A pyramid of vibrancy

Under the directorship of Gil Goren and with a NIS 12 million grant from Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, the Pyramid Art Center aims high while recognizing a troubled past.

Paintings by Yehuda Yatziv  (photo credit: HAIM DEOEL LUSKI)
Paintings by Yehuda Yatziv
(photo credit: HAIM DEOEL LUSKI)
The winter solstice has been celebrated since prehistoric times as a potent time for rebirth, new beginnings and the turning of bad fortunes into good ones. As I walked up from the Haifa street of Wadi Salib from the train station, I gazed at a gleaming building that seemed like the realization of a dream. Originally a school placed in a rough neighborhood of North African immigrants, the building had just been renovated from top to bottom to host 24 workshops, a huge main gallery space, warehouses to contain paintings and sculptures, and even an art library.
A security guard asked me to identity myself, examined my press card and explained that he’s under orders to stop anyone attempting to enter the art center from the bottom – rough – side of town. Most visitors walk down to the art center to arrive at the main entrance, where people are invited to have their photographs taken with a background of an oriental rug and take the print home as a keepsake.
This incident demonstrates a sad truth about the well-intentioned and often-attempted approach of helping a poor or rough part of a city turn itself around using museum or art-center buildings: it is often tried and often unsuccessful. Even in places where it is working, it’s not always clear why or how.
The first person to create an art center in Wadi Salib was Warsaw-born Haifa mayor Aryeh Gurel, who held office from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. He was approached by five artists: video artist Avraham Eilat, painter Israel Wertman, sculptor Ya’acov Dorchin, painter Yehuda Yatziv and photographer Morel Derfler, who was killed in a Hamas terrorist attack at the Nahariya train station in 2001.
“The building was an abandoned structure that was being used by junkies as a drug den,” Pyramid Art Center director Gil Goren told In Jerusalem. “It was given to them [the artists] to make art in.”
The first Pyramid exhibition opened in July 7, 1994 and included such noted Israeli artists as Yair Garbuz, Moshe Gershuni, Pinchas Cohen Gan, Igael Tumarkin and Yechiel Shemi. The original group that approached Gurel was invited to use the space as their own art studios, which they’ve been doing ever since, inviting more artists to take up residency and arrange shows in the building.
“About seven years ago,” Goren adds, “[the city] decided to go all out there to make sure the Pyramid was renovated and re-established as an art center. They even made sure that the artists working there would be able to continue their work during the renovation process, which is a very rare thing.”
The goal is to reshape the Pyramid, not as a Haifa art center, but as an international art center that happens to be in Haifa.
The newness of the building was evident upon entry. The restrooms had not been properly finished yet and the scent of fresh paint was everywhere. A stand was selling color prints and shirts by the Haifa street-art crew Broken Fingaz and a few tables were carefully arranged to display half-finished paint cans, empty beer bottles, gloves and brushes – as though the artists went out to have a smoke and would return in a moment. The first band of the evening was already checking the sound system and white and red wines were offered to the visitors.
The show was a tribute to the founding fathers of the Pyramid, meant to be seen as a break from the past before the first exhibition by the Pyramid Art Center curator Galia Bar-Or opens in April. During her time as the house curator at the Ein Harod Museum, Bar-Or was able to advance her museum a great deal and is expected to do the same for the Haifa art center.
In a small dark room, viewers are invited to view a short retrospective of video art created by Avraham Eilat. In Frames (1972), a frame is cleaned by a sponge only to discover a playful and frustrating relationship between clean and dirty spaces. In Don’t Disturb (1972), hands draw lines only to have an eraser erase them. The hands draw more lines in the blank space but the eraser is undaunted. This work is referred to in Ergo (2011), in which the same hands, now aged, draw lines that become streets and buildings in which people walk. The interest in human bodies walking and acting is not a new thing for Eilat, in Chance (1971), a body is bound by straps and placed in juxtaposition to a mass of bodies writhing on the floor, perhaps dreamed up by the captured body. The theme of the body seems to grow in scope and richness with the 2005 video Psychophysical Time, in which animated bodies dig, march, stand and do all sorts of human labors. The tiny figures bring to mind ancient Egyptian wall paintings, which would be very fitting for an art center called “Pyramid.”
Visitors were welcomed to walk around and view the impressive large paintings by Yehuda Yatziv and the sculptures of Ya’acov Dorchin. Artist-in-residence Yael Balaban described how, after finishing her MFA at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, she was invited to join the pre-refurbished Pyramid art center.
“It was hard to find,” she said. “I got a studio that had no windows and a leaky roof, but the work being done there was outstanding.”
Current Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, who also gave a speech at the opening, said, “NIS 12 million was invested in this building. Gurel gave the artists this building to use as is, but I don’t believe that an art center can be unattractive.”
The major investment in this project is one way in which the city of Haifa is attempting to turn Wadi Salib around, with 700 new apartments being built and a new park.
“We are turning the building [that housed] the educational administration into kindergartens and schools,” said Yahav over the noise from the crowd. “Young people are going to live here.”
When an aide attempting to get the crowd to quiet down so the mayor could finish his speech pointed out to the listeners that the life of a mayor is not always sweet, a woman in the crowd shouted back, “Neither are our lives!” During the interview with IJ, I asked Goren about the turbulent history of Wadi Salib, the site of the only uprising of Mizrahi Jews against the police.
The 1959 riots began when false rumors spread that the police had shot a North African Jewish man at a coffee shop. The owner of the café called the police to put a stop to a brawl and a man called Akiva Alkarif was shot in the leg. This event led the residents of the surrounding streets to riot, as they felt the police treat them unfairly.
These painful riots were the first time Israeli society had to face the reality that many Mizrahi Jews felt neglected and discriminated against by the state that was meant to be a homeland for all Jews.
Goren concluded by saying that the Pyramid will deal with the place in which it is located “spiritually and physically. We will work with a great deal of respect for the past. We give thanks to the founders and embark on a new path.”