No Longer Given the Brush-off

The presence of Palestinian artists is now being felt in the world of Israeli art. And it seems these Arab creators prefer to speak for themselves rather than a national collective

At the Sommer Contemporary Art Gallery in Tel Aviv, Manal Mahamid is showing rows of black buckets on shelves, in which there are hundreds of red roses. Two weeks after the exhibition opened the roses were wilted and shriveled, and had turned black. It was very reminiscent of the huge flowered carpets by Anya Gallaccio of London, which wilt during the course of the exhibitions she holds, but Mahamid notes that she had not intended the flowers to wither. "In fact I had wanted to show them at the height of their beauty," she said, "but in the installation there are 3,600 roses that cost NIS 1,700 and I have to pay that money out of my own pocket."

Mahamid's participation in the summer show curated by Yoav Shmueli has not yet made her one of the gallery's artists. But there is no doubt that having a show at one of the main galleries on the Israeli art scene marks her as having potential. Since completing her studies about a year ago at the art college at Beit Berl, Mahamid has participated in the well-publicized exhibit "At Home" in Umm al-Fahm and has won the prestigious "First Portrait" prize from the Mifal Hapayis national lottery. This grant was won by 20 young artists, each of whom received NIS 90,000. Next month an exhibition ending the grant project will be held at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion.

Mahamid is cautious about making a connection between the warm reception she encountered after completing her studies and the fact that she is an Arab. "It's true that it's fashionable now to show Arab artists and there are curators who got in touch with me in the past only because I am an Arab woman," she says, "but the exhibitions I participate in don't belong to this category."

Irit Sommer of the Sommer Gallery also stresses there is no connection between Mahamid's identity and her participation in the exhibition. "She was chosen from among many young installation artists because she is an interesting installation artist and definitely not because she is an Arab artist," says Sommer.

Mahamid, like photographer Ahlam Shibli who is represented by the Sommer Gallery, is an interesting artist. However, it is difficult to suppose that Sommer, a gallery director with a developed commercial sense, was not influenced to some extent by the demand in Europe and the United States for Palestinian art.

Art from the Third World

The international interest in Arab artists is part of the wave of interest in the "other," which in recent years has characterized the international art arena. The definition of the other includes artists from the Far East, Africa, Cuba, the Balkan countries, the Arab states - anyone who does not belong to the arena of familiar Western art. The questions that arise through the works of these artists touch upon identity and the experiences of occupation, colonialism and cultural split - issues that are discussed in journals and are at the center of international exhibitions and important art events.

The last Dokumenta in Kassel, Germany, for example, was devoted in its entirety to Third World countries and the place of democracy in the new world order, and dealt with areas of repression and strife. One of the most talked-about works at the Venice Biennale, which is still on, is by Sandi Hilal, an Italian architect of Palestinian origin. Hilal is showing 10 sculptures of countries in the form of dragons, among them Israel, Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon and the European Union.

In the local art world, there is also a stronger presence of Palestinian artists, some of them citizens of Israel and some of them from the territories. More Arab artists are participating in group shows, and the number of Arab students at art schools has also grown: at Beit Berl College, Haifa University, Oranim College, Kaye College in the Negev, Western Galilee College, Tel Hai College and elsewhere. The growth has been slow and continuous over time.

Palestinian artists have been exhibited in the past at museums and galleries and earned exposure and advancement thanks to the activities of a number of local pioneers such as Adi Steinitz, who showed Palestinian art at his gallery in Neveh Zedek; Tal Ben-Zvi, who began to show Arab artists at the Heinrich Boell Foundation Gallery in Tel Aviv and later at the Hagar Gallery in Jaffa; and Farid and Said Abu Shakra, who showed Arab artists at the art gallery in Umm al-Fahm. Today, however, Arab artists are showing in major exhibition spaces and without defining them only according to their origin.

The right mix

Despite the sense of change, some of the important Palestinian artists, especially the veterans among them, are still refusing to show in Israeli exhibition spaces for political reasons. Also, the entry of the art school graduates into the art world - says Dalia Levin, director of the Herzliya Museum - is still not happening in a natural way. "At the moment, there is an intermixing of Palestinian artists through some kind of constraint; it doesn't really flow," she says. "It's like at a good party there has to be a model, a lawyer, a Palestinian and a politician. This I how I feel when they try to bring Palestinian artists into group shows by force."

On the list of names in the emerging wave are Ahlam Shibli, who recently won the prestigious Gottesdiener prize from the Tel Aviv Museum and a large grant from Mifal Hapayis for a photographic project; Jumana Emil Abboud and Nawal Jabbour, who is very successful in Europe; Hanan Abu Hussein; Manal Markus; Raida Addoun; Mounar Zouabi; Iman Abu Hamid; Ashraf Fouahri; Suleiman Mansour and Halil Rabbah.

Palestinian artists in Israel are becoming part of the scene- and it seems the scene is also taking pride in their presence. If in the past their political identity was blurred under the definition "Israeli Arabs," today the term "Palestine" can be seen in various formulations, though rather cautious ones, in catalogs and on invitations. But sometimes there is a limit to liberalism.

This was the case, for example, at the "Goter" exhibition by Ahlam Shibli that was running until recently at the Tel Aviv Museum, in which there were photographs of Bedouin in the Negev. The museum agreed to define Shibli as an "Israeli Palestinian" in the monthly notice of exhibitions, but refused to include this definition in the catalog. In another catalog, for an exhibition that was shown in Italy, it stated that she defines herself as "a Palestinian from Israel."

"They use this when it is convenient for them," said Shibli. The Tel Aviv Museum also censored a key part of the text that was written by Ulrich Loock, which was supposed to have been published in the catalog of her exhibition. The parts that were censored dealt with the discrimination against Bedouin by the state.

However, it seems that the young Arab artists today prefer to speak only for themselves and not in the name of the oppressed Palestinian collective. "They no longer want to serve all sorts of political ends through the art," says Hannah Koppler, the curator of Beit Hageffen. "They have become more professional and the personal expression can be seen mainly in the works of Arab women artists who deal with feminist issues, sexual liberation and the status of women in Arab society."

It appears the transition from art that serves an ideology to art that is more individualistic, along with studies at colleges in Israel, has allowed Palestinian artists to enter the arena without threatening it. There is something softened in the language of Western art, which they learn very well, even though the new work "depends, in one way or another, on the national question and its implications, on the unresolved problems of identity and homeland," as Khaled Hourani defines it in an article on the younger generation of Palestinian artists that was published in the catalog of the "At Home" exhibit. The artistic product allows for criticism without causing anger, for indicating without being obvious, for showing wilted flowers in black plastic buckets and speaking about a longing for flowering, for criticizing the government's discriminatory attitude toward Bedouin by the empathic documentation of the everyday life of the Bedouin in the Negev.

Another characteristic of the younger generation is the choice of relatively advanced means of expression such as photography, installations and video art. It seems this choice has to some extent detached the new Arab art from the tradition of painting that characterized earlier Arab art. This liberating transition - from traditional medium to innovative medium - is largely parallel to the complex processes Palestinian society has been undergoing in recent years in a transition from a traditional society to a society that is more and more influenced by the West.

Recovered from the trauma

Manal Mahamid ended up in art by chance. She wanted to find a profession, and chose an art course at the Environmental Community Center. After two years of study she was accepted to an art college and continued to study there for four more years. Mahamid notes that another woman from the course went on to study at Bezalel and another two studied art at Haifa University.

Mahamid's specific case perhaps is not representative of all young Palestinian artists, but it is indicative of the change that is taking place in Arab society with respect to art and also perhaps of the younger generation's need to conduct a different dialogue, perhaps a calmer one, in an international language. "This is a new generation that has recovered from the trauma of 1948, artists who are already of the second and third generation after the Nakba, who are familiar with the Western types of art," notes Dr. Gannit Ankori, a lecturer in art history at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Ankori, whose book on Palestinian art will be published in London next year, sees the phenomenon as "a result of processes of maturation and recovery that have occurred in Palestinian society since the crisis of 1948," as she defines it. "In 1948 Palestinian society underwent significant destruction of its cultural infrastructure and of its social fabric," she says. "Until now we have seen a torn society that was suffering from those wounds. To a large extent this is still a traditional society, a sociality that does not see Western plastic art as a serious profession. This is also the reason many of the artists who were born in the 1960s started out on the architecture track, and only from there began to deal with art."

Ankori adds that a change has also occurred in Israeli society, with greater openness to seeing and hearing the Palestinian side. However, she notes that in Israeli society, there are still prejudices about the Palestinians' cultural potential: "To this day, when I lecture on Palestinian art, I encounter responses of people who say there is no such art."

But in the end, the international factor also has considerable weight in the emerging trend. Ankori, Hannah Koppler and also Susan Landau, a senior curator at the Israel Museum, believe that "there is no doubt that the success of Palestinian artists in the Western world - and the outstanding example of this is Mona Hatoum - has caused the Israeli art world to take an interest in their work."

Beyond this, Landau believes that the increasing interest in Europe in Palestinian art is a political act of identification with the Palestinians. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led to the shunning of Israeli artists in the international arena - but at the same time has opened the way to Palestinian artists.