Hannan Abu-Hussein hopes to bring about positive change

Is the paintbrush mightier than the pen?

(Top of the previous page and above) Two untitled works by Hannan Abu-Hussein featured at this year’s Jerusalem Biennale (photo credit: DANIEL RACHAMIM)
(Top of the previous page and above) Two untitled works by Hannan Abu-Hussein featured at this year’s Jerusalem Biennale
(photo credit: DANIEL RACHAMIM)
When the college at which I taught for many years merged with the Arab Institute on the same campus, I was resigned to much more work. Bigger classes meant more grading, more endless emails from students explaining their absences. But I didn’t anticipate the request from a star pupil for a personal meeting.
“Your Feminism course changed my life,” she told me over coffee in the cafeteria. “I informed my parents that I wanted three things: to take off the hijab, study abroad, and meet a Western man with whom I’ve been corresponding on social media.”
Her father heard her out. Then he responded. “Do what you like,” he said. “But if you do these things, I’m going to have to kill you.”
My student confided that after each lesson the Arab girls gathered to discuss the issues – agency over your own body, the right to equality in the home and the workplace, female suffrage, divorce, the impact of religion – and then agreed to forget the new ideas. “They’re mind-opening,” she explained, “but they can get us into trouble.”
I had a long debate with myself after this encounter. Over the years I’ve taught Haredi students who upped and left when I screened a clip of Romeo kissing Juliet. We’ve had vigorous debates with head-covering religious women over whether rules of modesty hurt women, or help them (no bad hair days, for a start). I get that Germaine Greer’s thesis can ignite friction over the dinner table, or in bed. But I’ve never worried that instilling new ideas could cause physical danger to my class.
I decided to retire. I’d reached the age, anyway; granny duties beckoned, mornings of bridge and tennis clamoring to be enjoyed now, before brain and body fall apart. But mostly I didn’t want to deal with this dilemma: is it my place to introduce Western, liberal values to women who might suffer from them? Is it fair to do that? Is it even moral?
And then I met Hannan Abu-Hussein.
Abu-Hussein, 47, was born in Umm al-Fahm, a sister to four older brothers. One of them studied medicine in Romania; to amuse his baby sister he brought back presents of paint. “I used to sit in the attic at home painting by myself,” she recalls, “but there were no art lessons for girls at school. We learned sewing and embroidery; I broke 10 needles. I wanted to be an artist.”
After studying art at the Jezreel Valley College, she came home to work in an office to pay back student loans. Then, age 21, she turned down a marriage proposal to move to Jerusalem and enroll in the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, where she received a scholarship for an additional year of research.
Hussein never stops learning. She has a diploma in Organizational Management of Art Institutes from Tel Aviv University; a teacher’s certificate in art education from the Hebrew University; post graduate studies in the ceramics department at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design; a diploma in group instruction from Tel Aviv University; Israeli Art studies at the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Academy; and an MA in Art History from the Hebrew University.
In her spare time she has five jobs: teaching at Seminar Hakibbutzim, Shenkar College, the Israel Museum and a boys’ school in Issawiya, as well as working as an artist. And what an artist she is! Abu-Hussein’s installations draw on her own experiences as a woman living in a segregated society to rage against violence against women, “Honor Killings,” and the erasure of women in society.
Two of her installations were on show at the Van Leer Institute as part of the Jerusalem Biennale. One, a bright, cheerful canary yellow and brown rush mat with a blue and white central motif tinged with pink, turns out, on closer inspection, to be rows and rows of sharpened pencils, tipped with tiny white rubbers. The center is comprised of over 250 miniature plastic dolls, their baby vaginas and mouths securely sewn up with thread.
“The erasure of women in our society isn’t only sexual,” she explains. “We’re not allowed to express ourselves in any way.” Layer upon layer of meaning shudder through the carpet as the pencils lie there, their sharp points poised to stab. The rubbers were born to erase; pencils themselves, in our digital world, have more or less been wiped out. And, in the center, the little defenseless girl dolls bear their lacerations silently, unable or unwilling to howl out their pain.
It’s powerful stuff.
The artist has paid a huge price for raising her voice: her father disowned her – until his dying day he did not try to reconcile. Two of her brothers cut her off – one died without having spoken to her for years. Most of her friends from Umm al-Fahm have dumped her. Even Israel’s only Arab Art Museum in her hometown does not exhibit her work. Happily, her mother is a big supporter, even helping Abu-Hussein to sew for her massive installations.
The artist, who has won numerous prizes for her installations including the Ministry of Culture and Sport prize for plastic art, the Education Ministry Master Teacher Award, and the American Israeli Fund for Outstanding Artist (twice), dives head first into dramatic issues. Abu-Hussein won the joint tender of the Association against Traffic in Women, the Association for War on Cancer, as well as the restaurant Comme Il Faut to do something big with bras. The public was invited to trade old bras for new ones; the money collected went toward raising awareness for breast cancer and to a shelter for prostitutes. The underwear was then dried in a huge concrete slab – each brassiere trembling in its trap forever – symbolizing sex workers pinioned in their lives of prostitution.
An expanse of broken balatot, the old-fashioned floor tiles that were once ubiquitous in Israeli homes, smashed and put together again with wax, symbolizes the dirt literally swept under the carpet and left to ferment. The cracks can easily break, like the women who bear their silent pain; nothing in the home is perfect. The artist spent a stint working in a WIZO Home for abused women and kids; the stories she heard scream through her creations.
It’s not hard to imagine how all this went down in traditional Arab society; no issue is too tough for Abu-Hussein to tackle. Harnessing memories of her midwife grandmother, who used to push boiled eggs into women’s reproductive parts to check fertility problems, the artist constructed vaginas made from razor blades – a howl of horror against what women suffer at the hands of men. Another installation stretches rows and rows of gaping vaginas from flesh-covered stockings, juxtaposed with a jumble of lethal-looking knives.
“In our society the honor of women is housed in women’s vaginas and in men’s names,” she claims, “and this gives rise to the most terrible abuse.”
Not exactly welcomed with open arms in her hometown, Abu-Hussein now lives in east Jerusalem and works widely within the Jewish-Israeli art scene. But that has its own challenges.
“As an artist I’m often either not Israeli enough to exhibit,” she explains, “or not Palestinian enough.” And the complications spill over into life: the sense of not belonging anywhere haunts Abu-Hussein. “I get the feeling that Arabs often think I’m a traitor to their cause,” she says, “but Israelis, too, often feel that Arabs are traitors to the country.”
(I am writing this piece at a time that demands a pause, with the prime minister of the country whipping up fear and antagonism against 20% of its citizens in order to save his own skin, the artist’s comments are even more heartbreaking.)
The Eretz Yisrael Museum, located smack-bang next to the Rabin Center that testifies to the terrible outcome of incitement, is home to one of the artist’s most poignant works: a tangle of sewage pipes hangs from the ceiling; wombed inside each is a Perspex tube of olive oil, slowly congealing. Olive oil is quintessentially Arab, and will never mix with water (or sewage). Abu-Hussein’s mangled identity strives to survive in this powerful, masculine piece – hers is not an easy road.
In many ways, her heart pulses together with the Palestinian people. Some of her art throbs with the pain of displacement; pitas in suspended cloth coverings are reminiscent of Arab cuisine but also of refugees on the run, carrying their food as they search for shelter. Piles of old-style mattresses and blankets are permeated with the sense of loss; the traditional Arab house of hosting is a thing of the past. And a site-specific work as part of the Biennale places a staircase to nowhere smack up in front of a well-stocked library in the Van Leer Institute. Under the stairs, piles upon piles of plastic-wrapped books are stacked, some horizontal, some squashed into the cracks. Abu-Hussein is protesting the Ministry of Education’s recent directive to change the school curriculum in the Arab sector; in return for a lot of money, she claims, many principals agreed. The books now present an Israeli agenda in place of Palestinian; the installation reflects the fury that many families felt at what they viewed as the destruction of their Arab identity.
In this complex, compelling land of ours, where cultures and dreams all seem to crash up against those of others, it always amazes me that we make it safely from morning till night. The land, despite gut-churning conflicts, pulses with energy; creativity explodes from every corner. Abu-Hussein, by highlighting the pain, hopes to bring about positive change: change in attitudes, change in action, and change in acceptance.
As for me, I need to revisit my decision not to introduce feminist credos into the classroom. It might have been a cop-out. ■
Dr. Pamela Peled lectures at the IDC. [email protected]