A street art festival called The Walls was held in Jerusalem in October. Among the works painted on the walls of abandoned and neglected buildings in the Talpiot neighborhood was a piece created by the American-Israeli street artist Addam Yekutieli (better known as Know Hope) close to the border with the Palestinian village of Beit Safafa.
The work, “246 Sides to a Story,” isn’t exactly a painting, more like a marking-out. It is very different from the project’s other pieces, which are joyous and colorful.
Yekutieli “took on” the former flour mill, which during the 1967 Six-Day War was burned out and caught in the crossfire. He labeled each bullet hole that remained from 1 to 246. He painted one vertical expanse of wall white and wrote a phrase or sentence corresponding to each number.
The phrases – as is common in Yekutieli’s work – don’t necessarily relate to each other and don’t necessarily have a meaning. All are in English. Examples include: The earth is not flat; Our scars aligned; Born into debt; What we said.
This piece, which can still be seen in Talpiot, marks a process the artist has been through in recent years: From anonymity and stealth art to uncovered work; from illegal works to commissions. Yekutieli was one of the first Israeli street artists to make this transition. Last week, another of his exhibitions, “A Pathology of Hope,” opened at Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv.
Most Israeli street artists have not entered galleries or museums. When they do, they don’t necessarily change the way they operate. But Yekutieli revealed his identity.
“I did it because I work with people, and I asked them to share personal details with me, so it’s logical for my name to be known as well,” he explains. “When I was anonymous, 80 percent of the content of articles about me was about the anonymity and about the street pieces – and that’s not all that I do.”
The Gordon exhibition, which closes March 11, features a work called “246 Coins,” which is the clearest through line between the street and the gallery. In the piece, which is significantly smaller than the one on the old flour mill in Talpiot, Yekutieli drew 246 random black dots, resembling malignant beauty marks, on a white rectangle. They are placed on a thin line of dots that recall Israel’s Mediterranean coastline. It’s not coincidental. Yekutieli, 36, opted out of military service for reasons of conscience and his work has a political dimension.
You managed to create a political work on commission, and in Jerusalem at that. How did that happen?
“Commissions greatly change how things go down. The dynamic of carrying out the work is different, more planned. I didn’t run into problems with the commissioner. Planning in advance has its positive sides, too. A work like the one in Jerusalem can’t be done without a permit. It needs a production team, and I used a lift. I don’t think the commissioner influences the quality of the work or its messages.”
The Jerusalem piece was one of the few large works of street art Yekutieli has made in recent years, in part as a result of physical limitations he prefers not to go into. For three years, he didn’t paint one of the characters with which he is most identified – a gaunt, long-limbed figure whose heart was in a different place each time – until December, when he once more drew it at a site in south Tel Aviv.
“In the past few years I’ve been more interested in creating projects that have an intimacy to them. I do make political and social works, but I try to approach them from a more emotional and human place,” he explains.
Among Yekutieli’s recent works is “Parallels,” photographed in Lyon, France, and comprising two stages. In the first, he created a public intervention in the form of drawing a white border across a street, with contradictory statements such as “What We Believe” and “What We Know” written along either side. Then he showed images of each such intervention at the MAC Lyon museum, alongside an additional photograph that provides an interpretation of the statements.
For example, a picture of animals being led to slaughter alongside the above statements. Next to the statements “Our Side” and “Their Side” was a photograph of Israel’s West Bank separation barrier. In Nashville, Tennessee, on a series of billboards Yekutieli put up quotations from his correspondence with inmates on death row in a prison in the city, including “But I believe” and “We have realized.”
What other projects are you planning?
“I’m working on a project titled ‘A Human Atlas.’ I’m documenting scars on all types of people. I collect the photographs of the scars and plan to create a new map of the region in which we live. The result will be based on the topography of Palestine and Israel, and it ties in with an analogy between border and scar. The approach is political but the content is human. Israelis and West Bank Palestinians will be in the project; it’s more complicated with the Gaza Strip. The goal is to have between 150 and 200 participants.”
In the Tel Aviv exhibition, Yekutieli uses images he used in his street art, such as delicate, intertwined hands that are exhibited, among other ways, as a sculpture of disembodied hands with red dots at the stump. Sawed-off tree branches shown in previous exhibitions were incorporated into an assemblage with drawings of hands.
Yael Shapira, a cultural researcher specializing in urban art, explains that Yekutieli turns the shorn tree limb into a symbol of the environment that has been cut down. “The same red rings on the tree stumps in the exhibition can be seen on the stumps of arms and hands, in an analogy to our relationship to our own environment.”
An additional motif repeated in Yekutieli’s work is birds. In two pieces, he piles into a glass box rather crude white plaster birds. The top part of the case is empty, with just one bird, alongside a brass plaque with sentences. The combination creates the sense of a museum exhibit. Next to the display cases is a glass case containing broken wings.
Drops are another recurring motif. In a high part of the gallery is a large work composed of wooden squares painted blue, on which are drawn, in shades of beige and brown, birds that from a distance resemble leaves. Drops, perhaps tears, fall from the birds. The drops also appear in “We Share These Things,” which features birds with drops falling from them.
“In Yekutieli’s work, drops are a sign of circumstance. Rain falls on everyone and everyone gets wet. It’s collective. A symbol of shared fate,” says Shapira, “Blue, which is very present in Yekutieli’s work and in this exhibition, is associated with sadness, as in its very name,” she adds.
Another interesting motif in his work is that of maps and fences. “This Region” consists of a paper map of Israel, folded and bound with string, while “Interdependent” is composed of pieces of fence that together form maps of Israel.
Yekutieli says his works in the gallery and in the street are different, but share similar iconography. “I made a separation between the more socially oriented projects and the iconographic projects, the ones exhibited in the gallery. In my mind it’s like two processes that deal with the same materials and are propelled by the same agenda, but that ultimately create different works in terms of display. In the exhibition, I tried to build a kind of archive or index of drawings and relics, and each element is numbered and every number has a sentence that’s a kind of fragment that corresponds with it and is open to interpretation. There’s an open narrative.”
What principles do you bring from the street to the gallery?
“From my perspective, both spaces enable different things and involve different creative processes. A gallery allows for quieter work. In the street, the work is part of a dynamic place. When I write text in the street, it’s obvious it’s another element that is part of the overall scene. I join a place in which I am not alone. In a gallery it’s only me – and that affects the work.”
Isn’t it odd to you to put the works into a frame?
“In a gallery there is absolute artistic freedom. For example, some of the exhibition consists of small drawings of hands. I didn’t care if they didn’t sell, if no solution was found for selling them.” (In the end, it was decided to sell the drawings as a group.) “The transition from wall to frame happened organically, not as part of a strategy. Art needs to be independent and free. It doesn’t necessarily have to be hung by an outside body. Nevertheless, there are logistics and production and expenses.”