Five years ‘In the Desert’

A quest for authenticity has brought internationally celebrated photographer and video artist Joseph Dadoune back to his home town of Ofakim.

Ofakim 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ofakim 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Joseph Dadoune contemplates the question of authenticity. “If one decides to create Art, what should one’s reference points be?” We are standing in the gutted interior of Ofakim’s long-abandoned cinema hall, its still-evident grandeur replaced by rubble and celluloid crackling underfoot.
“You could argue that with globalism, the reference points are now all global, no longer regional,” he continues.
“In the art institutions of Israel, the reference points are European or American-oriented.
“But I live in Israel,” he says. “These cannot be my reference points. It is not my culture.” Dadoune beckons me on, to continue our impromptu tour of his home town and the site of his latest – and perhaps most important – artistic collaboration.
Dadoune, it should be pointed out, is hardly short of either the inspiration for his creative output or a stage on which to present it. A photographer and video artist, his work has been featured in galleries and exhibitions across Europe and the United States over the last decade; his most noted work to date is 2007’s Sion.
Partly filmed at the Louvre in Paris, the 60-minute film is a powerful allegorical contemplation of Jerusalem and features actress Ronit Alkabetz as a wraith-like image of the city ravaged through the ages.
The film was inspired by what Dadoune noted is a surprising gap in the world-renowned museum’s permanent Mediterranean exhibition, which lacks any consideration of Hebraic culture and civilization within its permanent exhibition.
Widely praised in Israel – where it featured in Dadoune’s solo exhibition at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art in 2007 – and abroad, Sion was screened at the Kunst Palast in Dusseldorf, the Light & Sie Gallery in Texas, and at the Louvre itself.
Dadoune’s quest for authenticity and verity in his work has brought him to his home, Ofakim. Last year, he embarked on an ambitious five-year project, as much an art installation as an exercise in community cohesion and development. Dadoune has a theory about the authentic roots of art, a theory intimately connected to his present location and one that he explains as we continue our tour around Ofakim.
“My neighbors are Arab, from North Africa. My neighbors, my family, are working people, working class,” he tells me, “and also, I am a Jew.
“I have a different vision of the dominant reference point. I want to create an esthetic vision that is connected to my environment.”
Is he suggesting that to be genuinely authentic, artistic expression must engage with its social context, rather than be based on a primary preoccupation with esthetics? “Exactly.”
It is probably fair to describe Ofakim, 20 kilometers west of Beersheba, as a place that everyone knows about, but that not many people actually know. The social history of the city is well documented.
It was founded in 1955 as a development town, part of David Ben-Gurion’s vision to populate and develop the Negev. The city’s first residents were immigrants from North Africa, India, Iran and eastern Europe, followed soon afterward by migrants from Egypt; in the 1980s, its population was boosted by a new wave of immigration, mainly from the former Soviet republics and Ethiopia.
For many years, economic and social life in Ofakim was anchored to the once-flourishing textile industry, which provided both employment and a sense of community to much of the town’s population of 25,000.
But the textile industry crisis of the 1980s and 1990s – prompted in part by the pressures created by competition from the Far East and China, an ironic consequence of globalization – forced the closure of the large industrial plants. Combined with the influx of new immigrants, this had a devastating impact on the local community, the effects of which are still felt today.
Income levels in Ofakim are among the lowest in Israel; since 2006, the town has been administered in lieu of an elected mayor by Zvika Greengold, an appointee of the Ministry of Interior, who inherited a budgetary deficit of NIS 20m. when he took up the position.
Cumulatively, these facts add up to a rather bleak picture.
But Dadoune argues that this is an incomplete portrait; and it is one that he hopes to reshape through his long-term project in Ofakim, “In the Desert.”
Scheduled to run the course of five years, “In the Desert” – named after Bamidbar, the Hebrew name for Numbers, the fourth book of the Penateuch, – is an ambitious project running deeper than a preoccupation with esthetics and form in its intent to take a social and documentary stance within the city.
Dadoune argues that art has the capacity to engender discussion and raise awareness.
“The intention is to use a social and an artistic agenda to give a voice to the periphery and its cultural life,” he says. He is careful to stress that he does not propose to be seen as an instigator or nurturer of this voice; his role, he says, is as a facilitator. “I’m just the technical operator,” he says.
The artistic component of “In The Desert” will eventually comprise the production of two films, video works and a photography project. The first film to be produced under this umbrella, a short film simply entitled Ofakim, was premiered at the end of May.
Largely silent, it is a metaphorical consideration of the position of the town within the wider socio-political debate in Israel. It features a group of young people carrying a large bomb through the town, referencing significant landscapes along the way and eventually withdrawing completely from the town’s precincts and disappearing into the landscape.
Their burden – and their reaction to it – seems to symbolize many things: the weight of seemingly futile expectation that the youth labor under; the continuing threat, in common with many other Negev communities, from Kassam rockets; commentary on the detached relationship between the town and the nearby air force base; and, ultimately, the Sisyphean struggle to articulate the fears of the young generation to older members of their community.
The 10 participants in the film were local residents, adolescents drawn from a cross-section of Ofakim’s population: third-generation residents from North Africa, first-generation immigrants from the former CIS and Ethiopia. Dadoune ran auditions in local schools.
“I went to the schools to explain to (the teenagers) that I wanted to use the project to explain ‘our’ Ofakim.”
Dadoune describes a wariness at first. “It’s a reflection of the trend of people wanting to leave their surroundings, to actualize themselves elsewhere because they believe that what they want to do will be better received elsewhere rather than here.”
But he persevered, and was eventually able to win them over. The clincher was being able to demonstrate that the project was “not about turning Ofakim into another Tel Aviv, but rather to allow it to grow and develop from within its own identity,” Dadoune explains.
The film itself was filmed in three days, after six months of preparation including workshops in dance and yoga, activities that are intended to be continued as community resources for the duration of the project.
As we continue walking toward the outer limits of the town, Dadoune tells me about his personal history.
He was born in Nice in 1975, and immigrated to Israel with his mother when he was five; he still lives in the small flat he grew up in, in the Orthodox quarter of the city. Educated at a local yeshiva, he considers himself largely a self-taught artist. But he cites the strong role that his hometown played in his maturation as an artist.
We arrive at the very edge of the town, at a small sheep farm where some of the scenes of Sion were shot. He points across the landscape, beyond the fields to where the browning vegetation begins to blend with the late afternoon sky.
“Look at the colors,” he says. “Look at the landscape. It has value… it has meaning for me.”
Beyond the collaborative work, Dadoune hopes to establish a lasting legacy from the project within Ofakim, in the form of an open studio and community center. Fittingly, the intention is to house it in one of the abandoned textile factories, a reference to the past as well as an attempt to forge a new future.
Plans have been drawn up, incorporating an art studio, shared communal work areas and a small cinema and viewing center.
The intention is to utilize it as an open artistic space for the community, hosting literary evenings and poetry readings, forums and performances, an incubator for the the creation of geographically and socially relevant creativity.
Dadoune tells me that he has spent a year working with architects and business consultants; the next step is to attempt to secure the necessary funding. he doesn’t know if he will succeed, but remains upbeat.
“now, it exists, it is no longer a vague idea. if politics and finances get in the way…” Dadoune shrugs. “the most important thing is to try.”