Jerusalem Artist Spotlights Israelis and Palestinians Who Were Burned Alive

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'Mohammed,' from the name series.
'Mohammed,' from the name series. Credit: Uri Grun

Hanging in a row on one wall of the upper gallery in the Jerusalem Artists House are eight white canvases. They resemble one another: At the bottom of each, someone’s first name is drawn in hollow print lettering; from the name rise black smoke stains that scorch the canvas; in the center is a circle only part of which is visible through the black. The eight names (in Hebrew) – Mohammed, Moshe, Theodor, Akiva, Yelena, Saad, Riham, Ali – read like a single sequence. They are people who burned themselves to death or were burned by others over the past few years. All of them were burned alive.

Some of the names are engraved in the public memory: Moshe Silman, who self-immolated during the social-justice demonstrations in Tel Aviv in 2012; the teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir, from Shoafat, in Jerusalem, who was abducted in 2014, taken to the Jerusalem Forest and there burned to death by a settler from Geva Binyamin and his two nephews; the members of the Dawabsheh family from the West Bank village of Duma – Saad and Riham and their 18-month-old son – whose house was set ablaze in 2015 by Jewish terrorists, with the family inside.

Others, though, have disappeared from memory: Theodor Zozolia, who in 2013 set himself aflame in Tel Aviv in front of his daughter because of a debt of a few thousand shekels; Akiva Mafa’i, a disabled army veteran who torched himself in Yehud a year earlier to escape economic distress; Yelena Bosinova, born in Ukraine and a resident of the West Bank settlement of Kedumim, who burned herself to death next to Netivot to protest the evacuation of the Gush Katif settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005.

The Jerusalem artist Israel Rabinowitz (born 1954) places the remembered and the forgotten together in one long row: eight names and signs of flames, with nothing figurative.

The works look like small fire inscriptions. The whole exhibition is made of fire inscriptions – words and phrases that Rabinowitz builds and then burns: homeland, white flag, territory, Eretz Israel. In some cases, the words appear together with the image appropriate to them: “Territory” beneath a square; “Homeland” against a blue-and-white background; and “Flag” hoisted on a pole. This creates simple, immediate comprehension, rife with clear symbolism. The pain at the loss of the way, the fury at the change in values, the outrage at the moral deterioration, all in the nostalgic style of “There goes the country.” The connection between homeland and country and flag and eternity – combined with fire inscriptions associated with ceremonies in the army or in youth movements – actually reveals the desperate clinging to the national symbols, as though these words are capable of signifying the rightness of the path as it existed in the past, but which has now been despoiled.

Israel Rabinovitz's 'Living Torches' series.Credit: Shlomo Seri

But something entirely different happens in the eight works in the “Living Torches” series. What’s burned in these fire inscriptions is not an abstract concept together with the national ideology embedded in it – according to the double movement of destruction and commemoration (the movement of the fire inscription) – but the first names of specific, concrete people. These names are voided of signification: settler and Palestinian, downtrodden worker, social activist, people who killed themselves or were murdered by others – all of them brought together, the specific social circumstances that led to their death extirpated.

Sacred halo

What is burned in these fire inscriptions is the name, and it is burned as the body is: The artist’s torching of the name reprises the torching of the bodies. It does not represent the conflagration – like the fire that licks at “Homeland” and signifies its loss as a symbol or a principle – but again seizes, in name and in body, Moshe and Ali and Yelena.

This is why portraits of the burned do not appear in these works, as they would in a memorial. These works contain no figures, because they reenact the annihilation of the body in the fire: the very possibility of inserting a human figure or the portrait of a person is denied by returning to the acts of burning. What remains is a name (a sign and not an image). And together with the name, the traces of the flames and the circle in the center: The circle is the place of the figure, which remains now, after its perdition, hollow. The circle is also the sacred halo of the burned – Jews and Muslims turned into a sacrifice, their body consumed and lost, and the Christian halo envelopes the emptiness.

It’s hard not to think here of Moshe Gershuni’s installation “Who’s a Zionist and Who Isn’t,” from 1979, as a kind of red fire inscription; or of the circles in his paintings and the bleeding words in many of them. But in Gershuni, the word is always linked to the image (not always to the figure), and together they create a material work of thickness. Whereas here there is no image, the materiality is consumed, dislodges all colorfulness, dissociates itself from any living movement, and what remains is thin canvas, scorched, only a name and signs of burning on it. In Rabinowitz, there is no painting – the flames licked the person burning in the street, and then his figure that disappeared from the canvas, the image that no longer appears on it, and finally also the painting itself, which exists now only as the negative of a fire inscription, from which has been taken the image from which the letters were made and are now hollow, a damaged base on which the traces of the torching are found.

“Open fire policy.” From Israel Rabinowitz's show.Credit: Uri Grun

“Form the Light, and Create Darkness,” from the Shema blessing in the morning prayer service, is the exhibition’s title, and here the light of the fire is subsumed into the dark on the canvas, and the creation of the light, the imparting of the form within it, metamorphoses into a no-form of the signs of the conflagration. Accordingly, these works are the opposite of the act of photography – for example, photographs from the demonstration at which Moshe Silman set himself ablaze, in which the light of the flames hurtles from the darkness of the night, uniting with the light of the photograph. Here it is the dark that appears, without a body, on the white canvas. These canvases do not tell the story of the immolation, do not represent the fire that seized the body, do not show the burned person. In them the fire takes place, and it is the source of their aliveness – living torches.

This series, jolting in its simplicity, in its emptiness, can connect with a discussion of political art, but not as some sort of political statement that’s ostensibly enfolded within it, as though it references an event that took place in the world, demanding to represent it, imbue it with meaning, or comment on it. On the contrary, the series voids the events of the burning of their familiar political sense, and instead traces the act of the burning in order to examine its nature. Is a person who burns himself in public, in the town square, before the eyes of many, to the point of annihilating the body, performing an act of self-riddance from the political space, challenging its validity and its openness? Or is he actually undertaking an act of rendering the body present in the space, demonstrating it to the farthest reaches, utterly exhausting the appearance of the political subject?

And as for those who go about burning people to death – do they succeed in ridding the political space of their victims, erasing their presence from the face of the earth, nullifying their activity? Or do they turn them into a ghostly entity, with no permanent dwelling place, who precisely with their physical annihilation do not cease to haunt the space, to foment disturbances and demonstrations, to act in it? Rabinowitz’s canvases raise these possibilities: works in the process of disintegration, lacking matter and with no figurative representation, only outlines in place of the appearance of the image, and in its place a name that is kindled as a body and goes up in flames.