Eye of the beholder

South African-born artist Debbie Kampel puts to canvas the varied interactions she witnesses while sitting at Gush Etzion junction.

Debbie Kampel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Debbie Kampel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
A 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 to paint.
“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 accessible.
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 lives.”
And they change purposes as they alternate what resources they carry, from building materials to water. “It’s life in metal,” Kampel says aptly.
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 other.
“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 her work.
“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 says.
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 says.
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 about.”
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.
Her first 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 2002.
“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 attitude.
“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 (settlers) “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 Israeli artist.
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.
“You 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.”
Still, she is confident art can speak louder than the back-and-forth voices on the conflict.
“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.”