“I blame myself for not standing by him in real time. I’m hardly ever afraid of being lynched, but this time I was deterred. I failed. Garbuz is right,” wrote Haaretz's Rogel Alpher about 10 days ago. Garbuz got the message. “I admit that it made me very happy and was very important to me,” he says of these things now. “Incidentally, every day there are more people asking me for forgiveness.”
Over three years have passed since the fateful speech – the one about “amulet kissers and those who prostrate themselves at the graves of the saints” – delivered by renowned Israeli artist Yair Garbuz in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, before the 2015 election, which resulted in public condemnation and fury, on both the right and the left. Since then many things have happened – Miri Regev was appointed culture minister, the prime minister and half of his cabinet are under investigation or indictment, Eurovision, Messi – and still, they don’t forget what Garbuz said. Neither does he.
In all the interviews he has given since that speech, Garbuz repeatedly explained that he doesn’t regret what he said, because his words were deliberately distorted, and that he was never referring to the Mizrahim in his speech. “Very few people can say ‘I was lynched.’ And I was,” he says in an interview at the Zuzu Gallery in Emek Hefer, where his new exhibition is on display.
“But I managed – because I knew that if my words really did include anything against Mizrahi ethnic groups I’m the first who would have apologized for that. Because what are they talking about, I’ve been dealing with that for 30 years. Anyone who hears me at a lecture tells me that I sound like the members of the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition” (a Mizrahi social justice organization).
‘I was left without a camp. Nothing.’
However, perhaps because of the time that has passed, today Garbuz speaks openly about the sense of abandonment and helplessness that he experienced. About friends who didn’t call, fans who didn’t say a word, reports that placed words into the speech that were never there. “What I don’t understand is why the people who said at the lectures that I talk like the Mizrahi Rainbow, didn’t say in real time – ‘He’s been talking about that for years, it’s not possible that he would say something like that against Mizrahi ethnic groups’?
“And more important is that people I worked with for 30 years didn’t pick up a phone. Even if I didn’t agree with someone about something he said, I would pick up a phone and ask how he’s doing, The fact that he said something I don’t agree with, does that mean that I want him to be threatened? That he’ll be afraid to open the door?
“It’s not that I was hurt,” he says. “Sometimes you come from a certain camp, and you have an opinion and you criticize the other camp. But as a result of that, I was left without a camp. Nothing.”
The exhibition “Ein Gvul Lefanekha” (“There’s No Border Before You”), which opened at the end of May, will be on display until July 7, and includes works by Garbuz from the past two years. In his characteristic style, the works are a wild and seemingly careless combination of plays on words, texts full of humor, and hints, imitations and “borrowings” from works by others. These works always connect with the Israeli experience, even if Garbuz says that it happens almost by chance. Asked whether in the exhibition he dealt with what he experienced as the result of that incident in Rabin Square, he answers indirectly.
“Whenever something happens and is in your soul, it’s also in the work of art in some way. This way you’re your own strictest, most truthful judge, and if you didn’t say something, you can’t apologize – you decided to lie. And if you create a painting that you know will be hard for people to accept, then let it be hard to accept. And if you create a painting that they’re liable to distort, then let them distort it, but the fault will lie with the distorters and not the artist.”
In one of the works in the exhibition, you see two figures who are clearly Yemenite, with shoelaces instead of side curls, and above them is the inscription “Kibbutz or Exiles,” which is also the name of the work. In a short conversation with a group of critics before the interview, he explained that during his childhood many Yemenites used to sell shoelaces – and served as models for artists like him, in the kibbutz. “Since people said that they are passive, that they don’t move much, that became etched in me – that they took an entire group and attributed only one characteristic to it.”
There’s no question, therefore, that the blow he received after the speech didn’t censor him – not in his art nor in his words. He continues to burrow into the country’s past and into the direction it’s heading, and to deal humorously with the most difficult issues.
In conversation too, often he uses jokes that illustrate what he means. “You have to both laugh at these things, and to clarify them,” he explains. “If you deal with these things humorously, the person through whom you laugh at the injustice is liable to be insulted by the laughter. But humor is essential, it’s like laughing gas in the dentist’s office – it’s to enable you to undergo a root canal. Root canal is what I do, and the laughing gas confuses and misleads people.”
Ultimately, he believes, discrimination in Israel is closely related to a deliberate erasure of history. “The country began from a restart of history, and thinks that at any given moment it’s possible to do another restart,” he says. “Government, both left and right, uses history only in order to glue us,” he continues. “Two epoxy glues are keeping the Israeli public in place, and the exhibition clearly contains that: folklore and fear. And every time they tend to scare us and to make us happy. The news is supposed to make us embrace because soon another terrible thing will happen. And therefore that’s another way they’re writing history, giving us homework in how to defend ourselves and how to unite. The question of truth is irrelevant.”
‘I resigned from the judges’ panels’
Along with his work as an artist and writer, another aspect of Garbuz’ professional life is art education. For 14 years, until 2011, he served as the head of Beit Berl College’s Faculty of Arts – Midrasha, and afterwards he joined his friend Yaakov Dorchin in the Basis Art School in Herzliya as a coordinator of cultural activity. In that role he presents podcasts that survey the history of Israeli art, hosts artists for discussions and conducts a series of meetings with curator Tali Tamir, “Dibur-Tziyur” (“Talk and Painting”), where they discuss paintings.
In all his educational activities he aspired to bring the historical connection into the art world. “The Midrasha is the first place that taught Israeli art. On that subject we were the pioneers. Because we said, if there’s no art here, then we don’t have to teach art here.”
According to Garbuz, the erasing of history in Israel is even more flagrant when it comes to the art world. “You go to the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, you see post-Impressionism, what there was in the 18th century, the 19th century. You come to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art or the Israel Museum, and what do you learn? The curators’ taste. That’s what you know. You don’t know what happened in the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s. There’s no historical stratification. They do good work, but it’s the work of a gallery, not a museum.
“Every retrospective exhibition in Israel is a royal burial with a confirmed kill,” he adds. “Because you know that now they’ve checked off that box, they’ve solved the matter, they’ve presented this artist. While in other places you go inside and there’s a Rothko room, or a Rauschenberg room. There’s this collection and that collection. The only ones who really become history is artists whose families know how to maintain museums for them, like Kuperman, Nachum Gutman, Marcel Janko. It’s a catastrophe.”
Garbuz’s departure from the Midrasha marked his retirement, at least officially. Today, at 72, he divides his time between his home in Ramat Gan and a house in Safed that he bought with his wife. And although between his work and the media echoes he’s quite a busy man, he insists that he feels like a retiree. The real retirement was his retirement from the humorless bureaucracy.
“The first thing I did when I retired was to inform myself that I wouldn’t sit on any judges’ panel anymore, no instrumental committee, and I won’t write a single letter of recommendation,” he says. “That’s really hard for me, because I have a large number of former students whom I like very much, but I’m finished with the formal texts. I can no longer write that someone is talented and worthy and has potential. I’m willing instead to sign for them as a guarantor for a mortgage.”