Palestinian Christian Artist Takes on the Separation Wall

Michael Halak says his works are not political , but metaphors of the human condition.

Eitan Buganim
'Local Pickled Olives' by Michael Halak, from his new exhibition, 'Cracks.'
'Local Pickled Olives' by Michael Halak, from his new exhibition, 'Cracks.' Credit: Elad Sarig
Eitan Buganim

A large-scale painting of the separation fence, which occupies an entire wall of the Noga Gallery of Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, is the centerpiece of a solo exhibition by the Israeli artist Michael Halak. Although political allusions have appeared in his previous works, the painting of the wall, consisting of seven canvases, is a precedent for the artist in terms of size, ambition, degree of abstraction and in terms of a close interweaving of the political and the personal.

Works by Halak, a Palestinian Christian from the Galilee village of Fassuta, are informed by inner tension and vagueness in regard to identity, belonging, memory and the condition of being silenced. The idea for the painting of the separation fence, he says, came to him after a recent visit to the Berlin Wall – the tourist segment that remains of it – and the “feeling of suffocation and dislocation” he experienced after traveling on Route 443, where access roads to Palestinian villages are blocked, on a trip to Jerusalem.

The painting, with its cracks, also reflects Halak’s cautious optimism or belief that no wall lasts forever. “Every wall that has been built in the course of history has crumbled in the end, even the Great Wall of China,” he says. “Instead of building the country with concrete and cement, what they ultimately build is the separation wall.”

The patently political thrust of the works was in part influenced by a difficult period of parting and separation that Halak experienced in the past year, when he was painting the current works. The other paintings on view also deal with fragments, breaks and cracks – indeed, the show is titled “Cracks.” Five additional large paintings, which the artist describes as abstract works done in a realistic style, depict olives scattered from broken jars. Avoiding the obvious analogy between the olives and the local scene, Halak prefers to view the images as “a different idea of cracks, which I am investigating from all kinds of angles. My approach is to break apart and disperse, and then to assemble something completely different.” The separation wall and the jars are metaphors for the human condition, for an inward expression, he insists, and do not necessarily carry political 

In a similar vein, the exhibition curator, Dr. Gabi Geva, maintains that the light and dark olives, as metaphors, “embody the fragility of personal existence.” The tension forged “between the fragmented vessels containing olives and oil, which are strewn across the damp saturated earth, indicates an obstinate repudiation of the inevitability of fragmented being,” Geva adds.

Without trying to persuade anyone of the severity of the blood-drenched political reality, and equally without wishing to expose the powerlessness of an artist who is occupied solely with himself, Halak nevertheless offers the viewer a possibility of inner mending and re-assemblage, and ultimately an aspiration for a coveted state of unity. For himself, he seeks a “personal, inner inquiry, things I haven’t done before.”

Haaretz art critic Galia Yahav observes: “The painting of the wall 
connects, perhaps ironically, with the social-political tradition of murals, along with another artistic tradition – abstract painting about the idea of art for art’s sake. Two completely different trends of historical avant-garde have been bonded together in this wall painting – gray on gray and void of human forms.”

Invoking W. J. T. Mitchell’s formative essay “Imperial Landscape,” Yahav adds, “Juxtaposed to the painting of the wall are hyper-realistic works of shattered jars of olives… This is a drama of violence: the soft, torn flesh of the olives is threatened by the sharp shards of glass, so much so that in a prolonged gaze the scattered olives, some of them broken, mutate into bodies in a vale of killing, into representatives of everything that was once whole, then broke and shattered. All is oily and glistening, gleaming but dangerous…

“Beneath each olive a shadow extends, turning it into a sculptural element, manifestly architectural. A confrontation is created between the static monumentality of the olives, which are painted as though they weigh a ton, and the centrifugal momentum of the jar striking the floor and shattering. Why olives? Above and beyond being a tired symbol of both Israeliness and Palestinianness, a true conflict cliche like the immediate image of the wall, they are also representatives of everyday ordinariness. Like seeds that are cracked open and eaten, olives in their blandness leave the center of the stage free for the emotional experience of the crash.”

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