Arad Contemporary Arts Center hopes to put city on the global arts scene

The ACAC has become a space for exploring ancient water collecting methods, cherishing social relations and offering a new path forward in Arad’s cultural importance.

A still image from a dance performance at the Arad Contemporary Art Center (photo credit: DAN FABEROFF)
A still image from a dance performance at the Arad Contemporary Art Center
(photo credit: DAN FABEROFF)
‘Warning! Camels Crossing!’ warns a road sign on the way to Arad. A mere two-hour bus ride from Tel Aviv, the desert city enjoys a unique legacy as well as a collection of possible tomorrows. Once the home of the late writer Amos Oz and the annual Arad Music Festival, the city gained some media attention in recent years with the arrival of the Ger Hassidic community as residents and the fairly new Arad Contemporary Art Center (ACAC) residency program, which hopes to put Arad on the global art scene.
In the recently opened “Common Views: Sourcing Water” exhibition curated by Irit Carmon Popper with works by artists Dan Farberoff and David Behar Perahia, the ACAC becomes a space for exploring ancient water collecting methods, cherishing social relations and offering a new path forward in Arad’s cultural importance.
The exhibition is composed of sculpt-like objects that relate to the reality of living in the arid lands of the region arranged in an installation; several video art pieces that range between social documentaries and artistic actions; and drawings of possible future paths to serve visitors keen on ecological tourism.
The objects are large black plastic pipes familiar to anyone interested in Bedouin communities, as this is how they obtain water these days. The plastic pipes might be flexible and modern, but they need to be kept in place using rocks and lifted up so as not to be carried off in a sudden flood, guarded against possible sabotage and checked to monitor water usage and cost.
The Mekorot water company has various water points across the desert. They are kept in small metal cages against possible destruction to both monitor the flow of the water and ensure they can collect accurate fees. In our part of the world water is also a political issue, who gets it and at what price? In the local history of the place Bedouin communities voiced, and still talk of, deep grievances about an unfair water policy. When one sees the greenery of the Kfar Hanokdim resort, where this writer was a guest, this argument gains credence.
THE WATER issue is interwoven with other issues, such as land ownership, access to education and employment opportunities, which is why this exhibition is so unique, as it attempts to sketch a comprehensive step forward.
In the art videos, the late Ali Hamisa relates that his family arrived to the region after the previous Bedouins who settled there left during the Independence War of 1948. Originally from the region of Dimona, he and his family were encouraged to move to the area near Arad and found work as trackers for the IDF. During those years, the eastern Negev was part of the larger Eretz HaMirdafim (Land of Pursuits) across the Jordanian border with terrorists, as well as some Palestinians eager to return to their previous homes, attempting to cross over into Israel.
A STILL FRAME from one of the video-art pieces depicting an encounter between Bedouin and Jewish activists. (Doron Orgil)A STILL FRAME from one of the video-art pieces depicting an encounter between Bedouin and Jewish activists. (Doron Orgil)
The Bedouins, who herd over fairly large spaces, were perfect for related tracking work. They also proved extremely useful in locating tourists who got lost – or if, sadly, they died from the heat and lack of water, to retrieve their bodies.
However, as valued as they were to the IDF and tourists who lost their way, the Bedouins did not enjoy the full benefits of their labor. In 2019 an effort began to remove them from some of the areas they occupy to enable the lands to be kept as a national park or used as army training grounds. In the video, Hamisa asks: “Why remove us now, when you will just need new people to re-learn this region later?”
Other videos include a meeting with the Arad knitting circle, a local group of elderly women who make fantastic scarfs, jackets and sweaters for infants and adults. The exhibition includes their work, used here to cover rujoms (piles of stones used to mark a pathway).
A 46-foot-tall massive rujom was built at the entrance to Arad by the late Yonah Pitelson and Gideon Friedman soon after the city was built, an indication that the city was understood to be in dialog with the desert culture around it from the very beginning.
In drawings at the exhibition, smaller rujoms are depicted inside metal cages, such as the ones that guard water stations, and covered with knitted fabrics. The knitting is an invitation to local women, Jewish and Bedouin, to participate in the project and a smart idea. The knitting will have to be renewed, so people will have to visit the paths to place a new covering.
Paths to where? In the ancient world, desert water was collected in wells cut deeply into rock, and channels were dug to collect them when it rained. Such means are so old that the Roman Empire saw fit to build a guard post near a few to protect them. Today, in the age of water pipes and electric pumps and online payments to Mekorot, these old paths are no longer used. The rain still falls and the water runs, but the channels and wells have been clogged by the sands of time and forgetfulness.
AN EXAMPLE of a rujom with knitting art on top of the metal structure defending it. (Hagay Hacohen) AN EXAMPLE of a rujom with knitting art on top of the metal structure defending it. (Hagay Hacohen)
However, should they be cleaned up, they will be serviceable again. According to Farberoff and Perahia this will be a perfect local realization of the 1971 UNESCO Man and Biosphere Program (MAB). The MAB suggests bridging conceptual chunks such as “nature” and “culture” – meaning, if you go into a city, such as Arad, head out to nature to hike or meditate, and then return to the city to consume services and products – you should have a core, a place where nature is utterly unchanged, and a buffer zone between the core leading to a transition area.
A rigid view of Nature means it has to be “defended” against new species and even humans, such as Bedouins, if they, for example, hunt local game to eat or consume local rare plants. How, otherwise, can nature be “preserved?” An effort is needed to better define the “core” that must be defended and what can be worked with. For example, perhaps limited hunting should be allowed in some seasons when there are plenty of animals Or, if Bedouin find work at the transition area, they could buy meat and rice at the local store.
The Arab States are a part of MAB. Jordan has the Dana Biosphere Reserve and also gave the same recognition to Wadi Mujib, which is where the Biblical Arnon stream serving as a border between the land of the Amorites and Moab can be found.
In the exhibition, videos of Jewish and Bedouin activists can be seen starting to clean the channels and water wells and maps of the final path examined. A special map from the 1920s can be seen with Hebrew names and Arab names of various locations written in English. The map reveals that the Hebrew names are often a new naming of an Arab location with the odd habit of replacing Umm (Mother) for locations that have some water in them with Ein (Spring [of water[).
THE EXHIBITION also has a share of humor. In one work, Perahia can be seen riding a donkey into Arad and attempting to deal with local security who seem puzzled. Perhaps, should the proposal be accepted, donkey rides into Arad won’t be so alarming. The donkey, Zahara, is charmingly mentioned in the credits.
There is also a sitting space where people can check out books in English and Hebrew about Bedouin culture and the artistic ideas behind the exhibition.
Known as Participatory Art, the school of thought this show is a part of includes artists such as the late Öyvind Fahlström, who in 1966 presented Kisses Sweeter than Wine with a character called Space Girl holding then-US president Lyndon B. Johnson’s severed head, and UK artist Anthony Gormley who created the 1988 massive sculpture The Angel of the North in Gateshead.
“We are in a special place,” said ACAC director Oren Amit to the Magazine. The ACAC residency program opened in 2014 and has hosted 120 artists so far. “This is the closest desert-residency to those arriving from Europe,” he said, “and our wilderness is accessible – you can pick up the phone and be rescued.” Noting that ACAC also has a sizable exhibition area, he suggested it is a “very large space for dreaming.”
Amit resides in Arad and calls it “a place that moves you each morning when you wake.”
Those visiting Arad will do well if they decide to head out for a meal at Muza, a local bar within walking distance from the ACAC. Not only does it offer a surprisingly large vegan menu, it dispensed with the outdated concept of paper menus in favor of scanning a printed code via phone, so bring your smartphones, please, or you’ll starve. They also offer a selection of wines from the Midbar (Desert) Winery, a local vineyard that offers guided tours for the curious.
Should you decide to spend the night, Kfar Hanokdim would be a fantastic choice. Sadly, the coronavirus pandemic left them with less than 10% of their usual demand for this time of year, so if you have an interest in desert tourism they offer a perfect spot. For those with large families, there are public cooking areas to prepare meals and the rooms are clean and comfortable. Note that there are several peacocks dashing around, a delightful sight to enjoy as the sun rises.
The desert, Danni Roded of Kfar Hanokdim informed me, is great for anyone keen on stargazing and meteor showers.
While Fayz Abo Guid, who worked with Farberoff and Perahia on the exhibition and suggested renewal of the ancient water wells, has an easy smile, he is very serious when the issue is his community and its struggle to remain on the land they lived on for two generations.
He laughs when he describes how his family used their tractor’s electric battery to watch the first television in their community in the early 1980s, and becomes serious when he describes how, as a child, a park ranger kicked the post holding up his father’s tent and told him bluntly: “I don’t want to see you in the Arad landscape.”
Guid served in the IDF and supports desert tourism, but is very concerned about the possible forced removal of his family and others from the land, which he sees as a deeply unjust act. After all, Kfar Hanokdim was built by Danni’s father Yehoram two generations ago as well, why is it fair for one community to remain and the other to be removed?
He agrees that the Bedouins aren’t likely to rely on herding as their main livelihood at the age of mobile phones, Wi-Fi and education, but insists that small herds, and permission to use land to graze them, is vital to keep their culture alive and pass it on.
“If there will be an understanding and planning,” he said, “this place can be heaven.”
Perhaps a few years down the road, a Ger Hassidic family will daven and camp by an ancient water well and, with the help of a Bedouin guide, enjoy a donkey ride back home. With a colorful scarf knitted by a Russian-speaking widow marking their path. 
Details
• ACAC is located on 28 Ben Yair St. Free admission. (08) 955-1531, www.acacarad.org
• Muza is located at the Alon Petrol Station and is a local landmark. (08) 997-5555.
• Midbar Winery can be reached via their site www.midbar-winery.co.il/but their wines can be purchased at wine shops across the country.
• Kfar Hanokdim can be reached (08) 995-0097 or their site www.kfarhanokdim.co.il/ and they offer a variety of activities in and around Arad.
• Fayz Abo Guid can be reached via 054-777-2885 or gboe@walla.com should anyone be interested to learn more about the Bedouin struggle for recognition and land rights.
For those arriving from Tel Aviv via public transportation there is a daily bus (421) from Savidor Central Station to Arad Central Station, and a daily bus (389) from Arad back to Savidor.