By Keren Rubinstein
Can art stand up to the Occupation? Is it crude or privileged to turn to art when countless lives are relinquished for political gain? Perhaps. And yet, I wanted to look at Israeli and Palestinian visual portrayals of the ongoing disempowerment, appropriation and violence entailed by the Occupation. Can I group Palestinian and Jewish Israeli artists together in such a way, or is this a contrived and superficial attempt to suture an intractable and violent rift? It has been done before (some joint exhibitions include David Reeve’s 1987 “End the Occupation”, Larry Abramson’s 2006 “63 Artists at the Separation Fence”, and Farid Abu Shakra’s 2010 exhibition at Umm al-Fahm gallery, to name a few). The juxtaposition of Palestinian and Israeli works is not meant to imply symmetry between the two spheres, for there isn’t one (to hugely understate the state of play). Furthermore, any examination of the Occupation in art must be prefaced by the undeniably censorial attitude to the Palestinian narrative in the Israeli artistic world, such that most attempts to tackle my questions by other Israelis have been met with institutional resistance along with a fair degree of resistance from Palestinian artists concerned with normalisation. These questions accompanied me as I set out to produce this visual essay.
It is unavoidable that Israeli art should emerge from Zionism to some extent, be it by way of direct engagement with Jewish history and resettlement, or by way of the attempt to speak to a universal or rather a Western artistic discourse. This is true even for works that might be labelled ‘post Zionist’. Palestinian art, meanwhile, is linked to some extent to Arabic themes which are then synthesized by the experience of the Nakba, and express the position of the dispossessed Other. This is true even as Palestinian artists convey their private psychology or relate to the Occupation with irony, and in so doing express an increasingly universalist aesthetic. Earlier this year art historian and curator Gideon Ofrat stated in a seminar at the Israel Museum that there exists ‘an unbridgeable gap between Palestinian and Israeli cultures, a gap that is rooted in differing perceptions of folklore, language, attitudes to land and the degree of artistic enlistment to combat’. What is evident and undeniable is that Palestinian art, unlike its Israeli counterpart, is far likelier to contain overtly political work. Palestinian art is far more likely to explicitly resist the Occupation, while Israeli art has been described by Ofrat as largely ‘exhausted’ of this dimension of dissent.
I’ve chosen a few works to examine this divergence. To simplify the process, I ended up focusing on a single visual motif that epitomises the conflicting narratives behind Israel/Palestine: the cactus plant AKA prickly pear AKA sabra. This symbol of both national entities is one of tenacity, stubbornness, nativity, survival (or ‘sumud’ – the Palestinian sense of rootedness), while also signifying uprootedness, migration, ruin; it is a highly constructed image, that I imagine will continue to attract the attention of artists for years to come, like the olive tree or the Separation Wall.
The first artist to come to mind when pondering the cactus was Assam Abu Shakra, who was was born in Umm al-Fahm in 1961 and died of cancer aged only 29. In his short career he focused on the prickly pear, painting cacti that are uprooted, placed in rusty tins and set against a grim backdrop far removed from the plant’s natural habitat. His other favourite image was the airplane – a symbol of Israeli machismo and militarism. In 2008 Abu Shakra’s works appeared in a retrospective exhibition in Tel Aviv, literally while bombs were ravaging Gaza during operation Cast Lead. Why have these works been admitted into the Israeli art world – albeit placed at its margins?
Another image I chose to include was created by Shirley Wagner (b. 1960), an Israeli artist who works and lives in New York. Similarly to Abu Shakra, Wagner’s studio installations depict icons and archetypes, though her sabra plants form a lush cluster sprouting in meticulously embroidered shapes contained behind a coil of barbed wire. Wagner’s landscape is also barren, but it is a simulated natural landscape; the plant is somewhat grounded in her studio homeland. Her work speaks of childhood memories that are recreated in a state of voluntary detachment or a physical remove from Israel.
I leave you to wander through the other works as you reflect on the Occupation’s effects on the artistic imagination.
Images found in ynet.co.il, calcalist.co.il, www.etgar.info, umelfahemgallery.org, khtt.net, artcity.co.il and iarc.org.
By Keren Rubinstein