Mideast meets 'Westend'

The Museum on the Seam opens a new exhibition that examines the relations between the West and Islam.

Museum on the Seam 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Museum on the Seam 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Art has the quality to make people think again.” These are the inspirational words of Raphie Etgar, a gregarious bear of a man, the designer and curator of the Museum on the Seam.
Born in Jerusalem in 1947, he founded the museum in 1999 with backing from the German publishing family of Georg von Holtzbrinck and support from the Jerusalem Foundation.
Used to the international limelight, Etgar cloaks himself in mystery. “The details of my biography are private.”
In 1999, after a sojourn in Europe, he returned to Jerusalem – to “this country, this wonderful place” – to found the Museum on the Seam.
The museum is a well-known Jerusalem landmark.
Clearly visible along Route 1, it sits on the old border between Israel and Jordan and was once called the Tourjeman House. Between 1948 and 1967 it was a military outpost. In 1983, with the support of the Jerusalem Foundation, it became a museum devoted to “commemorating the vicious struggle for Jerusalem.” Then, for unclear reasons, it was converted into the Museum on the Seam.
Because it is exclusively devoted to social-political causes, the museum has gained a great deal of attention.
The attention is not undeserved, though, given the passion that has been put into the latest exhibit.
“WESTEND?,” which opened in June and is scheduled to run for the next six months, examines themes related to Islam and the West and Islam in the West.
For instance, upon entering the museum, the viewer is asked to consider the dual physical appearance of minarets. Christian Philipp Muller’s Styrofoam creation includes seven human-sized rockets that can also be seen, according to the description, as “seven glistening mosques whose white color is nothing but purity itself.”
This is supposed to reveal the inner fears of Europeans confronting a burgeoning Muslim population.
Are Muslim immigrants pure additions to Europe, or are they perceived as threatening weapons? The large book that the museum has published to accompany the exhibition includes collected essays by Newt Gingrich, Edward Said, Barack Obama and Melanie Phillips – a diversity of opinion in line with the museum’s intent to create tolerance and balance.
This intent is a subject that invigorates Etgar.
“This museum is not pro-Arab or pro-Israel. It is a place where one brings these two issues together.
We are not taking a side... I want people to reconsider this attitude that only on the Left does one find the values of life. I want people to reconsider the labels. If only the Left cared about human rights and tolerance, for instance, what does that say about the Right?” David Amichai, director of external relations for the museum, is excited by the new exhibition. “It is really groundbreaking. The main thing that draws attention is that there are artists here from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, [and] some of the art deals with the uprisings in the Middle East. Some of the artists do reside in Arab countries. We had some pieces that came straight from a gallery in Dubai.”
Amichai, 34, was born in Jerusalem and attended the Hebrew University before spending time in the US.
As a student of art history, he was always interested in working closely with art, and he is especially proud of the international and diverse group of artists who have been brought together here.
“The main thing is the fact that Arab artists – contemporary Arab artists – are being shown in Israel, in a place that was once an army outpost.”
For the curator, Etgar, the ability to get Arab artists to exhibit in Israel was primarily based on the museum’s success in framing itself as something unique and committed to coexistence.
“It was not actually difficult to get the Arab artists to participate, just a question of negotiation and connection, although there were a lot of refusals. It depends on how you present it.”
Saudi Arabian Ahmed Mater’s piece shows an Xray of a man pointing a gun at his own head. In successive frames the figure is transformed into a gas pump with the gun replaced by the nozzle of the pump. The work, according to the book accompanying the show, “presents the destructive economic cycle created in Saudi Arabia following the blossoming of its oil industry.”
The Museum on the Seam wrestles with questions of coexistence. Arab dignitaries and journalists were invited to the opening of the new exhibition. They were unaware that, not long before, Israeli Border Police commanders had stood where they stood, touring a different exhibition dealing with the right to protest. The museum has attracted attention from the IDF and police which, according to Etgar and Amichai, send soldiers to tour the place.
Etgar recalls: “I could see the discussion going in many positive directions. For instance, I see soldiers come here and they discuss things in a more human way.”
But while the soldiers see the “other,” several of the Arab commentators were horrified to see the Coca-Cola sign that is part of the exhibition.
To most Westerners and non-Muslims, a reversed Coca-Cola sign is a strange but familiar symbol. One only asks, “Why is it backwards?” But for some Muslims it supposedly says “Not Muhammad! Not Mecca!” According to the artist Adel Abidin from Iraq and Finland, this “derives from a rumor that when the logo is flipped, the anti-Islamist message appears.”
Etgar recalls: “I was amazed to be present and to see what they saw on the wall... I would like to learn more about this, how did it become like this. It is very unexpected. I choose [this piece] for this reason.”
But perhaps this seemingly impossible coexistence – how can one even begin to understand how Coca-Cola means “no Muhammad, no Mecca”? – reverberates in other ways. The museum is located on the border of a haredi community. The haredim don’t come to the museum, but there is a quiet coexistence with them, according to Etgar. The museum is closed on Shabbat, for instance.
At the museum store there is a card showing sandbags with the word “coexistence” printed across them. Indeed, was this not what Robert Frost intimated in his poem “Mending Wall,” about how good fences make good neighbors?