Landscape painter Debbie Kampel does not make in-your-face political statements
in her work. She simply, though gracefully and with a keen eye, puts to canvas
what she observes while sitting at the Gush Etzion junction near her home of
Alon Shvut. The faceless soldiers in her paintings inspecting IDs and searching
vehicles are on the one hand diligent, modest and firmly ensuring Israel’s
security. On the other hand, a viewer could look at Kampel’s soldiers and praise
the way she captures suffering and human rights violations. These contrasting
perspectives are the way Kampel likes it.
“I feel what I do is make a
bridge between two opposing views, because I try to be as honest as I can about
what I’m assuming, and as careful as I can, and when I see that people have
different, totally opposite takes on my work I think that I’m coming through the
best that I can, bringing a sort of reality that can be a bridge between the two
points of view,” she says. “I’ve had different interpretations of my work and I
feel that I’ve really succeeded in it.”
Kampel, who has lived in Alon
Shvut since 1974 when she made aliya from Johannesburg, South Africa, wrapped up
an exhibition, “Purpose and way,” last month at Beit Haam, Afridar Center in
Ashkelon, where she showed her collection of oil paintings of Judean landscapes,
Arab and Jewish trucks, swimmers and scenes from a checkpoint. She
painted them all near her home, in the Judean Hills, and in and around
Jerusalem. Kampel has a delicate demeanor, and bounces seamlessly between
speaking intensely about her art to breaking into a friendly smile.
year before the second intifada broke out, Kampel began painting passing trucks
and scenes from the checkpoint. It was certainly calmer at the checkpoint before
the intifada, but Kampel says she continued going, despite the bombings, when
she felt it was safe to do so.
“Most of the time it was a pretty quiet
checkpoint and if there was anything going on then I wouldn’t be there because I
wouldn’t want to make it more difficult for the soldiers,” she says. “I’ve never
been at a checkpoint where I’ve seen anything terrible. It is uncomfortable to
see people where they have to identify themselves, but then there are reasons
they have to identify themselves.”
As she sat at the checkpoint, people
generally assumed she worked for a media watch group or other left-wing
organization that reports on abuses at checkpoints. No one has ever given her
trouble though, she says.
The massive Mack trucks caught Kampel’s
attention a little over a decade ago.
“I had been eyeing a building site
from my studio,” she says.
Moving outside closer to the site, she began
“When I finished the picture the truck was a main player. I
found my eyes open to trucks. I hadn’t noticed all the trucks before and how
decorated they were.”
She noticed cultural differences between the
vehicles. While the Arab trucks are brightly colored – red, yellow and turquoise
– and tend to be decorated with geometric designs, curlicues and Arabic writing,
the Jewish trucks are less elaborate. Kampel seems to have picked up a great
deal anecdotally by watching these trucks. Jordanian trucks, she says, for
example, have two windows cut on the sides to make the engine more
Passing through Gush Etzion every day, as they transport
building materials, food and water to and from Israel, the trucks can also
symbolize some of the complexities in Israeli society.
“You’ve got these
trucks that bring caravans, the Jewish trucks, the Arab trucks getting their
water or working for Jews,” she says. “They play a huge role in our
And they change purposes as they alternate what resources they
carry, from building materials to water. “It’s life in metal,” Kampel
While the truck paintings feature the strong face of the
truck headon, she denies that they dominate the painting so much so that the
landscape is absent. They are in harmony, Kampel says, complementing each
“I think in my painting you feel the strength of both of them and
also a lot of the colors are reflected.”
She paints them from a truck
parking lot or at checkpoint mostly, but she’ll also follow the truck to where
it’s working in the West Bank or Jerusalem area, and inevitably interacts with
the vehicle’s driver. This makes for “a lot of interesting conversations,” she
says, adding that the drivers are always excited and eager to know more about
“Every person whose truck I’ve painted wants to give me info...
put in that, don’t forget that, this truck’s from this time,” she
One driver even asked Kampel for her daughter’s hand in
marriage. How did she respond? “I said she’d make her own decisions,”
Kampel says with a laugh.
HAVING COME from South Africa, it took her a
while to get used to painting the very different landscapes and historically
charged scenery of Gush Etzion. It is commonplace for her to observe the old
mikvehs on Derech Avot, which follows the journey pilgrims took to the Temple,
to see artifacts from the time of Bar Kokhba, caves, coins and letters. The land
isn’t just stunning, she says, but also holds personal significance for her, as
a Jew grateful to be living in her own country.
“It’s exciting to be
actually living in your own history, and especially having been a South African
where I wasn’t connected, here I am connected emotionally,” she
Kampel, who grew up in a Zionist family, says she was happy to
leave South Africa, where on her university campus she was involved in
anti-Apartheid activities. She draws no comparison between Israel’s security
barrier and the Apartheid state she came from.
“I think that’s why every
time I see Israel called an Apartheid state it’s really upsetting for me because
it’s so not. It belittles what the blacks went through to call it an Apartheid
state,” she says.
“People don’t really know what they’re talking
Kampel studied painting at the University of Cape Town and earned
her first degree and graduated magna cum laude with her Masters degree from
Hebrew University in Jerusalem. At Bezalel, she studied lithography with David
Ben-Shaul and drawing with Michael Kovner and Pinchas Cohen-Garden. She taught
painting at Kay College in Beersheba and elsewhere. Kampel’s works are displayed
at the Israel Museum, Yeshiva University Museum in New York, Olympia Museum of
Art in Beijing and public and private collections in Israel and the United
States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, France and Croatia.
exhibit, “Hills of Jerusalem,” she showed in 1987 at the Nora Gallery in
Jerusalem. She has showed throughout Israel, including at Haacheret Gallery in
Tel Aviv in 2002, the International Women’s Film Festival in Rehovot in 2010 and
in a group show with other Israeli artists at the Israel Museum in
“I was very happy to exhibit in Ashkelon,” Kampel says of her
recent exhibition, though adding that many times in Israel curators have shunned
her because of where she lives, and that it was often easier to show abroad.
They charge that right-wing artists are not “humanistically inclined,” and
therefore can’t create true art, she says.
“There couldn’t possibly be
art on the Right because the Right doesn’t see the ‘other,” she says of the
“I don’t know if it’s a problem of the Right or a problem of
how the Left sees the Right.”
She cites several experiences of being
turned away unseen by curators or fellow artists who are not interested in
showing with people from the Gush. She recalls one Tel Aviv museum director who
said settlers are too busy killing and oppressing Arabs, and that’s why they
they don’t appear more in art. At the Kibbutz Gallery in Tel Aviv, Kampel
says she heard that a former curator wouldn’t show mitnahalim
“because she hates what they stand for and she doesn’t like anything about
them.” Kampel never approached the Kibbutz Gallery, as she says, “You know that
you’re not wanted there.” Outside of Israel, Kampel says, ironically, she’s an
All this despite the fact that her 2004 painting, “Girl
Check,” of a young woman walking through a checkpoint, was selected for the
Second Beijing Biennale in 2005 for Humanism in Contemporary Art.
can’t just be a good artist,” she says. “You have to be super, super fantastic
and really something so mind-boggling, nobody could ignore it.”
she is confident art can speak louder than the back-and-forth voices on the
“Sometimes people talk, but when you’re looking at something
you can sometimes be open to seeing something else that’s there besides your own
point of view.”