No swan song

Barbur, a collectively run art gallery in Jerusalem's Nahlaot neighborhood, is thriving.

Barbur 88 224 (photo credit: art design 88 224)
Barbur 88 224
(photo credit: art design 88 224)
Picture this: conversing about an art exhibition while four or five preschoolers lined up against a fence yell "Meewaa! Meewaa! Meewaa!!!" in unison. Or a group of neighbors working on a community garden, sweeping up leaves and dirt, tending to pumpkin and cabbage, while a social worker lectures on children's working conditions in the Mahaneh Yehuda market. Or an art opening in the middle of the day, with beer, wine and sun, people relaxing on wooden benches listening to Tom Waits and Django Reinhardt. This is Barbur. And not only this. The heart of Barbur, a collectively run art gallery in Jerusalem's Nahlaot neighborhood, is a group of young artists - currently Masha Zusman, Avi Sabah, Yanai Segal and Denis Mashkevich - who three years ago, upon graduating from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, chose to stay in the city and pursue an idea together rather than move to Tel Aviv and chase commercial attention separately. For a long time they searched for a space where they could open a gallery for younger as well as underrepresented artists, where they could build for themselves and for others an artistic community that was also concerned with society in the country and beyond. Eventually they came upon a section of a closed-down kindergarten in Nahlaot, still connected to an existing preschool but vacant and rundown. The group decided to make the prior school its space, and worked together to remake the space into an art gallery that now works under the auspices of the Lev Ha'ir community center. Its mandate is art, society and coexistence, and the group juggles these priorities constantly: In addition to art exhibitions, it organizes workshops, lectures, community events, concerts, film screenings, readings, book fairs, dance performances - the list grows each week as the gallery opens its doors to various activities, constantly reinventing itself. Such a level of diverse activity may suggest the organizers are spread out and unfocused, but the opposite is true: Both separately and together, the members are focused on quality. "It's important to have good work inside," says Sabah. "When people see this [children playing in the yard], and then they go into the gallery and see strong pieces, the effect is very strong." THE GALLERY'S first year was "hot," according to Segal, with a lot of shows and events that were more politically showy than artistically sound. There were arguments within the group about how "political" the gallery's activities should be. Some believed the focus was society, not empty politics, and that good art was more important than a momentarily fashionable message. Over time, the less dedicated "activists" left and people who worked for tangible change continued their activities. Masha Zusman, along with another artist, started a series of Barbur-run workshops in east Jerusalem, and now Bezalel gives three students each year summer scholarships to continue teaching those workshops. Many of the neighborhood's residents are observant Jews, from modern Orthodox to haredi to everything in between, and they didn't immediately accept the gallery's presence (some still don't). But little by little, they started to come in. Haya Cohen, a secular neighbor who started volunteering in the community garden, became the garden's main organizer, and now people know the space as a place to plant and grow flowers and vegetables. And several young people, doing social service instead of the army, organize children's activities in the yard, so that it's no longer unusual to see a group of religious children inside the gallery's gates, painting papier-mache turtles while their parents chat on the sidelines. But getting to know the gallery and its organizers through community activities doesn't imply being interested in - or aware of - its art-related goals. When one of the neighborhood parents stopped by the gallery and saw that the exhibition featured two of Barbur's members, Zusman and Sabah, she was genuinely surprised. "You're also artists?" she asked Sabah, who was at the gallery. She then went inside, took a careful look around the exhibition, and asked him to come in and speak with her about the pieces. "It's incredible when people who aren't from the art world come in and react so genuinely to the work," says Zusman after spending several minutes with a neighborhood visitor. "We talked about the pieces, what my process was and how they affected him. It sounds funny to say, you're not supposed to 'care,' but it's really satisfying." One of Barbur's strengths is its openness. All visitors, from unknown passersby to old friends, are treated with equal respect and hospitality, and you can often find someone dropping by for a coffee, a cigarette, a chat. There is a small library of catalogues, criticism, theory and artist's editions, and a reading area in which to sit and peruse. And the events and exhibitions are always free. Another of Barbur's strengths is its continuing search for ideas and growth. Last year, Segal invited Shlomo Felberbaum to give his close-reading seminars of Plato at Barbur. Felberbaum is originally from Brooklyn, became haredi in his early 20s, and four years ago moved to Bayit Vagan. He brings the original text in ancient Greek and translates it on the spot, then the participants discuss it with him. The number of participants can vary from three to 10 depending on the week, and those who come sit for two hours to read and analyze a page or two. This sort of attention is rarely found even in university courses, and yet its significance is made even starker when - as once happened - the workshop is run in the yard while inside the gallery a community group gathers to sing songs in Ladino. BARBUR IS gaining attention both inside Israel and outside, especially in Europe. Not long after a large article was published in a German newspaper, an elderly couple came in and, with a heavy German accent, said, "We have seen your gallery in an article, and have come to visit it." Journalists from Italy have stopped by to write about the gallery, as well as radio stations. "At first it was difficult to let people know about the gallery," says Segal. "We worked hard to set up the space, and we worked hard to spread the word about what was going on." After three years, the gallery is much more self-sufficient. People regularly come with ideas for events, and it often hosts other organizations that do not have a space of their own. The garden is blossoming, and during open hours there's always someone in the yard to welcome visitors. Tourist groups from all over the country come to the gallery, which is often turned into a lecture space with a screen and projector. This past year the group outdid itself, with different events happening every day or two, and the members constantly tending to the gallery and its activities. They said yes to almost everyone who asked to do something at the gallery, and their energies were spread thin. In their fourth year, they hope to focus again on activities that relate closer and more directly to art. They hope to curate some stronger exhibitions, and to reinvest in the gallery as an organization focused on art. Because for all its community functions, Barbur is an art collective. It speaks to the possibility for a small group of serious and talented young people to focus and collect their energy - no matter how difficult working together can sometimes be - and to institute a platform that functions according to their standards, but beyond their own needs or goals. Barbur isn't just a neighborhood space concerned with art, or Jerusalem, or Israel, or youth or society - it's a phenomenon, an entity, that stands as an example for dedicated creative work.