Art: An oasis of creativity

A gallery in the Arab town of Umm el-Fahm uses creativity and culture to bring about change.

Photograph from the series ‘Brides in White’ by Amar Younis from his exhibit ‘Shadow of Time’ (photo credit: UMM EL-FAHM ART GALLERY)
Photograph from the series ‘Brides in White’ by Amar Younis from his exhibit ‘Shadow of Time’
(photo credit: UMM EL-FAHM ART GALLERY)
As far as Arab towns in Israel go, Umm el-Fahm does not have a very good reputation among Jews. Viewed as the heartland of the Islamic Movement’s northern branch and home to its controversial leader Sheikh Raed Salah (who is scheduled to begin an 11-month sentence on November 15 for incitement), for many the name means Islamic fundamentalism and anti- Israeli sentiment.
But walking along one of the crowded, steep and partially sidewalkless winding roads that leads to the Umm el-Fahm Art Gallery on a rainy October day, there is only a lunchtime crowd intent on picking up children from school and making it to the local health clinic before it closes. Women wearing traditional hijab head coverings and dark-colored jilbab robes share the space with women in tight jeans and dyed hair, and young teenage boys with the latest haircuts fiddle with their smartphones as they mindlessly weave among the traffic.
Inside the art gallery, founder Said Abu Shakra, 59, a retired Israel Police detective who worked with juvenile delinquents and is an artist in his own right, is holding a planning meeting over coffee and pastries made by his wife with an American-Jewish financial benefactor and three Israeli Jews including the gallery’s director of project planning and development.
One of the visitors, hesitant to enter the town alone at a time when tensions are high between Arabs and Jews, had asked Abu Shakra to pick him up from the entrance of the city in the heart of the Wadi Ara valley, 20 kilometers southwest of Afula in the Jezreel valley. Abu Shakra politely declined to relate to the fears about his hometown and helped navigate the visitor to the gallery via phone. He laments how this fear can divide people and prevent them from meeting and learning about others.
It is a difficult reality for Abu Shakra to swallow that people regard the place of his birth as dangerous. “I want them to feel that Umm el-Fahm is a nice place to come to, to marvel at the views and get to know the people here,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
“We are becoming an important gallery. We are becoming another face of Umm el- Fahm. We are a sane place, a healthy place. We are not fanatics.”
Since its opening almost 20 years ago in 1996, some 30,000 people from all over the world, half from Umm El-Fahm itself, have visited the gallery annually and taken part in its tours and workshops.
“Unfortunately, when something bad happens in the village, people generalize and paint all of Umm el-Fahm as black. The media generalizes all the extremist situations here to include the entire village while everything good they show as an exception,” says Abu Shakra.
“Sheikh Raed Salah has one idea, but you can see the same ideas professed by rabbis. There was a settlement rabbi who said it was OK to poison the wells of Palestinians and he was not arrested. When Sheikh Salah says something, they blame the whole village. The media want to scare Jews not to come and that does not help coexistence.”
THE GALLERY has expanded from the original 100 square meter space, which he opened with money from the municipality and the Ministry of Culture, to its current home, since 2005, in a 1,700 square meter, three-floor building sandwiched between a building supply warehouse and a local eatery.
He credits his older brother Walid, who today at 70 is a renowned lithographic artist in London, with uniquely forging a love and passion for art in his family as a teenager, at a time when “it was craziness to study art” and most Arab families were more concerned with basic survival, sending their sons to the cities either as laborers or to study professions such as law and medicine.
Walid went to Tel Aviv to work in construction, but there he began to draw and studied art at the prestigious Avni Institute of Art and Design. Abu Shakra recalls the weekends when Walid returned home with a cake under one arm and a bundle of his drawings under another.
“He would come back from Tel Aviv neat and clean, with money he had earned and showed us his drawings. We felt bad for the other workers who came back dirty and tired,” says Abu Shakra. “He was a role model and all our family wanted to be like him.” He considers Walid as “the most important artist in modern Palestinian art.”
Eventually, says Abu Shakra, a younger brother, Farid, now 53, two nephews and a cousin all went on to study art at what is today Beit Berl College. Farid now has a studio in Tel Aviv and an art gallery in Nazareth, following in Said’s footsteps.
It was the death of his cousin, Asim Abu Shakra, from cancer at age 29 in 1990, which led Said to realize there was a need for an art gallery highlighting art in the Arab sector.
Asim had been a well-known artist in Tel Aviv, recognized for his representative paintings of potted Sabra cacti, and the few pieces he created in his short professional life are much sought after in the art world.
One piece was recently auctioned in Dubai for $250,000, notes Abu Shakra.
When Asim died, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art held a special memorial exhibit of his works. Along with Tel Aviv dignitaries and leading art world personalities, the event was attended by what seemed to be all of Umm el- Fahm.
“It was at the same time very uplifting but also quite sad,” Abu Shakra recalls. “It was good that the museum had made such a nice exhibit in honor of my cousin, but I felt it was also important that I bring my cousin back to Umm el-Fahm and put up an exhibit in the place where he blossomed. It could not be that the Tel Aviv Museum would be giving a memorial to our artist and we did not know how to appreciate our own artist.”
With no Arab-run galleries to be found, he realized that “we didn’t know how to take control of our culture,” putting local Arab artists at the mercy of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem gallery owners who would occasionally decide to exhibit their works.
Abu Shakra is emphatic about the need for Arab Israelis to take charge of their own culture. “To advance my culture, I need to exhibit and preserve it. To take responsibility for it,” he says. “The interpretation has to be connected to place, identity, symbols, narratives, history. When I connect to the collective story of Palestinians in Israel and the pain within that, we give an authentic interpretation.”
While continuing to work in the police force, Abu Shakra dedicated his free time to the creation of his gallery with the support of his brother Farid and others, often running up against ridicule and discouragement among residents who berated him for bringing “art” to the village when what really was needed were more jobs.
A breakthrough for the gallery came three years after its opening when it hosted a Yoko Ono exhibit and the Japanese artist came to the opening. This showed that they were a world-class gallery, says Abu Shakra. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the second intifada soon after impacted on the small gallery. With the onset of the October 2000 violence, gangs of youth tore down a large sign emblazoned with the words “Open Window” at the entrance of the city, which Ono had donated to the gallery.
“Symbolically, the idea of turning Umm el-Fahm into a multicultural and international place was destroyed,” Abu Shakra says. “What we had succeeded in creating in four and a half years was destroyed. But we rebuilt everything.”
A few years ago, when faced with the choice of either continuing with his police work or putting all his efforts into the gallery, the decision was obvious to him – he took early retirement.
“THERE IS a critical need for a place like this in the Arab sector,” Shfaram painter Asad Azi, who lives in Tel Aviv and has cooperated with Abu Shakra since the gallery’s opening, tells The Report. Not only is it a place where Israeli Palestinian art can be showcased, but also serves as a true bridge between Arabs and Jews, he says.
“The gallery has created an awareness of the importance of art and culture in the Arab sector. It has become very well-known. If it weren’t for Said Abu Shakra all of these things would not exist. It is all thanks to this one dedicated person who gives his all. Said is the bull that pulls this wagon.”
Some younger Arab artists berate Abu Shakra for trying to get works at low cost, notes Azi, but he is trying to get the best for the gallery with his limited budget. Azi says he has sold several of his pieces to the gallery at minimal cost because of the importance he attaches to the gallery.
Today, the gallery boasts dozens of exhibition catalogues, hosts local and international exhibitions ‒ currently on display is an exhibit of contemporary German art that closes in February 2016 ‒ and offers art classes and workshops to children and adults. A women’s ceramic workshop ‒ whose handiwork it is hoped will become the basis of a museum gift shop ‒ is run by Jewish ceramic artist Rina Peleg. The gallery exhibits local Arab and Jewish and international artists. Abu Shakra has also shown work by West Bank Palestinian artists under the condition that they not be exhibited together with Israeli Jewish artists.
“The gallery is a unique place in the Arab community and we have to support it,” Mohammed Mahajni, 60, who owns the building material warehouse next door, tells The Report. “Lots of people from outside of Umm el-Fahm come, including Jews. It creates a mentality of tolerance.” Listed as one of Israel’s 10 best galleries by CNN in 2013, the 10 employees are both Arab and Jewish, though most of the teaching positions are filled by Arabs. “We have a very small budget and some months we can’t pay the electricity bill, but we manage to close each year with a little debt rolling into the next,” Abu Shakra grins.
The most recent violence, which began in October, has again affected the gallery, with Jews fearful of visiting. Though the entrance fee is minimal: NIS 15 for visitors and free for local residents, the gallery is empty one late October afternoon.
“In October, the trust was broken in a big way. This month has not been good for us,” Abu Shakra says. “We feel all the hard work we have done has been destroyed. It takes a long time to build trust through art and culture and it can be broken in one day.”
Evi Musher, a New York art benefactor who divides her time between the US and Israel and is one of the gallery’s biggest supporters, calls Abu Shakra “a force of nature.” Also an active supporter of the Youth Wing of the Israel Museum, Musher has been involved with the Umm El-Fahm gallery since the Second Gulf War when she helped organize a visit of children from Kiryat Shmona to the gallery.
“Said is passionate about art and the importance of culture and education. He is very focused and you can’t push him to the side,” Musher tells The Report. With the current world economic situation, it is not easy fundraising for the arts in general, she notes, and even more so for a lesser-known gallery such as Abu Shakra’s.
AFTER YEARS of working to amass a permanent collection, which includes works by 400 local Jewish and Arab artists, the gallery is in the process of being recognized as the Umm el-Fahm Museum of Contemporary Art by the Ministry of Culture and the Israel Association of Museums.
Eight years ago, the gallery held an architectural competition for the design of a new building they hope someday will become the permanent home of a future museum.
Forty-nine architects ‒ mostly Jewish ‒ presented designs and a winning team was selected.
However, the gallery has yet to raise the needed funds to begin construction. For now, Abu Shakra is content to have been able to get funds for a climate-controlled heating system for the storage room where they keep their permanent collection.
Abu Shakra foresees a museum that continues in the gallery’s direction of multiculturalism.
A work by Jewish artist and sculptor Micha Ullman, comprising a glass coffee cup partially buried in a crater of earth taken from a destroyed part of the village from which Abu Shakra’s mother fled as a child during the 1948 war, is on permanent display in a place of honor in a room of its own at the gallery and on the day the museum building is built it will be moved there, says Abu Shakra.
“The hole can be hate and the distance between Jews and Arabs, but if we meet in the middle, in the coffee cup, it can be a place of meeting,” he explains.
Ullman relates that it is with admiration and respect that he has been following and supporting the development of Abu Shakra’s gallery.
“The gallery is a positive effort which is very rare especially in these days,” Ullman tells The Report. “The creativity of this gallery is just the opposite of the strength and power used to achieve things in this country.
The gallery uses creativity and culture to bring about change.”
Currently, Abu Shakra focuses much of his energy on the gallery’s archive project, which was inspired by the last months of his mother’s life, when he recorded her as she began speaking for the first time about the hardships she endured during and after the establishment of the State of Israel as a young 12-year-old bride.
Training an interviewing team of 12 people from the area in a six-month workshop directed by the Open University and joining them with Jewish and Arab professional historians and photographers, Abu Shakra has set out in a race against time to interview and photograph all the elders of the villages to preserve their stories and memories before they die. So far, they have spoken with 300 people and collected thousands of historical photographs. Some 70 percent of the people they interviewed have since died, he says, adding that if their stories had not been recorded, they would have been lost.
“This archive came about because I am a resident of this place and I understand that I can’t take our children forward toward liberal and modern art without… giving them the opportunity to see their past,” Abu Shakra says. “We can’t move forward if they don’t see their past.”