Art and the Right to Freedom of Movement

An exhibition in a small Arab-Israeli town. With artists from Germany, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Can a project like this be a success? It can indeed! Cornelia Rabitz reports

Path to the art gallery in Umm El Fahem (photo: Jürgen Hube)
People in Umm El Fahem have more fundamental concerns than fine arts. But Said Abu Shakra has nevertheless succeeded in establishing an art gallery as an important center for contemporary art

​​In the end it all worked out fine: the sculptures by Oliver van den Berg of Berlin arrived in Umm El Fahem in good time – a small miracle if you consider the circumstances.

Umm El Fahem is an Arab town in eastern Israel, just 90 kilometers from Tel Aviv, but a world away in all respects. The people are poor, the streets dirty, and the border that separates Palestinian territories from Israeli heartlands is close by.

Art and encounter

In Umm El Fahem, art is low down on peoples' priority lists – although there is an "Art Gallery" that run by a local family's private initiative. Founder and director Said Abu Shakra knows that people in his hometown have more fundamental concerns such as work, money and food. But he has nevertheless succeeded in establishing the gallery as an important center for contemporary art, and visitors even come from Tel Aviv.

photo: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection
Ines Schaber's artwork is an objet trouvé</i>: a photography of the meeting of the "Arab Women's Union" in Jerusalem, 1944

​​Said Abu Shakra and his team are doing something quite unusual – they are creating a space for encounters between Israeli, Arab and Palestinian artists.

Transgressing borders

Now, after two years of preparation, and with the support of Germany's Goethe Institute, it has even been possible to realize a project with German painters and sculptors. The exhibition is titled "29 Kilometers" in allusion to the exact distance that Palestinians in the occupied territories can travel without running into a checkpoint or some kind of border fortification.

"While walls are falling in Europe and mobility is becoming greater and greater, here it continues to be restricted, with surveillance, demarcation, control of resources, and dependence on passes," says curator Shlomit Baumann. The exhibition focuses on this problematic situation.

Joint research

photo: Jürgen Hube
Want to book a trip to Ramallah? Georg Klein's project "Ramallah-Tours" focuses on fiction, irritation and, above all, sarcasm

​​The 13 artists underwent an intense preparatory period. "We didn't want to just show any old thing, we wanted to acquaint ourselves with the situation here on the ground first," says Sven Kalden from Berlin, one of the co-initiators of the project. A symposium in the autumn of 2008 brought participants in Israel and the Palestinian territories together for research purposes.

Then the Gaza war broke out. The paintings, photos, videos and installations now on view in Umm El Fahem speak of violence, war, misery and insurmountable barriers.

The children of Gaza

photo: Jürgen Hube
Nasrin Abu Baker

​​"The war in Gaza made me very sad, I even wanted to give up art completely," says Nasrin Abu Baker, a young artist from Umm El Fahem. She cannot get the images of injured and dead children out of her head. Her installation "Babies" is dedicated to the youngest victims of Gaza.

Nasrin's Israeli colleague David Goss sees himself as a decidedly political artist and criticizes his country's government. His exhibit portrays grey-brown brickwork. He mixed the paint for his two pictures with concrete. Goss says in Israel, people do politics with concrete.

Historical Memory

Sven Kalden has brought a video projection from Berlin. "My work here is called 'Occupation Museum Ramallah', it is the design for a museum complex," he says. "There is no place in Ramallah that documents the history of the Palestinians and the Israeli occupation."

The Palestinian artist Shareef Sarhan had to send his video via the Internet. Just like his colleagues in Ramallah, he was not allowed to go to Israel to attend the exhibition preview. His film "Stop, you are from Gaza" shows a fast and furious car trip that ends abruptly at a wire fence.

Ines Schaber found a photograph from 1944 at the Library of Congress in Washington. It shows the meeting of the "Arab Women's Union" in Jerusalem. The German artist is currently looking for more information concerning this encounter. Her keywords are a search for clues, and historical memory. She would very much like to make the photograph available to a museum in the region. In a letter addressed to a fictional participant, she asks questions about the meeting.

A provocation

Georg Klein's project "Ramallah-Tours" focuses on fiction, irritation and above all sarcasm. A bright yellow taxi stands in the center of Umm El Fahem, just like the many hundreds at checkpoints in the Palestinian territories. The installation claims that you can easily book trips to Ramallah via a website – this is a provocation, as the border is practically impassable for both Israelis and Palestinians.

photo: Jürgen Hube
David Goss and his work "Concrete Rhythm"

​​For Georg Blochmann, head of the Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv, the exhibition is not only a great success, it is also an expression of the mutual learning process of all participants. "Here, art is doing exactly what it should be doing: namely giving hope and revealing the possibility of a new world," he says.

The Art Gallery in Umm El Fahem is trying to initiate this learning process at the earliest possible stage, with workshops for children. Georg Blochmann says this is a downright "adventurous" undertaking, in view of the ambivalent attitude of Islamic culture to the visual arts. Therefore he says he's quite impressed with this bold initiative.

Just recently, Arab and Israeli children came together here to discuss the issue of walls and borders, and painted stones as part of the program. The session was supported by the Goethe Institute, and the stones put on show on the roof of the gallery.

But it's still difficult for the gallery director to remain optimistic. "We really want to build a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians," he says, and adds that this has turned out to be impossible. "Instead of bridges, we have borders and war." But Said Abu Shakra and his gallery team are not about to give up, and will continue to pursue their bridge-building efforts.

Cornelia Rabitz

© Deutsche Welle / 2009

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