UMM EL FAHM, Israel – The green flags of the radical Islamic Movement flutter along the steep, narrow streets of Umm el Fahm, Israel’s largest Arab Muslim town. Located along the heavily fortified border with the West Bank, the impoverished municipality’s former mayor and other prominent residents have been jailed on suspicion of promoting terrorism. Few of its women venture outside without a head scarf.
This hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism seems an unlikely locale for avant-garde art, but a rapidly expanding exhibition space here has become one of the most talked about cultural institutions in the Jewish state. Attendance at Umm el Fahm Art Gallery exhibitions has turned into a kind of pilgrimage for artists, curators, and collectors from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other Israeli cities.
The gallery, directed by a former veteran of the Israeli police force who combined a career in law enforcement with the study of painting, first attracted attention within Israel in 1999 when Yoko Ono exhibited there in an effort to “balance” a separate show of her work at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. But with the second intifada in 2000, many Israelis grew reluctant to venture into Arab population centers, and Umm el Fahm acquired particular notoriety after police were stoned and three men were killed in anti-Israel riots there that same year. Umm el Fahm means “Mother of Coal” in Arabic; the hilly area was once covered with trees that in earlier centuries were burned to produce charcoal. Some Jewish Israelis who nowadays visit the gallery nervously joke that they are going to Umm el Pahd, or “Mother of Fear.”
“We are afraid of the unknown, the strangers, the Arabs,” says Efi Gen, the Jewish curator of the current exhibition. “They are afraid of us, but the gallery is a bridge.” To help overcome that fear, the gallery staged a show two years ago entitled “In House.” It featured Jewish and Arab artists, and was displayed not only in the spacious, two-floor exhibition space, but in seven private houses as well. Minibuses ferried gallery goers to these homes where they viewed more art and talked with residents about difficulties faced by Israel’s Arab population.
The current exhibition, entitled “Wounds and Bandages” and running through January 16, deals with the current pain and hurtful memories endured by both Jews and Arabs. Paintings, sculpture and installations are included. One video work is a collaborative project between an Arab, Mirvat Essa, and an Israeli, Adi Ben Horin. The 15-minute video shows the two artists digging in ground now occupied by Kibbutz Baram, built on the site of a former Arab village, Biram. Essa’s family was forced to leave there after Israel was created in 1948 and its Arab neighbors attacked the new-born state. Ben Horin grew up on the kibbutz.
The video is subtitled in Arabic and Hebrew, with the Hebrew drawn from an Israeli government website that makes no reference to the now vanished Arab villagers, whereas the Arabic subtitles detail how the Essa family fled their home. “The spectator reading the Hebrew thinks the Arabic is a translation of the Hebrew, and the Arabic spectator thinks the Hebrew is a translation of the Arabic,” said Gen. Only the spectator who knows both languages perceives the disparity.
“We are digging out our wounds or maybe trying to bury them,” Gen continued. “But actually we don’t know what to do with the gap between them. We need artists who can feel sympathy for the other. We bring out pains, fears, wounds and bandages, but we are not able to heal them. By bringing them up through art, maybe that will be the beginning of looking at the other.”
Although it calls itself a gallery, the art center is a non-commercial space, organizing up to half a dozen shows per year along with art education programs for the town’s children. Twenty five per cent of its funding comes from the Israeli government, with the remainder from the municipality and wealthy Israelis and Jews abroad including a foundation created by Marc Rich, the fugitive multi-millionaire tax evader pardoned by President Bill Clinton.
“People see here a symbol of hope for a positive connection within Israel between Arabs and Jews,” says gallery director Said Abu Shakra, who spent 25 years in the Israeli police and whose own paintings are in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. His unusual identity — a self-described juggling act — stems perhaps from a bifurcated family history. One of his cousins is Sheikh Ra’ed Salah, Umm el Fahm’s former mayor and leader of Israel’s Northern Islamic Movement who was freed from jail in July after serving two years for funding the militant group Hamas and membership in illegal organizations.
Another cousin was the late Assam Abu Shakra, a celebrated modern painter who died of cancer in 1990 at age 28, and was the subject of a major 1995 retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. His works have since acquired a kind of radical chic among trend-setting Israelis. Daniella Luxembourg, the influential art dealer who co-founded the Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg auction house, has one of his large paintings — depicting an Israeli bomber jet amid dark clouds — hanging in her Tel Aviv dining room.
“My cousin’s work transformed me,” Said Abu Shakra says, recalling how the Tel Aviv retrospective and his cousin’s posthumous acclaim sparked his own creation of the gallery in 1996. “I don’t want to wait for outside acknowledgement,” he says. “I want to get credit for what I do. I have no problem to exhibit in Tel Aviv but I want to have the strength and power to invite Tel Aviv here. I want to change preconceptions. Why can’t I invite Jewish artists to come to Umm el Fahm and open their exhibitions here? I don’t want to be a drop of water in the stream. I want to be the stream itself.”
He has succeeded to a large degree, with top Israeli curators eager to organize shows in his hometown of 40,000 people, located a 40-minute expressway drive north of Tel Aviv. Now the gallery plans to erect a large new museum building to house its growing activities and a permanent collection. “It’s a noble effort and a risky one in Said’s society,” said Sarah Breiterg-Semel, a curator and former editor of the leading Israeli art magazine Studio. “Usually people go to Arab villages to have a hummus or to buy cheap things or for the folklore. This is a change of attitude—the idea that you can go to an Arab village for a good exhibition and to talk about art. There is nothing like it elsewhere in the country.”
“It’s an important place,” said the Israel Museum’s curator of contemporary Israeli art, Amitai Mendelson. “We don’t know that much of what’s happening with Palestinian artists. It’s a place where I go to see art I haven’t seen before. It’s very positive.” But artist and curator Galia Yahav is more skeptical. “People are murdered here every day and to talk about a dialogue through art is very na’ve. The people who come to these exhibitions — activist arts people from the left — don’t need these shows. It’s only for the Jewish audience.”
Although much or the work exhibited is cutting edge, the gallery shuns nudity to avoid causing offense in the conservative Muslim setting. After a prominent imam urged Israeli Muslims to boycott exhibitions by local feminist artist Hannan Abu Hussein who got her start at the Umm el Fahm gallery, the gallery cut ties with her when she proposed erecting a towering menstrual pad as part of the “In House” exhibit. And while there are plenty of artworks at the gallery assailing the Israeli army and its occupation of the West Bank, it’s harder to find art critical of Muslim or Palestinian society, works that are difficult to show in a place like Umm el Fahm.
“I became an exception here,” Abu Shakra says of his role. “My problem was how can I be an officer in the Israeli police and not be regarded as traitor, and be regarded in the village as someone who is trustworthy. I need to be in the middle — to give all sides the feeling that I belong to them. It is a juggling act. During the intifada I was in the middle, and people told me, ‘Said, declare what side you’re on.’ I’m still in the middle. To create a dialogue, I look for the positive aspects of each side and try to connect them. Sometimes I’m in great spirits and sometimes I’m very down. When I’m down, I try to gather my strength. If I don’t do this work, no one will.”