Last month I was among a group of journalists who toured Israel’s holiest city as guests of Jerusalem Season of Culture, a fledgling organization that will mount a multidisciplinary arts festival in summer 2011. Although it has secured internationally known artists as headliners, its purpose is to showcase its home-grown cultural assets and talent, as was the purpose of the trip.
The organizers laid the groundwork for understanding the cultural milieu with tours of the city. Jerusalem’s long, tumultuous history and biblical roots are incarnated in the architecture. Vestiges of Roman, Ottoman, Crusader and British rule, as well as mid-20th-century European modernism, abut or top one another, all swaddled in tawny Jerusalem limestone that supplies a lovely but metaphorically deceptive cohesion.
The organizers, to their credit, didn’t shy away from Israel’s contemporary problems. Not that they could. There’s no escaping the tensions between Arabs and Jews, or the friction between the Haredi Orthodox and secular Jews. Jerusalem seems to be the flash point for everything that is contested in Israel: boundaries, political and religious power, identity. As artist Gary Goldstein said, “In Israel, nothing is clear.”
The intensity of the place fueled and directed much of the art we saw. The feelings of instability and precariousness that pervade the culture were evident, for instance, in works by tAmAr Shippony, a young Israeli artist, and Palestinian art professor Faten Nastas.
Shippony — who has studio space at Mamuta, an incubator for emerging artists — screened “In Between,” a video (left) in which she tries to balance a rootless tree on her face while standing in a gently rocking rowboat.
“It’s a struggle balancing between left and right,” she said. “I’m only in the center momentarily. It’s a fragile moment.”
Mamuta’s location in Ein Karem added to the video’s resonance: One of the few intact Arab villages, it brought to mind the intractable right-of-return issue.
Nastas’ abstract sculpture, on view at the Palestinian Art Court – al Hoash, looked at first glance to be a cylindrical marble carving of Arabic script. The piece (right), which reads, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” was actually constructed with Styrofoam and multi-part — easily knocked over and rearranged.
Ahmed Caanan’s large-scale metal sculpture (below), a boat piled high with keys, was installed outside the entrance. The boat resembles the vessels of the ancient Phoenicians, the artist’s ancestors, who settled the coast of Palestine and became known as the Canaanites. The keys, he said, symbolize Palestinian refugees, many of whom kept their house keys when they fled from their homes in 1948 after Israel was declared a nation, assuming they would return.
The gallery, devoted to Palestinian art, is in East Jerusalem, an area Israelis were afraid to enter during the two intifadas, or Arab uprisings. A number of the JSOC organizers had never been to the center before. Though the visit was civil, a testy interchange between the gallery director and the leader of an Israeli foundation committed to furthering peace laid bare the simmering anger that roils even well-meaning people.
Israeli artist Raphie Etgar founded the Museum on the Seam in 1999 as a neutral zone where artists of all stripes can express themselves on political and social issues. For “HomeLessHome,” the show we saw, Etgar had assembled a wide-ranging group from Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Middle East, whose work offered a global perspective on displacement and other political and social ramifications of “home.”
Some examples: Jeffrey Aaronson, an American, contributed a photo (taken presciently in Arizona) of an immigrant returning to Mexico with a trailer stuffed with belongings. German artist Josephine Meckseper’s stolid sculpture (left) conflated bunker and burqa. Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota covered the museum façade with a striking tangled web of black thread, suggesting confinement and defense.
If artists like Canaan were intent on building identity, many of the Israelis seemed to use art to question theirs. They feel justifiably angry about the long history of Arab attacks on them, and Arab refusal to recognize their state, yet many Jews, accustomed to rectitude as history’s victims, feel guilty about their country’s treatment of Palestinians.
The impotence felt in the face of daunting problems was brilliantly captured in a film by students at the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School, in which Don Quixote charges downhill on his horse to attack the border barricade with his spear, which, of course, bounces off the wall, sending him sprawling to the ground.
Ido Suliman expressed the frustration with the sacrosanct place of the Holocaust in Israeli culture among children of the third generation. He created posters for fictional Nazi films so deliberately over the top that they were perversely funny.
“It’s an untouchable issue,” Suliman told us during a visit to the Jerusalem Artists’ House. “I wanted to open the subject for discussion. We [the young] might have something to say about it.”
Some posters were revenge stories in the manner of “Inglourious Basterds.” Others portrayed Hitler as a pathetic pervert. “We’ve made him to a myth,” Suliman explained. “He’s really just a horrible person.”
As with so many issues here, Suliman was ambivalent. On one hand, he wanted to break the taboo and address the Holocaust. On the other, he wanted to let go of the burden of those memories. “It was so far away,” he said. “We want to be happy.”
To be sure, plenty of the artists we met did not make Israel’s problems the focus of their work. It seemed to me, however, that an atmosphere in which even a straightforward image of a landscape is fraught with meaning discourages frivolity.
Consider Streett’s rap song “Bella Bellisima,” which he based on an actual event. A group of Israelis had nabbed a Palestinian who had just stabbed some children on the street with a kitchen knife and were in the process of beating him to settle the score when an Haredi Orthodox woman threw herself onto his body. She endured the beating herself because, she said, only God can make decisions about life and death.
Streett muses in the song on the unlikely hero, not a soldier but a mother who leaves her own children’s side to shield a murderer, and a Haredi, the group most vehemently right wing. He muses about what he would have done, the importance of her example.
Political music has a long history, of course, but issues are usually framed in black and white. Streett raps in shades of gray. In grappling with the complexity of Israel’s social, political and moral terrain, he and so many other Jerusalem artists demonstrate the role artists can play in a culture’s self-examination.