How an Israeli-Arab Woman's Investigation Into Sexual Abuse Became a Powerful Artwork

Hala A’kishek's 'Assault' uses 15 large sponges, 'bleeding' with red paint, to create a work that is like a kick to the stomach but hopes to foment change

Mae Palty
Mae Palty
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Hala A’kishek among her exhibits in "Assault," at the 2018 exhibition for Shenkar graduates.
Hala A’kishek among her exhibits in "Assault," at the 2018 exhibition for Shenkar graduates.Credit: Or Kaplan
Mae Palty
Mae Palty

Hala A’kishek’s final art project at Shenkar College left viewers gaping. The first version was composed of prints made using two zinc plates lying one atop the other in order to simulate a bruised and broken vagina. She moved on to work with sponges, which she impregnated with powdered red paint and hung from the ceiling, as a kind of testimony. “Within the work – which is called ‘Assault’ – there are 15 bleeding sponges, about 2 meters by 1 meter. I created a kind of installation,” says A’kishek. The work was also shown at the Supermarket Art Fair in Stockholm, and at the Cuckoo’s Nest, an art gallery/bar in Tel Aviv.

Two years ago, A’kishek, 22, who lives in Lod, started meeting women who had experienced sexual abuse within their families. “I began by relating for the most part to Arab society, but in the end I included both societies. Both Jews and Arabs. It’s a phenomenon that is found everywhere, beyond the individual.”

What led you to create a work about this issue?

“The subject began to sink in when I met an acquaintance, and we talked for hours. In the course of the conversation, she burst into tears and told me what she had gone through with her family in her childhood. She experienced something I wouldn’t wish on the most evil people in the world. After I heard her story, I couldn’t sleep. The story pursued me. I understood I had to investigate the subject, to meet more and more women who had gone through something similar, to listen to them, to see how they had been rehabilitated, and to incorporate their stories and our meetings into art and into action.”

That’s how her investigation began, with an attempt to talk with and meet as many women as possible. “It was very hard to get to these women, because the institutions and the rehab centers are very protective of them, and don’t allow people to speak with them. In the end, after much effort, I managed to reach many women, to sit with them and listen to them. I wrote it all down. On many occasions their stories made me shudder and brought me to tears. Some women didn’t want to meet me at all; others agreed to talk to me by phone, from an unlisted number, because they were frightened of exposure.”

What reactions were there to your work?

“When the viewer comes into the room, at first glance the work is like a kick in the stomach. Some people were really taken aback, or the work aroused unpleasant thoughts and emotions for them.”

How did men respond?

“Men mostly had a ‘wow’ reaction, and some said they were startled and appalled. Some had tears in their eyes the longer they stood among the sponges.”

Hala A’kishek's "Assault" at the 2018 exhibition for Shenkar graduates.Credit: Hala A’kishek

A’kishek grew up in Lod, in a single-parent family. Her mother, an educator, is currently a high school principal in Ramle. Of her three brothers, two are medical students. As a child she loved painting, but in the absence of an art track in the Lod high schools, she studied biology and chemistry instead.

“When the time came to decide what I wanted to do next, art immediately resurfaced as my first consideration. There were still uncertainties and concerns, so I applied to study law and psychology. I was accepted to both, but it didn’t feel right.”

Instead, she began her studies at Shenkar College, in the Department of Multidisciplinary Art. “My immediate family knew that that is who I am, and that it’s in my soul. The extended family expected that I would follow my brothers into medicine or law, but they accepted my decision.”

What's next?

“I think that one inspiring story can lead to so many powerful changes in one’s life. I want to tell these stories with my paintbrush and the power of my works.”

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