Arab Artists in Israel Await No Favors

by Dani Ben Simhon Issue93 cahllinge magazine , September/October 2005



THE art scene is gathering momentum among Arabs in israel. The rule used to be that the Arab artist would have to go outside his village to exhibit –even live outside it in order to survive as an artist. In recent years, the trend has been going the other way.

In mainstream Israeli society, the establishment accords high recognition to art. In local Arab society, by contrast, the creation of galleries and such depends entirely on private initiatives by the artists themselves. The main communal effort in recent years has gone rather into building mosques. As the sources of Arab livelihood leave the country (textiles),are taken by migrant workers (construction and agriculture), Arab society reacts to globalization by going the opposite way: closing in on itself, taking shelter in clan and mosque.

Within such a setting, art is a counterforce. By its nature, it interrupts our usual ways of seeing. It invites us to see differently –rather, it invites us to see. For a deeply conservative society, this aspect of art makes it provocative, even subversive. An implicit message, in every paintingsculpture, is that things can be looked at otherwise. Art is inherently critical.

Around each Arab artist who stays in his village, teaching in the local schoolsgiving private lessons, a need arises for a place to exhibit, and little by little an audience forms. These artists have concluded that theres not much point in waiting for the statecommunity to do something. With half of Arab society beneath the poverty line, the village council is not about to invest in the luxury of a gallery. The initiative passes to those for whom art is necessary.

One such person is the well-known sculptor and painter Ahmad Canaan, who calls on Arab artists to take direct action involving the public with art. For example, he says, it’s important to participate in village festivals, because your work is then exposed to the wider public. You take a block of stone and stand it in the village square, and in the course of a week it becomes a sculpture. The passers-by pause to watch, and in this way they live through the creative process together with the sculptor, as well as becoming more sensitive to their surroundings. If several sculptors work as a group, a sculpture garden arises. Something out of nothing.

We present three interviews with young Arab artists: Rania Akel, Fuad Agbarieh and Ahmad Canaan.

Rania Akel

When Rania Akel of Kufr Qara was 16, she began attending an art workshop in a nearby village. This led to four years of study with Farid Abu-Shakra, who helped found, in 1996, the Gallery of Art in Um al-Fahm.

Akel likes to work with natural materials. Her preference has its root in the 1998 dispute over the Roha lands (just north of her village), which Israel tried to grab for an army base. She visited the protest-tent every day with the members of an art group she was guiding. She painted stones from the region with the patterns of traditional Palestinian needlework.

Akel has had one individual exhibit, which was shown in Nazareth and twice in Bethlehem. She has taken part in dozens more. She received the prize for art from Bethlehem University in 2005.

Akel expresses no desire to live in Tel Aviv, the nation’s artistic center. “I believe that the artist has a task in her society. I had the chance to study, and now I want to give from my experience and knowledge to the place I started from.

“The radio station ‘Voice of Peace’ asked me once why I don’t exhibit in Tel Aviv. I answered that it doesn’t matter where one exhibits. The important thing is the quality of the art. I feel that the Israeli establishment makes use of Arab artists as a fig leaf. It puts us in a box labeled ‘Arab artist.’

“Here’s an example. People give tours of the Arab villages for Jewish groups. They generally take in the mosque, a quaint little spice shop, an authentic Arab bakery and a visit with an artistcraftsman. I’ll never forget how, when I was still naïve about such things, I received one of those groups. At the end of the visit, they collected some shekels and the guide slipped them into my hand, saying it was to cover the cost of the fruit and cookies I’d offered. Humiliating!

“Altogether I’m against the manipulation called ‘co-existence.’ More than once I’ve been asked to take part in exhibits where I sensed a trap. Today there are funds that will give you a budget on condition that Arab and Jewish artists appear together. The point is that all of a sudden they need me because I’m an Arab, not because of my art.”

About a year ago, Akel helped initiate and organize an art festival that went on for a week in her village, Kufr Qara, attracting 4000 visitors. Many artists participated, Arab and Jewish, working in paint, sculpture, photography, song and theatre. There were workshops, to which buses full of schoolchildren came, as well as exhibits and cultural evenings. “The creative side of the festival was wonderful from my point of view,” Akel says. “but financially it left a scar. Despite all the promises, the Arab artists have not been paid. The event occurred very close to local elections. The village council had supported the festival, but it lost. With us in the Arab sector, the outcome of elections depends on the strength of the clans. When the council head loses, all the officials change. The new village council refused to honor the commitments made by the earlier one. Since then I have distanced myself from local politicians.”

Rania Akel manages the website of Arab artists, IBDAA ( IBDAA). She also volunteers in a hospital that treats West Bank children with cancer. “It’s hard, but I get a whole lot of warmth and return for every ounce of effort I put in, and it’s also an inspiration. The last exhibit I held in Nazareth was connected to the suffering of these children.”

Fuad Agbarieh

I made the acquaintance of Fuad Agbarieh at a meeting this year in Um al-Fahm’s Gallery of Art. At 24, he was one of the youngest artists there. I heard that he had returned to his village, Musmus in Wadi Ara, and I was curious to know what it was like to go home after four years in the country’s most prestigious art school, the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem.

Agbarieh graduated from Bezalel with distinction in 2004. Back home again, he earns his livelihood selling health insurance for the General Sick Fund (Clalit).

In the Tel Aviv weekly Ha’Ir this August, an article about Bezalel’s closing exhibit described Agbarieh as an extremely talented painter, whose work was the best at the show. I expressed my astonishment, therefore, that someone with his talent would be selling insurance.

“An artist has to live,” he replied, “and he can’t do that from art. There isn’t any framework in the Arab sector today that can support me while I create. The people at Bezalel suggested that I work toward an M.A., so that I could offer myself as a lecturer in the Academy, but they couldn’t promise anything. The last time an Arab received a position was twenty years ago.”

After finishing Bezalel, Agbarieh decided to go home. “My marriage is approaching. It carries traditional, social commitments that present a difficult financial challenge. It’s clear that I’m caught in a conflict. I have the ability to work as an artist, but the kind of life I want is forcing me to shelve my art. Not to abandon it, but to wake up to it again, maybe in an hour of need, when something will push me from within and I’ll be compelled to give it expression.”

Once a week in the afternoon, Agbarieh teaches at the Gallery in Um al-Fahm, overlooking Musmus. “It’s a dose of fresh air, a partial compensation for the fact that the rest of the week I’m selling insurance.”

While studying at Bezalel, Agbarieh rented a room in the Palestinian village of Issawiya near Mt. Scopus. This had an impact. “I was constantly having to cope with army roadblocks and raids by the Border Guard. I was torn. On the one hand there were my studies at Bezalel in democratic, enlightened Jerusalem, and on the other hand, I lived in an occupied Palestinian village. In my identity card it’s written that I’m a citizen of Israel, but I was treated exactly like the people of Issawiya. I could feel what it was like to be in their shoes. Every day brought new humiliation.

“I was the youngest student at Bezalel, 18 years old. (The Jewish students arrive after army service. –DBS) I was far from my village, and I could have lived any way I liked, but I set borders to my freedom. I stayed true to the tradition and norms of the society I come from. I’m not against modernity, but I oppose any off-the-cuff dismissal of the culture I come from. I’m ready to criticize my society, but I’m opposed to self-negation.

“This question occupies me, and it affects the materials I work with. I choose non-traditional materials like Formica. It’s a synthetic ‘wood’ look-alike that’s been worked over to the point that the original material has changed its skin and become something else entirely. I’m trying to press home the awareness of imitation and faking.”

“I’m proud I chose art as my vocation. It has influenced me deeply and opened my mind. But tradition works its pressure on a young man who has to build and furnish a home before marriage. My family can help me only so much.

“I feel today that I’m stuck in a kind of temporary prison. I’m like an inmate who knows that some day he’ll get out. I’m building a house, but I’m including a studio in it. This is not the end of the story.”

Ahmed Canaan and the Tamra Exhibit

The best-known of our three artists is painter and sculptor Ahmed Canaan, 40 years old, who hails from Tamra in Galilee. After finishing his studies at Bezalel in 1989, Canaan was among the first Arab artists to go home again to the village. He has won several prestigious prizes offered by the Ministry of Education. He has launched dozens of shows, individual and collective, here and abroad.

In December 2004, Canaan opened a gallery in Tamra, and since then he has presented no less than seven exhibits. One of these was entitled, “Tamra in the Eyes of its Artists.” Nine painters and sculptors took part. They were old and young, professional and amateur. Some had exhibited throughout the world – like Khalil Rayyan, who was Canaan’s first teacher – while for others it was their debut. The main criterion was that the topic of their work should be Tamra, their home village. “My aim,” says Canaan, “was twofold: to give artists exposure and to involve lots of villagers.”

Among the new artists was Yassin Zidani, a welder by trade. He first began painting at age 50, he told me. “I always hung around artists in Tamra, and I always sketched. The decisive event, though, was a visit I made in 1999 to the Lebanon border to meet relatives who were exiled in 1948. I felt I had to express somehow the feelings that flooded me after that visit, after we were forced to stand on either side of the fence and shout. As soon as I got home, I bought a pre-stretched canvas and set to work.” The result is on view in the exhibit. One can see that the use of color is new to the artist, yet the work has power: one can’t help but feel the force of that fence keeping relatives apart.

Next to Yassin’s painting was a work by Omar Awad, the local butcher, who is known locally for his drawing. When you go to his shop for a kilo of chicken, you’re surrounded by his sketches. They cover the walls as in a gallery.

Next to Awad’s drawings were portraits of village women in photographs by Salam Diab. He enlarged them to the point that you can dive into the darks of the eyesprobe the depth of the wrinkles, which work like a metaphor for the history they have lived through. “I asked the women,” said Diab, “to think back on their experiences half a century ago. Some wept, and some refused, because the memories of 1948 began to come back. I tried to penetrate those memories and document them through the faces.”

Next to the photographs is the work of Salakh Hijazi, an amateur artist of 64, who draws Tamra as he remembers if from 1953. In the naïve style, his paintings present a pastoral village on one hill only, but beside it sprawl the shacks of the refugees. “Things that the youth of today don’t know,” remarked a visitor.

Canaan’s gallery is lodged in a long abandoned youth club. Seven exhibits in a year is a number that would shame no urban gallery. The intense rhythm is connected to Canaan’s credo:

“Artists have to bring art to the public. We have to create our public and not await favors from anyone. In the ten months of the gallery’s existence, the artists have voluntarily guided groups of school kids in a steady stream through each of the seven exhibits. We made prints of the works on display, which we sold for 50 shekels each. The aim is to raise the consciousness and interest of the public for art and especially Arab artists. When pupilsvisitors didn’t have enough money, we sold the prints at 5 shekels each. This way we encourage them to bring art into their homes. It was also important to take in a little money to cover expenses. We were able to make the prints thanks to a donor from Nazareth.”

Canaan too thinks that Arab artists are exploited by the Israeli art establishment. “No one will think of including me in an international exhibit,” he says, “unless they have to fill the square of ‘token Arab.’”

Canaan says, however, that a new door has opened during the last few years. He recently returned from Dubai and Amman. In both places he discovered an active art establishment, including museums, galleries and a market, where Palestinian, Jordanian and Iraqi artists are on exhibit. Most contacts are made through the internet, supplemented with frequent visits.

“It’s very hard to sell paintings,” says Canaan. “The economic situation is difficult. The low consciousness for art in the local Arab population is just part of the story. The other part is that the Arab collectors here can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Nevertheless, something has started to move. This year the villagers have begun to buy the less expensive paintings. This raises our morale. It’s a sign of increasing public appreciation. It’s not the rich who buy,” he adds, “but those with a feel for art.”

HE development of the art scene counters the trend to withdraw into clan and mosque. The artists I met are contributing to the society they live in, both through education and self-criticism. Most spend part of each day in voluntary work. By remaining in the village, they have linked their own careers to the development of the community as a whole. In this they behave in their proper role as an avant garde. The task, nonetheless, still looms largely before them. With half the population under the poverty line, one must not let art remain the special privilege of the middle and upper classes. One must deepen the trend and demand from the establishment, local and national, that it do its part in opening opportunities for artists, veteran and newcomer alike.