An artful change

Never forgetting its working-class roots, the now-gentrified neighborhood of Musrara has absorbed an eclectic range of people and ideas - thanks, in large part, to its photography school.

Musrara residents 512 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Musrara residents 512
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Can art change a community? Avi Sabag, the founder and director of Jerusalem’s Musrara School of Photography, believes it can, but only from the inside. Sabag emphasizes that for him, art – any art – not rooted in its human environment is doomed to wither and become irrelevant.
“I’m not here only as an artist, as the head of a school,” says Sabag, “I’m here as part of my own journey, my own search for my roots and my identity, as a Jew born in Morocco, as an Israeli, as a Jerusalemite. Whatever I do here is part of this. The residents feel it and, as a result, trust me and collaborate with me.”
In less than a month, the school will mark its 25th birthday, an occasion its director says will celebrate the social-artistic message for which he has been striving since its establishment.
“Musrara has become a center of ‘socio-art’; a place where art meets real people and real life and finds a way to foster true human relationships. This has real artistic and human results; in the gallery, in the dialogue between us and the residents, in the process of healing their souls, putting them – the elderly, the forgotten, those neglected by the establishment – back at the center. That’s what socio-art is about. That’s what we’re doing here, the students, the teachers and me,” says an emotional Sabag.
“I want them to use art as a tool to look at themselves in a different way, as I did myself, because I was a child who grew up in a ma’bara [immigrant transit camp] and found in art the means to heal the wounds of that difficult period of uprooting through immigration,” he says.
Once an infamous example of neglect, poverty and crime, Musrara, situated on the border between east and west Jerusalem, has undergone extensive urban gentrification over the past few decades. With its beautiful old houses, colorful gardens and excellent location, high demand caused property values to skyrocket and demographics to shift, with many well-to-do families, including many from English-speaking countries, moving in.
Eleanor Satlow, a teacher, and her husband Mike moved to the neighborhood 25 years ago. The Satlows, as well as some of their neighbors, at first received a lukewarm welcome.
“On one hand, it was clear that more families like us [moving in] would raise the prices of the real estate in the neighborhood,” recalls Eleanor Satlow. “But on the other hand, it was clear that we were, at first, even though it wasn’t personally such a tough personal experience, considered intruders.”
Reuven Abergil, one of the founders of the Black Panthers protest movement, which spread in the early ’70s from this neighborhood, explains why.
“We all had in mind the terrible example of Yemin Moshe, where the original residents, who suffered for years from neglect and from the Jordanian snipers, were all of a sudden expelled from their homes after ’67 to make room for artists and rich Ashkenazim brought from abroad by [former Jerusalem mayor] Teddy Kollek,” he says. “We were ready to fight against any repeat of the same thing in Musrara, at all costs.”
Satlow says that today relations with the original residents are fairly friendly, but that the presence of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) newcomers has become a nightmare to all residents.
She refers to the influx of haredim from the nearby Mea She’arim neighborhood, including some extreme sects such as the so-called “Taliban” women, over the past decade or so. Their arrival has had a dramatic impact on the neighborhood’s character, which had been mainly traditional and Sephardi, but with a tolerant atmosphere.
“Large families living in tiny apartments – it’s natural that most of the time they spend outside, at the public gardens we have here. That’s fine, but they seem to have no idea about elementary things, like throwing the garbage in the bin and not on the ground nearby, like not making too much noise, we feel helpless facing this situation,” she says.
Another resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, says she feels she is being slowly but surely expelled from the neighborhood.
“I came here some 20 years ago. It wasn’t always easy to develop good relationships with the old people who arrived here from North Africa in the ’50s. Their life was not easy, they suffered a lot, and when things became a little easier, in came well-to-do families who were not part of their story. But we finally overcame these problems. Today I have very good relationships with my neighbors, we speak, exchange recipes – everything is normal,” she says.
“But these haredim are a real threat,” she continues. “I’m afraid people like me will eventually have to leave – and frankly, if we leave, what will Musrara become? Another Mea She’arim? If this happens, we can all forget about art galleries, art schools and anything of the sort.”
Rabbi Prosper Shneor, who like Sabag was born in North Africa and made aliya with his parents in the early ’60s, and has since then lived in Musrara, is a strong supporter of Sabag’s activity. Shneor, who defines himself as a religious Zionist, is among the fiercest opponents of the religious radicalization of the neighborhood, which he says is “totally foreign to our Sephardi tolerance and anti-extremism.”
Snapshot of a school
The Naggar School of Photography, Media, New Music, Animation and Phototherapy in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood was founded in 1987 by artist/photographer Avi Sabag. In the beginning, it proposed only photography studies, but over the years, it has developed into a large and comprehensive school for the various facets of the visual arts.
“The decision to open the school in Musrara was part of a social artistic manifesto,” explains Sabag, “to put it at the heart of a seam between conflicts [geographically speaking, the Israeli-Palestinian one] and at the center of the socioeconomic seam between the neighborhood that gave birth to one of the most famous social protests in Israel, and the heart of the modern city, near the municipality building, which represents the establishment.”
About 2,500 students attend courses at the school, including social activists, since the socio-artistic curriculum aims to establish close ties between art and community. All the events produced by the Musrara school – end-of-year exhibitions, special occasions, its art gallery – are deeply intertwined with neighborhood life, including residential involvement and the community center.
Among the annual events are an exhibition on the Black Panthers movement and its members; the Musrara Food Book (a book of recipes from the neighborhood’s residents, with all pictures and production done in the Musrara school); organized tours of the neighborhood by teachers, students and social activists, focusing on the area’s history and the work done at the school; guided tours of the school gallery for tourists and local pupils; and above all, the annual Musrara-Mix Festival, an international art event held in May, which attracts thousands of visitors from across the country and abroad.
Sabag is a recipient of the Israel Museum Prize for his contribution to the art of photography in Israel and especially in Jerusalem, as well as the Jerusalem Foundation’s Tolerance Prize and Teddy Kollek Prize for his promotion of tolerance and understanding among Israelis from different backgrounds – secular and religious, Jews and Arabs. Many of the school’s graduates continue to work on developing the ties between social activism and art, both here and abroad.
The five departments – photography, media, new music, animation and phototherapy – consist of threeyear study programs. Throughout the academic year, guest lecturers and teachers from other schools of photography give master classes and special courses and participate in community projects on art and social activism. The school has a library, a chemistry laboratory (to develop pictures), a digital laboratory, a sound studio, editing suites and a warehouse for technical equipment.
As part of its social engagement, the Musrara school requires from its students 12 years of schooling with a matriculation certificate, except for the new phototherapy department – a novelty that exists only in Musrara – where candidates are also required to pass a personal interview and present a photography portfolio.
The phototherapy department was established in 2003 with the support and professional help of the Swiss European Graduate School. The program enables the students to obtain a master’s degree through summer classes in Switzerland after finishing their studies at Musrara.
In addition to support from the Culture and Sport Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality, the school has received a generous grant from the Naggar family, via the Jerusalem Foundation, which enabled it to move to the large renovated building on Shivtei Yisrael Street. – P.C.