Talbiyeh's people and history celebrated through art

Manofim celebrates a decade of controversial art.

By MORDECHAI BECK
December 18, 2018 15:41
Talbiyeh's people and history celebrated through art

(Top photo) Detail of Etti Abergel’s ‘Library Remnant’ (2018) shown here above. (photo credit: DOR KEDMI)

 
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The TALBIYEH neighborhood in the center of west Jerusalem is among the most exclusive in the capital. Established in the 1920s and 1930s, under the aegis of the British Mandate, it attracted the wealthiest members of the mainly Christian Arab-Palestinian community, who built beautiful villas and houses surrounded by gardens, along broad, tree-lined avenues and impressive squares. Then in 1948, with the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence, the situation in this leafy area changed radically, as the wealthy Arab inhabitants fled from the chaos of the fighting, thinking in many cases they would return after the situation calmed down. But they never did return.

In 1950, the  new government of Israel imposed a law, which requisitioned properties of absentee owners. Meanwhile, many refugees from the Jewish Quarter of the Old City were invited to take up residence in the abandoned houses of Talbiyeh, and what was once a gilded Christian-Arab ghetto was transformed into a veritable Garden of Eden for well-healed professionals, academics and businessmen. Since 1967, in particular, it also became the location of some major cultural, political and intellectual centers – among them the Jerusalem Theater, the Van Leer Institute, the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, the Presidents Residence, and the Museum for Islamic Art.

But what happened to the people who fled, and who had no chance of reclaiming their properties? Did they wave goodbye to their past and leave not a trace behind? In many ways the recent Manofim Festival was an exploration of the pain that these people and their descendants felt – and still feel – at being dispossessed almost overnight.

Manofim (it’s a play on the Hebrew words for “what” and “landscapes”) is the inspiration of two Bezalel Art graduates, Lee He Shulov and Rinat Edelstein, who wanted a platform for what they termed contemporary Jerusalem art. “It was only after a year or two,” Lee He tells The Jerusalem Report, “that we realized that the eastern part of the city also had a say in the inner life of the capital. That’s when we invited Arab artists to exhibit their work alongside their Jewish Israeli counterparts.”

Now marking its tenth year, Manofim has became a familiar part of Jerusalem’s crowded cultural calendar. It continues to be controversial (“That why we’re artists,” says Lee He) and strives as much as it can to make the citizens aware of each others’ existence, whether from the east or west side of the metropolis. To this end Manofim has placed its center in a different part of the city each year. Venues have included the Rockefeller Museum, the Mormon University, Abu Tor, the Notre Dame complex and the Tower of David Museum. This year it was Talbiyeh and for good reason. “Its history called out for a reckoning,” says Lee He. “In 1948 this was the last area to be abandoned by the native Arab population.” Unlike some other areas in the city, the Arab inhabitants here were on very good terms with their Jewish neighbors.

One of the houses on the tour of Talbiyeh that Manofim arranged belonged to the Hanna family, built by Dimitri Hanna, a Greek Orthodox Christian Palestinian. The family was so confident of returning to their beautiful house that they gave their keys to their neighbor, the family of the well-known publisher Reuben Mass, for safekeeping. Three years later they were were told they were not allowed to return from Lebanon – an enemy state.

The house with its double winding external staircase is now home to the Israel Psychoanalytic Society. Inside the house is one of the many installations that Manofim have placed around the area. Called “Samandra,” the artist Hannan Abu Hussein has recreated the Arab tradition of home hospitality by stacking up a large number of blankets and mattresses made from sheep’s wool. The artist has pierced these mattresses with upholsterers’ needles, like those used to sew the original bedding. In her presentation, Hussein challenges modern Arab society, in which these masculine sewing traditions are disappearing, by resurrecting an old craft and by giving women artists the means to express themselves creatively.

A word should be noted about installations. Unlike traditional art work, which is displayed in order to last, installations are meant to be temporary. Their aesthetic dimensions are questionable; in fact, their intention is often anti-aesthetic – they celebrate their awkwardness, even ugliness. As a statement of protest, however, they can be very effective. They are, to use the professional term, “site-specific.”

As Rachel Maggart – an American-born curator, now living in London – notes: “The site is important in that installations can only be seen inseparably from their context. The quality of the installation is different from one space to the next. If you’re a painter then you finish your work, it goes on a wall and that’s it, whereas with the installation you are making it for its own sake, and it will never be repeated. The space sculpts it as much as it sculpts the space. There is negative and positive energy around it.”

 Maggart was one of several individuals invited from abroad to participate in the festival. “My husband, who heads an organization, which is against all forms of extremism, initially wanted to create a show of Palestinian-Israelis as a self-contained exhibition. Then Manofim asked me to come and curate an exhibition here. It appealed to both my husband and myself because initially we wanted to bring these artists to London – which we still intend to do. By mounting it first here we could crush the criticism about ‘normalization’ and extremism. So it was really a great opportunity.”

Her main concern is with women artists. The exhibition which she curated is called “The Unmarked Body” and includes striking sculptures, videos and installations.


“We’re interested in breaking through binaries and redefining boundaries. According to feminist theory, the dispossessed female body is a metaphor for the person alienated from their home and tradition.”

 This specifically applies to the situation of Palestinian women artists, who, cut off from their natural home by the Israeli occupation, are expected to be passive in the male-dominated society of Palestinians, and are removed from their roots by being artists. There is a further category of ‘gender-queer,’ which further distances the Palestinian woman artist from her environment. They are all in this sense invisible, or unmarked, rather like a tombstone for the unknown soldier.

One of the works in Maggart’s exhibition contains the idea of suspension, which in music refers to something unresolved. “There’s much of this in the exhibition,” says Maggart, who has a background in music, “hangings, suspension, etc. One installation by a Christian Israeli Arab, Maiada Aboud, includes a tree with apples (all lacquered over so they are preserved over time), echoing the Garden of Eden, but here in a critical way. As Maggart explains: “Aboud presents a work looking at female sexuality and its corollary of shame on the other side of saintliness, beginning with the story of Eve. She constructs an artificial orchard, apples dangling from thread, marking the invisible force of Old Testament fantasies... Aboud has come to understand her home as a “prison” and her body as her home. Both outcomes of the mythical sacred and profane dichotomy render her female body obsolete; Eve, the ultimate exile, full of sin and thus void of light – disappears, her only trace a stain on the cloth of humanity.”

 All these artists have a visceral relationship with the land. As Raafat Hattab, a gender-queer Palestinian from Jaffa, observes, “When we talk about liberating Palestine we talk about the men who do it...it’s not taking the women into consideration. So for me Palestine is a woman.”

Another artist, Raida Adon, had a Jewish father and Moslem mother. She said her family let the children decide which religion they wished to adopt. The result was confusion. With this hybrid background identity she has a feeling of being neither here nor there, and yet having both at the same time. “Her video is about someone who has been dispossessed. Without a home who are you, what are you? She is living on her land yet it is a land that has been taken from her. In the final scene she takes her clunky bed with her into the sea. It is a sort of an absurd statement as to where she is, as if she’s partaking of her own funeral procession. It reflects a surrealistic situation.”

This theme of disconnect is echoed throughout the exhibits. At the Van Leer Institute Ron Asulin, a recent Bezalel graduate, creates a mixed media sculpture which he calls “Kushmantush,” a made-up word that echoes Hebrew, Arabic and Yiddish phrases, none of which are complimentary. The Arabic mantush, for example, means detached. The piece reverberates and echoes the act of detachment and dislocation that derived from the very act of establishing the State of Israel. This act, consciously or otherwise, led to the displacement of Palestinian families, continues with Asulin’s own family’s flight from Morocco and ends with the artist revisiting both. Two porcelain teacups integrated into the work are the last evidence of possessions of the dispossessed Arab family, whose house in Jaffa the Asulin family were given when they immigrated from Morocco. In the accompanying video, one can view the ferris wheel of the Luna Park in Tel Aviv, suggesting that sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down.

In a somewhat similar vein Etti Abergil’s installation, also in Van Leer, shows a ‘library’ but radically different from what is normally subsumed under that rubric. Her library recalls the many libraries in Talbiyeh, Palestinian as well as Jewish – often brought from Europe. This tradition of local libraries continues till today in the various research institutes in this neighborhood. In addition many writers lived here, including Haim Hazaz, and Martin Buber. Abergil is more interested in the history of these libraries, “the gap between the ideal image of the library as an object of desire and the internal archetype of the missing library, especially those belonging to the local Arab inhabitants.” Her sculpture consists of building materials, drywall, plaster casts and treated objects, none of which inhabit an ordinary library. This is a library of memories, of wanderings, of unfinished excavations. Abergil’s ‘library’ possesses the paradox of impermanence of an institution normally identified with quietness and security.

 Another artwork highlighting the feeling of being disconnected is in a sculpture by Nardeen Srouji, in the Van Leer complex, of a column, which echoes other columns in the ultra-modern building, except that a piece of it is not there, making the ‘column’ an unusable structure. It is a metaphor for the way Israel has pressed itself on the native Palestinian population, handing it the illusion of existence but denying it a vital missing part.

Another expression of not being there is a film, called appropriately, “The Disappeared,” which is a non-film, in that it relates via the spoken word only and tells the saga of a film sponsored by the Israeli army about suicides in the army, and which, prior to being released to the general public, mysteriously disappeared and was never shown.

Other items and events, which make up the city-wide Manofim, include academic lectures discussing the meaning of art and its impact on daily life, avant-garde films, gallery exhibitions and musical performances that cover the range from rock to folk and world music. The latter genre includes performances by musicians who should be better known. An example is Liron Meyuchas, whose electrifying playing on percussion at the Jerusalem Print Workshop was a scintillating fusion of different strands of world music.

All told, Manofim, supported by the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jerusalem Foundation and other donors, is a powerful attempt to involve the public in the arts, by bringing it disturbing images, controversial subject matter, and allowing us, the audience, to look at our surrounding reality with new eyes.

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