Angry artist demands equality

‘We have to resuscitate Mizrahi art because if we don’t, it will disappear,’ asserts Shula Keshet.

Shula Keshet, at home in Tel Aviv (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
Shula Keshet, at home in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER / FLASH 90)
One may describe Shula Keshet as an angry, Mizrahi, feminist artist. But then that would be tantamount to falling right into the stereotyping she has spent most of her life struggling against.
So, perhaps disgruntled, dissatisfied or discontented are all better ways of labeling the multifaceted social-activist artist who expresses herself through writing, painting, sketching and photography. She is also involved in putting together art installations, working with women in communities who have long not had an arena in which to express themselves artistically.
But then again, maybe, she is also angry.
“Here in Israel, and in general, but especially in Israel, the very emphasis on what is considered culture and art since the creation of the state comes from the West – white culture, very Euro-centered, Ashkenazi,” she tells The Jerusalem Report, sipping a glass of raspberry juice, a cigarette in the other hand. Some of her artwork hangs on the wall behind her in the office/café run by the Achoti Mizrahi Feminist art organization she helped co-found in the South Tel Aviv neighborhood where she grew up and – out of principle – now lives with her cat and dog. “Mizrahim, Arabs, Africans are treated as without culture.
“Ever since I remember myself, I always had a need to create. It is one of the most significant things in my life,” Keshet, 53, continues. “When I create, I feel very connected to myself, very focused. It is like being in love. Also when I am in a bad place, it is a process of my own internal empowerment.”
Her art is not something to hang up inside on a wall or keep in a studio, she says. It is something very immediate, very life- and environment-oriented. All her art, she says, is connected to her political work as well.
“For me, I do tikkun olam with two hands. One hand opposes and protests, and the other opens doors and creates an alternative,” says Keshet, referring to the Jewish concept of “healing the world.”
The daughter of parents who emigrated from Iran – her father had a moving van and her mother was a nurse – she spent her childhood staging her own street theater productions for the neighborhood children, writing and creating with an ardor born out of a need for self-expression, when she did not even have a movie theater nearby.
To this day, she says, there are no theaters or museums in her neighborhood. “Where are they? In North Tel Aviv where most of the population is Jewish Ashkenazi,” she says. “That is how it is generally. The message we have received… is that there are people who are cultured and create, and they are white Ashkenazi, and there are those that we have to bring culture to.
They are without culture, their culture is simply folklore. Those ethnicities of color are excluded.”
Interviewed by Channel 10 television journalist Amnon Levy, himself of Syrian Jewish extraction, as part of a recent four-part news series entitled “The Ethnic Demon,” which once again inserted the issue of systematic discrimination against Mizrahi Jews into the Israeli discourse, Keshet has been demanding equality for Mizrahi expression in art through her work ever since she can remember.
“We feel here like strangers, like we are worthless, less equal. I don’t want to feel like an outsider,” she says. “That is why I bring it up. We come from a place of oppression – not just Mizrahi culture and art but also Ethiopian, Arab – and we are creating a language. We can’t remain quiet.”
Growing up at home she was surrounded by the rich musical and artistic culture her parents and grandparents had brought with them, whereas at school and outside, she was bombarded with only Westernized, Ashkenazi models of artistic expression.
At the College of Art in Ramat Hasharon where she studied, and which is now a part of the Beit Berl College, she was one of the few Mizrahi students and all her learning revolved around Western forms of art.
“Iranian music is the most beautiful music in the world. It penetrates you and you feel it in every cell of your being. The sadness and the pain stabs you and the joy makes you gasp for breath,” she says. “You see the Persian aesthetics at home with the decorations and embroidery, but from a young age outside you begin learning about the history of European Jewry, about the art.
You absorb only that culture. You begin to internalize this. You believe the only culture to emulate is from the West, Ashkenazi, white Jewish. And then we all end up paying for it.”
And this, she adds, is destructive both on a group level and on an individual level. “You don’t meet with your culture. It doesn’t enter the halls of educational institutions, but it is a part of you and you love it. Culture and art lie at the heart of a community, it is the base for identity,” Keshet comments.
One series of her work dealing with her identity as a feminist Mizrahi woman involves photographic inlays of self-portraits into various models of Persian rugs, in which she attempted to play with the idea of what is hidden, what is exposed and what is viewed.
In her 2010 “Black Labor” installation, which was exhibited in Jerusalem and Vienna, she worked with six groups of Palestinians, Ethiopian and Mizrahi women building wooden beehives that contained the women’s artwork and were all connected by a series of canvas paintings also in the shape of a beehive. All of the artwork was for sale and the proceeds went directly back to the artists.
“We have to turn our view inward, to look at ourselves as a community that creates culture, to give a contra, to present an educative view,” Keshet says. “I come from a place of breaking walls that create a power struggle between culture and low culture. Mizrahi art takes on the oppression and racism aimed against Mizrahim. I don’t need to put in an arabesque in all of my art. I’ll put it in when I want to.”
According to an annual report, “Heart at East,” published by Achoti, in the years 2008-2011, almost 90 percent of the government’s cultural budget went to white/ Euro-centered works, and 100 percent of the dance budget went to classical ballet or modern dance. Productions by the leading Cameri theater, which is heavily subsidized by the government, largely come from the Western, European tradition, adds Keshet.
“I don’t have a problem with white culture, but it is not normal that all the funding goes there. It shows an inequality of distribution, a racist distribution,” says Keshet, who notes that her own works swing between the dichotomies of the two worlds in which she lives.
But what does make her blood boil is when funding is given to groups like the Cameri to bring productions to the periphery.
“Instead of giving equally and funding communities to create their own culture, to support the creation of local leadership, they support Ashkenazi [groups] to go to the periphery. If I try to go to Ofakim to do art in the community, I get crumbs; but when the Ashkenazis come to produce something there, they get huge amounts,” she says. “Is it to neutralize my views or our creativity? Then the Ashkenazi artist comes and does things without asking [the community what they want/need]. Having an Ashkenazi come and take up my fight is super problematic. We don’t need your help; we need you to recognize the suffering you caused us.”
In one of her early installations, Keshet handed out hard-bound journals to a group of women living in the periphery, asking them to write about their daily lives for six months, to give them a chance to express themselves and “break the walls between high culture and low culture.” Most of the women, she says, were reluctant at first to write, noting that the only writing they did was grocery lists. But they wrote “amazing” things in the end, says Keshet, providing a window into their world. For the presentation of the work, she put out a stool for every woman’s journal and included objects chosen by the women.
“We created a Mizrahi space,” she says.
“We came to create in the community and break down the barriers between the artist and the community. In white culture, there is a stance of power.”
In 2002, she curated an exhibit and published the accompanying book on “Women Creating Change” in honor of International Women’s Day, which included portraits of 38 women social activists from all walks of life and ethnic groups, accompanied by text written by the women about the work they do. Her mother was among the women she highlighted.
In 2011, she organized a group of six exhibitions in six different locations, focusing on artwork of Mizrahi women and Arab women around the themes of identity, space, wound, roots, meeting, and forgetting and remembering. The project also involved seminars and the compilation of a book at the end. Another series of photos of brothels examined the often ignored reality of Tel Aviv.
Maybe, she says, her desire to work with the women in her community and elsewhere stems from the memories she has of her mother’s and her grandmother’s activism within the community, caring for the elderly women of their community who had no one to care for them. They raised money and were able to buy a building, which they turned into a home for women, recalls Keshet.
“I have been greatly influenced by all the women in my family,” she says.
During the second intifada, she also turned to the families of the 13 Israeli Arabs who were killed in the early days of the violence to create an installation called “13 Live Bullets.”
She has also worked with Ethiopian youth to provide them with a place for self-expression through art.
“As a Mizrahi, I [feel the need] to expose discrimination against other communities that are discriminated against too,” Keshet says. “My art is always in dialogue, joining up together with other ethnic and national groups.”
Nevertheless, there are quieter times when Keshet turns in on herself more introspectively to investigate where she is now, where she is with her identity, which vacillates between different worlds.
Currently, she is working on a series of images of women in acrylic and ink, circular canvas paintings that reflect her Iranian art heritage and her Mizrahi identity, along with the pain connected with that and the “ethnic demon.”
“My dialogue with Mizrahi art is very simple. We have to resuscitate our art because if we don’t, it is a culture that will disappear; and we have almost no support from the government,” she says. “It is a daily struggle. Of course, it is tiring and I pay a high price. I don’t know if I will see a change in my lifetime, but it is like scraping the plaster from a wall. It is slow work but eventually it will come off.”
In ‘Yam,’ Keshet has written the text of tashlikh prayer (COURTESY / SHULA KESHET)In ‘Yam,’ Keshet has written the text of tashlikh prayer (COURTESY / SHULA KESHET)