone knows what he wants for himself and his people. Why are they determining that the museum needs to display modern art? Maybe the residents want a museum about their heritage? I founded my gallery in Umm al-Fahm because I saw that there was no cultural life in the city, and understood that I needed to take responsibility. I can’t complain and blame the country for not acting, because it won’t act in the future, either. After I got into this, I understood that it’s a bottomless pit. I founded the Palestinian archive and the Wadi Ara archive as part of our future museum, in order to tie the past to the future. I got in line with the community’s expectations, and I know what it needs.”

Abu Shakra says that he’s not trying to thwart Fainaru and Bar-Shay’s project, but rather only seeking to warn against making baseless statements. “I’m not interested in stopping them, I just want to express opposition. I think their project will break down tomorrow, because it has no foundations. These foundations have to be based on local residents, not on Tel Aviv. The Arabs are very sensitive to dictation and patronizing. Who said that the Palestinian people in Israel are interested in a museum that deals with coexistence? What is coexistence? Holding hands and dancing in a joyous circle while celebrating that we’re living happily in this conflict-ridden land? Or holding a real dialogue that includes pain, as well?

Isra-bluff

“I had to wait 10 years in order to figure out the multiculturalism that exists in pain. It’s complex. Pain creates empathy, and empathy is essential to dialogue. So if I only managed to get to that point after many years, they also need to take a few years in order to understand what they want to be. That’s what responsibility means.”

An Israeli artist showing a piece at the Sakhnin exhibition, who asked to remain nameless, said that he respects the project but that it’s an “Isra-bluff.” “Fainaru got together with the municipal authorities and offered them a museum. Someone put the opportunities together and gave it a title. So the title is “museum,” even though it doesn’t live up to the Museum Law.”

Why did you agree to display your work there?

“They approached me and requested one of my works. Could I refuse? Am I against coexistence and cultural dialogue? I couldn’t refuse either way. I highly appreciate Abu Shakra, and he is doing great work that is important for the issues of Palestinian memory. The project in Sakhnin won’t last long. I can’t declare which is more legitimate, but if you compare the two, Said’s project is much more serious. Israeli students go there and get an important education.”

In response, AMOCA issued the following statement: “The criteria for recognizing an institution as a museum were set in order to determine government budgeting allocations. AMOCA is a private museum that operates without funds from the government, and according to the Museum Law, it is authorized to label itself a private museum. AMOCA presents international modern art from Israel, neighboring countries, Arab and Middle Eastern nations, as well as countries that have no diplomatic ties with Israel. We are excited about the gallery in Umm al-Fahm, and hope for the opening of more galleries and museums for the Arab population in Israel.”

In response to questions about coordination between the museum curators, Sakhnin residents and municipal officials with regards to the character of the new museum, the museum’s managers said “channels for cooperation have been opened between museum management and the Sakhnin municipality and Mayor Mazen Ghnaim. The municipality supports the museum, providing services such as cleaning and security, as well as signs and accounting services.”

Ghnaim said in response that “the AMOCA museum was founded in full cooperation with the Sakhnin municipality and showcases art from all over, the work of international artists as well as locals. It is a symbol of honor for the city and the artists themselves. Sakhnin is home to a museum that deals with our heritage, and there is no conflict between the two museums. Founding a new museum is part of Sakhnin’s development program, and the aspirations are to turn it into a center for modern art, culture and education.”