Building Up and Breaking Down: Art & Culture Tour of Israel, Day 2

By Alyssa Kapnik

This week I’m in Israel with the Mizel’s Art & Culture tour of Israel.  This morning we were in an Arab town, Umm-El Fahem, surrounded by the drawings and paintings of inexperienced young Palestinian and Arab-Israeli artists, and tonight we’re standing in the studio space belonging to a collective of optimistic, well-studied and uniquely rebellious Jewish artists in Haifa.

Our days have been brimming with activity.  We’re not sure if we’re tired because of the large amounts of delicious food we’re consuming, the jet lag from our plane ride, the short distances we’re walking up and down Israeli hillsides, or the amount of information we’re absorbing.  It’s immense.

We arrived in Israel at nine in the morning yesterday and staggered off the plane, exhausted and exhilarated, primed for a day absolutely filled with activities: a tour of the Design Museum Holon in Tel Aviv, blind clay sculpting at the Nalaga’at Center in Jaffa, and dinner with the esteemed art and Judaica collector, Bill Gross.

Driving to the Umm-El Fahem Art Gallery this morning, we passed a horse in a small wooden shed in the middle of town.  The streets seemed lined with trash.  We passed countless open construction sites, and looked out over an expanse of a beautiful, strange, and, to my mind, uniquely Middle Eastern, cityscape.  Pastels and golds, oranges and blacks.  I’d never been to an Arab town, let alone in Israel, and the concept itself carries a great deal of weight.  The government road signs leading into town read first in Hebrew, then Arabic and then English, but as we drove deeper into town, advertisements and business signs are almost exclusively in Arabic.  A giant billboard for Disney, beauty shops, bakeries.  The Umm-El Fahem Art Gallery is the only gallery in Umm-El Fahem.  Said Abu Shakra, the man at the center of the nonprofit, the visionary, founder and leader of the project for the last fifteen years, is an artist himself.  He comes from a family of artists, an apparently rare quality in town.  One of his personal goals through the gallery is to raise the level of conversation in the Palestinian and Arab worlds.  To raise the level of conversation between Palestinians, Arabs and Jews.

When he was a child, Mr. Abu Shakra told us, it would get very cold outside, and his mother would bring him and his siblings into one central room to sleep together under their one family sheet.  And because they only had one, Mr. Abu Shakra remembers his mother up during the night, moving her hand on top of them, making sure that the sheet covered each one of her children, making sure no one was getting more than the others.  It wasn’t the fact that they lived in poverty that truly stands out to him after all these years.  It’s the feeling of his mother’s hand gently rearranging the sheet.

This is how he wants the gallery to function.  As a warm, steady, even-handed guide.  He wants his gallery to invite Arabs and Jews alike.  He wants to showcase art, local and international.  He wants to raise the level of conversation.

Mr. Abu Shakra’s job is almost unimaginable.  To boost art out of obscurity and into the common lens.  To build up within this small, impoverished town.  To inject life.  The exhibit that’s hanging now on the second floor of the gallery will only be up for a few more weeks.  It’s art by locals, none of whom have training or experience, and all of the pieces are framed and arranged lovingly in one large room and two small.  Much of the work is vague and simple: horses, landscapes.  Some of the pieces are chilling.  Muslim women in full garb line the walls leading to the main gallery, and one painting of the tangled bodies of naked women and men is hidden in a small black room.

We left Umm El-Fahem energized.  Inspired.  Suddenly, the future of this small Arab town feels like everything.  Abu Shakra’s vision for a “future museum,” as he calls it, is everything.

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We shifted back into the bus, through lunchtime sandwiches and extended conversations about landscapes and Israel’s long histories of war and borders, immigration policies and cultural trends.  We spent the afternoon in Ein Hod, an artist village founded in 1953, witnessing pottery throwing and glass blowing.  Our second night will be spent in Haifa.  A short break in the hotel, and then out again, to dinner at the studio of a small collective of artists who call themselves the Haifa Block.

The Block is a group of seven artists, we learn, who do nearly everything together.  The number is very specific – the artist who lives next door isn’t truly in the group.  He’s a bit of a hanger-on, likely aspiring to be a part of the Block.  The true insiders are filmmakers, photographers, painters, sculptors, musicians.  They’ve prepared an enormous spread of food: slow-cooked beef soup, eggplant spreads, cheeses and olives.  We pour ourselves glasses of ginger sangria and head to the rooftop for a view of the Haifa Bay in the warm nighttime air.

The night is a bohemian dream.  Ash trays filled with old cigarettes, a rough wood cut sculpture on the ground with the axe still in it.  A three-part band plays Parisian-style songs in Hebrew about the Champs d’Elysee, and a few Irish songs in English.  We don’t dance, as I imagine they want us to, but watch, completely captivated, looking intently into their lives.  Their hip, perfectly aesthetic and measurably off-beat lives.  The night culminates in a long and frustrating discussion about the values and value of art, and what it means to be appreciated for one’s production, the difference and purpose of being in the center of the art world, versus being in the periphery.

This tour of Israel is truly about art.  The values and meanings.  And we’re no closer to a greater understanding by the end of our second day.  We don’t know the answers to these questions about center and periphery.  We don’t know why one artist is lauded and another ignored.  We leave the atelier sated but exhausted, with only faint memories now of morning time.  It’s going to be another short night’s sleep, and we sleep fast.

Alyssa Kapnik also writes her own blog, takes photographs, and works on public radio in San Francisco!  What a life!

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