'There is nothing more alive than a dead father'
- Meir Ahronson,
Exhibition Curator, 'My Father Is a Soldier'
Israel is home to an estimated 104,000 Druse, an Arabic-speaking ethnic group with an essentially Arab culture, but a distinct religion that blends Islam with elements of Greek philosophy. Avoiding the pull of Arab nationalism since 1948, the Druse have proven themselves to be exemplary citizens, famously serving with distinction in the IDF, from the Border Police to more recently the cockpit of an IAF fighter jet. Several members of the Druse community have attained high-level positions in the military and in politics.
One, Asad Azi, has become a famous artist and art teacher, living and working at his studio in Jaffa, acquiring a devoted following, and counting more than 40 solo exhibitions to his credit. Even so, Azi, 54, says, "It is very difficult to be a full-time artist here in Israel. I teach two days a week, and then spend the rest of the time concentrating on my art." Azi teaches painting and drawing one day a week at Beit Berl College in Kfar Saba, and then flies to Kiryat Shmona once a week for his classes at Tel Hai College, where he has been teaching for 22 years.
The Jerusalem Post recently caught up with Azi at his third exhibition at the Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan, and had to wait patiently while the busy artist was showing a group of appreciative art students around the gallery.
The exhibition, entitled "My Father Is a Soldier," reflects Azi's years of trying to come to terms with the major traumatic event of his life, the death of his soldier father when he was six years old. Sayah Azi, who had proudly enlisted in the Border Guard in 1956, was killed while on active duty in 1961. This incident, occurring almost 50 years ago, remains perhaps the defining event of the artist's life.
In 1955, a year before his father's enlistment, Azi was born in Shfaram, a mixed village of Christians, Muslims and Druse in the Western Galilee. Azi insists that no "mystical voice" called him to a life in art. Although he acknowledges that he drew "all the time" as a child, his childhood ambition, he says, was to become an IDF officer. By the time he got out of the army, however, his sole desire was to study at university and perhaps become a lawyer. He entered the University of Haifa and took courses in art, philosophy, Hebrew literature and ethnic studies, and graduated with a Bachelor's degree. Although initially chosen as an elective minor subject, art began to assume progressively greater importance throughout his time in Haifa. By graduation, he had completely succumbed. In 1981, Azi found his way to the Italian village of Cararra, where he concentrated on learning the art of marble sculpture. Returning to Israel, he continued his studies at Tel Aviv University, toward an MA in Art History. There, he found himself torn between a life in academia - teaching about art, and the life of an artist - creating it. Azi finally chose the latter. "When I finished my second year at Tel Aviv University, I realized that the history of art is interesting, but I felt a stronger pull toward doing art."
Who is Asad Azi today? He smiles and replies, "Actually, that's what I'm trying to explore. I'm trying to release myself from conventional definitions. I'm trying to be open to the idea that if you are an artist, you have special talents and characteristics. You are free from belonging to big organized ethnic or religious groups. The main thing I think I'm looking for about myself by doing art is discovering what colors I need to express myself, what forms, what content and what style. That's how I figure out who I am. Through the language of art, I am trying to find out what kind of artist, and what kind of person I am."
Azi has become well known during the past decade for using photographs from his family albums as a major source of inspiration. The main thrust of the present exhibition is a series of paintings of one photo, taken in 1956, of a soldier standing stiffly at attention, perhaps at roll call. It is one of the few photographs that Azi has or has seen of his father. Sayah Azi arrived in northern Israel from Syria some time in 1948, to be close to sisters who had married Druse men from this side of the border. Enlisting in 1956, the year the photograph was taken, he served in an IDF Border Guard unit whose objective was to prevent infiltration along the country's northern border. On May 30, 1961, he was killed by sniper gunfire from a Syrian patrol.
"I was six years old," Azi says softly. "I became a Middle East war orphan. There are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people like me, people hurt by the wars. So I took this picture that had been hidden somewhere for many years and studied it."
Azi says he was hoping to learn something about his father, what kind of a man he was. "I had heard stories all my life about how he was a soldier, a hero. But the image itself didn't go along with the stories. He was thin, small and dark, with a mustache. He didn't look like a hero the way heroes are shown on television. He wasn't big and muscular."
After 50 years, he continues, he had to "deal" with the photo. He began making sketches of it, and small paintings. Then bigger ones, trying to express what he saw in the picture. He told himself, "This man is still my father. It doesn't matter that I hate war, hate killing, or that my father was part of the war machine. It's what we have here, the big issue, that so many people here are orphaned from the wars. And since I want peace, and I want people to be able to live side by side, I have to deal with the fact that my father was one of the people who participated in war, in something I reject, but [he was] still my father."
The other main thing he realized when gazing at the photo, Azi confides, is that even after all these years, he still feels "weak, fragile and hurt. I'm still orphaned. I'm still someone who doesn't have the opportunity to go with his father to the zoo, to the sea, to hug him and feel protected. These are all the things I was raised with and cannot get free of."
The result is a series of paintings that are variations on the original photograph, painted in different colors and emphasizing Azi's varied emotional reactions to his father's soldierhood. The paintings also feature such written remarks as "PAPA IS A DEAD SOLDIER" and "MY DADDY IS A DEAD SOLDIER."
The exhibition's second most noticeable series of paintings are variations on a photograph taken in 1985, at the completion of Azi's youngest brother Sayah's basic training. Sayah, born after his father was killed, is now following in his footsteps as a soldier. The photo, and the several paintings it inspired, show young Sayah Azi proudly standing in his uniform with an arm around his mother, who is covered in a long white Druse scarf. In the original black-and-white photo, the two are surrounded by other young men. The paintings, however, seem to isolate the proud young man and the mother, who both look variously proud, sad or outright tragic.
Azi explains: "The paintings are like talking from a distance about the issue of war, about militarism, about the image of the soldier - a very important image in the history of Israel. And on the other side, we're talking about feelings, human feelings, private and intimate feelings."
Azi is by no means a naÃ¯ve artist, however. It is evident that his academically acquired knowledge of art history informs much of his work. He is also quite obviously literate. Several paintings of very pensive, almost frightened looking children on wooden rocking horses are inspired, he says, by D.H. Lawrence's disturbing short story "The Rocking-horse Winner." Another series of paintings of a woman who models for Azi in Jaffa draws on biblical and Greek mythological themes. Yet another painting, of a small boy standing at attention and saluting with his mother beside him, is an allusion, Azi says, to the now iconic picture of the three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting the coffin at the funeral of his assassinated father.
Intriguingly, many of the paintings are covered with thin parallel and perpendicular lines, forming a kind of grid that seems to be superimposed upon the subject. This, says, Azi, symbolizes his being a spark resulting from the collision of Eastern and Western cultures.
"The grid is an important factor in Western art. It is the main language, the basic language. It is very important to me to display this 70 percent of Western education that I have. It is my disciplined side. It is the side that tells you how to start doing a painting. It is not a matter of intuitively starting to paint. This is how you are taught to transfer a sketch to a bigger space. I don't paint this way, but I use the grid as a symbol of the part of me that is Western. The opposite is my heritage of an Arab and Druse way of life, where nothing is planned, God will help us, inshallah. These are the two parts of my character - 70% Western, 30% Oriental."
Are these two sides warring or cooperating? "In my life they are warring, and the Oriental 30% often wins. But in my art, they cooperate. I can't help that I'm emotional. I would rather be more of a rationalist. I want to arrive to places on time, but my Eastern part makes me late. I'm supposed to go to a meeting, but I don't go and don't tell the people I'm supposed to meet that I'm not going." Azi says he "hates" this part of his character, but can't free himself from it. But in his art, he notes, he uses that "30% to do more intuitive, more flexible imagery. I use it to be more spontaneous. For me as an artist, it is good to have those two sides. I do a lot of sketches, drawing and thinking. I also paint the same painting again and again. My work is thus a combination of the two approaches. Intuition and planning. When they combine, the art becomes truth."Does any part of him, perhaps the Eastern 30%, or the "faint echo" of his Druse heritage, ever feel anger at the loss of his father? "Anger? No, I don't like to be angry," he replies. "Of course, there are questions about identity, about whether we are Israeli. I was in the army, my father was killed in the army, my brothers are in the army. Are we really part of this country? My answer is - not completely. We've progressed a long way toward the goal, but there are still many small obstacles." A Druse doesn't have to be prime minister, he believes. Unless someday there were some kind of Druse Barack Obama, someone very convincing who had served as an officer in the IDF and could win a majority of the vote. Azi points out that there are Druse ambassadors and Knesset members. Nevertheless, he says, more government effort is needed to improve the conditions in Druse villages. "A lot of young Druse look at Arab villages and Jewish moshavim and wonder why they, who serve in the IDF, have villages that look more like those belonging to Arabs, who don't serve in the IDF, instead of having the same benefits as Jewish moshavim. But I prefer to see what we have instead of what is still missing."
Interestingly enough, the only real display of anger that Azi displays at this exhibition is directed not at Israel, but at his dead father. One of the several paintings drawn from the photograph of his father is almost garishly defaced by a series of shredded military ribbons. Along the side of another of the paintings, to the right of his father, Azi has written "YOUR DREAM KILLED MY HAPPINESS."
"My Father Is a Soldier" will continue to run at the Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan until June. From there it will travel to Russia, to be shown at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Museum of Israeli Art, 146 Abba Hillel Street, Ramat Gan. (03) 752-1876.