Art and Assimilation in Ashdod

A talented artist originally from Moscow, the Philistine heritage and a peripheral museum - It's all happening in Ashdod.

A few months ago, the director and curator of the Corine Maman Ashdod Museum, Yael Wiesel, invited Russian artists and intellectuals, residents of the city, to make suggestions for how she could attract the immigrants to the museum. Of the nearly 200,000 inhabitants of Ashdod, 40 percent are new immigrants, and most of them stay away from the museum.

One woman commented that the permanent exhibition, which is about the Philistines, does not "speak" to the new immigrants. Another suggested demolishing the large pillar-shaped, clay vessel that holds up the entrance to the museum and gives it a look that is "not respectable." Wiesel shrank into her chair, but just at that very moment, there was a knock on the door to her office and a chance visitor entered, who apologized for the disturbance and just wanted to tell her how much he had enjoyed the exhibit.

"This was very symbolic," relates Wiesel, "and it seems to me that my guests also realized that the alienation stems from deeper reasons than the design of the entry. The museum has not succeeded in addressing a population that feels alienated, and this needs to be changed."

The contemporary art wing of the Ashdod Museum opened 11 years ago. The permanent exhibition, where finds from the area are on display, opened only in 1995. Organized groups, mainly of schoolchildren, constitute the vast majority of visitors. On weekends, individual visitors come.

The mission of visiting the museum is not lacking in difficulties - the municipal sign-posting to the museum, which is located in the Dalet Quarter, stops in the center of town - but the navigational effort pays off. Despite its small scale, the Philistine exhibit there is fascinating, and the contemporary art activity, in the cruel peripheral climate of Israel, is important.

About a year ago, on the 10th anniversary of the museum, Israeli artist Lea Nikel displayed her work there. Nikel came to Ashdod in the 1960s, straight from a long stay in Paris. The exhibition catalog related how tears came to her eyes when she showed up in Ashdod 40 years earlier, as evening fell, and she remembered the city she had left the day before. But her excitement at the sight of the sunrise, and the dunes she saw through her window the next morning, moved her to stay in Ashdod for three years before she went on to New York.

Nikel arrived in Ashdod in 1961 at a crucial moment: The city's modern port was in the first stages of construction, and nearby comprehensive archaeological excavations of the remains of one of the five Philistine cities mentioned in the Bible were under way.

Advanced culture

The Philistine city of Ashdod is a few kilometers inland from the sea, and a stream had linked the city to the port that had been located at nearby Tel Mor. The Philistines, "the Sea Peoples," came to the region in the 13th century B.C.E. In regard to them, the Bible takes the usual approach it reserves for foreigners. "The Philistines" are really a mixture of about nine different peoples, who came from the area of the Aegean Sea to Egypt and, from there, were moved by the authorities of the regime to Canaan. They settled in the southern coastal plain, though they did get as far as Beit She'an. They brought with them an advanced culture of iron-working, and an eclectic art that was nourished by various local cultures.

These peoples went through clear processes of integration. At the Ashdod Museum, these processes are described in a very negative light, with words like "assimilation" and "loss" - a fascinating example of the great, though subtle, powers of the ideological spirit in museological discourse. It is interesting to compare the fate of the Philistines to that of the Israelites who arrived in the region at about the same time, but firmly held on to their separate identity. And while the "assimilationist" Philistines were integrated into the local population, the Israelites imposed upon themselves a fate of persecution and slaughter in the name of uncompromising separatism. Ultimately, the name of the region of the assimilationists stuck to the strip of land - Palestine.

"The World of the Philistines" exhibition at the Ashdod Museum [concept and curatorship: Renee Sivan; design: Dorit Harel Designers] is confined to a look into the Philistine's flourishing culture. They showed an advanced level of city planning and even ecological awareness. At Tel Ekron, for example, there was an excavation of an olive press, where huge quantities of oil were produced, outside the city. Thus, inhabitants of the city did not have to suffer from the sharp odors emitted during the production process.

In the display cases are unnumbered pottery findings decorated with zoomorphic and geometric shapes. Alongside each exhibit is a chart with a description of the objects and their dating. The visitor has the task of connecting the description to the object. The color of the ceramic testifies to its authenticity: original or copy. And this is a painful point. In one glass case, there is a fine copy of Ashdoda, a statuette from the 12th century B.C.E. that was found at the nearby tel. This is a figure with feminine characteristics, which "blends" into her chair. This charming find appears to be evidence of the import of a Mycenaen cult of a female deity.

The original Ashdoda is at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, whereas in Ashdod, a copy is on display. Alongside small statuettes of mourning women, the impressive anthropoid coffin and ritual objects that combine Egyptian and Canaanite influences, Ashdoda should have been the major attraction of the Ashdod Museum.

At a lecture held recently at the museum, in Russian, visitors received an extensive explanation of Philistine culture. In addition, Wiesel also asked artist Nataly Kuznetsov, who lives in Moshav Bnei Ayish, to show her works in the contemporary art wing of the museum alongside the work of artists Abi Shek and Shimon Avni.

Where's the museum?

Nataly Kuznetsov studied art in Moscow according to a strict schedule that divided the day into three hours of drawing, three hours of painting and the rest of the day devoted to art history. After six years of this, she found it difficult to get accustomed to the Israeli artistic temperament when she immigrated here in 1992.

"People in Israel see art as a hobby," she says. "I gave up my attempts to study art and decided to concentrate on my own creative work."

For three years, Kuznetsov worked in an abandoned structure, open to the elements, but recently the local council has put a shelter at her disposal, where she prepared the series of works that are currently on display. She had heard about the Ashdod Museum several years ago, but when she came into the city, she had a hard time finding it and gave up.

"I asked people and they said there was no museum in Ashdod," she recalls. "Only one woman who was standing at the bus stop with me knew what I was talking about." The woman was the previous director of the museum. Kuznetsov showed her portfolio to her, and several years later, Wiesel remembered her.

The exhibition, "Inspired by Rembrandt and Others" consists of 12 works. Along with drawings based on familiar works by Rembrandt, Kuznetsov has placed works she has created by a special technique: "I decided to link the drawings I had made to aluminum sheets. I wanted to make etchings, but I don't have the necessary equipment, so I looked for a substitute."

She explains. She scanned the images and printed them on matte transparent paper, which she glued to the aluminum sheets. She added a layer of acrylic paint to the work. The result looked to her lacking in volume so she wrapped iron wires around the works that create a pattern of a metallic web.

The art of iron-working that the Philistines brought with them is a part of Kuznetsov's works, which deal with a world of eternal questions: "In these works, I am trying to deal with the perception whereby it is possible to put the world and even divinity into clear and familiar schemes. As I see it, life bursts all bounds, beyond the arbitrary categorizations by man."

The iron that Kuznetsov has wound around her works is not subordinated to any strict rules. Some of it is broken and crooked. Beneath the frame she forces on her works, are the drawings of a gifted artist.