Ma Li delves into the Musrara Mix

Despite a spate of personal mishaps in Jerusalem, the Chinese-born installation and video artist still feels the Holy City is her ‘second home.’

June 7, 2017 22:35
3 minute read.
A SCREENSHOT from video artist Ma Li’s short film ‘The Children of Surah-Am-Ma.’

A SCREENSHOT from video artist Ma Li’s short film ‘The Children of Surah-Am-Ma’. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Since she arrived in Jerusalem, Chinese-born installation and video artist Ma Li has been through the ringer.

A massive fire erupted in her apartment, claiming all her belongings. A feral cat attacked her in the street, putting her in the hospital and requiring her to take a slew of antibiotics.

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And yet, she is incredibly positive about her time in Israel’s capital.

“I’m a very safe person,” she explains via Skype call, “and everything explodes here in the city. It brought me very close to the people around me. I almost feel I can move here, that it’s my second home.”

Li, 34, sits in front of a leafy veranda, the trees behind her swaying in the breeze. She has cropped bangs and a big smile.

She arrived in Jerusalem via Berlin and San Francisco, her two home bases, several months ago as an artist-in-residence at Musrara – The Naggar Multidisciplinary School of Art and Society.

A natural acclimatizer, Li quickly delved into the underground art scene of Jerusalem.

“I understand the community here, how they make art, how they support each other. Under the very intense social and political atmosphere, they have very little support and no commercial purpose yet they make so much. I think it is very inspiring for any art community in the world and it has become very important for me to document it.”

Li was raised in Communist China. She felt the urge to create very early on but only discovered herself as an artist as an adult.

“Before I moved to San Francisco, I was not an artist. I studied chemical engineering [and] worked in a big corporation.

When I went for my masters in California, that was my [turning] point as an artist. In China, individuality is completely ignored. Only after I moved to US, where it is the complete opposite, where everything is about individuality and entrepreneurship, did I [find] myself.

That’s when I became an artist.

Nine years after, I moved to Berlin, which brought the two points together. When the Berlin wall fell, the East and West, the collective and individual merged and it really helped me develop and realize what I want to look for in my work. I felt that it was my destiny to come to Israel.” Li is currently presenting a large-scale work, A Moment with the Surah-Am-Ma, as part of the Musrara Mix Festival which is happening this week. The performance/installation will include a type of ritual, which Li has developed over months of close work with the students of the school.

“I have been working with them for about three months,” she explains. “We started shooting the film about one month ago. Every week, I took a group of people to a very special location in Jerusalem, gave them brief structure and materials and let them do live performance. I recorded the live performance from each scene.

That became the materials of the performance. In the live performance, we transform a corridor in public space into a gigantic instrument. Every component of the installation is collected and borrowed from the neighbors in Musrara, it’s all junk metal.

“When you walk around Musrara, you see that peoples’ fences used to be something else. So, we took those elements and used them to create this giant instrument, which we will play live in the festival. It was completely inspired by improvisation, by how people work here.”

During the show, Li will film the installation and will edit it to finish the short film The Children of Surah-Am-Ma.

This cult, or religious group, that Li incepted, is in many ways a comment on religion and its inherent storytelling.

“It’s about the power of fiction and story. This power created all the religions and it holds on for generations and generations of people for hundreds of years.

We can create, whether in our own fantasy or as a collective, a new story that can really make a change. In an ironic way, we made our own religion in this short film. Surah-Am-Ma is the god mother. In Arabic ‘surah’ means line, which, if traced back through its Semitic roots, means sound or vibration. ‘Am’ is [Hebrew for] a nation or group of people, and ‘ma’ is mother in Chinese. So together it is ‘The Nation of Vibration.’”

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