The white soldier

Performance artist Yuda Braun confronts the dichotomies of the complex Israeli reality.

White Soldier 311 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
White Soldier 311
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The middle-aged woman, a tight-fitting yellow top stretched snugly across her ample torso, prances between two white-painted soldiers in full military gear and carrying plastic toy rifles. Two border policemen have stopped the “White Soldiers” – 27-year-old Israeli performance artist Yuda Braun and a companion – and are reviewing their documents.
“Take a picture of me with them. Take a picture,” the woman tries to cajole her son, as she weaves in and out around the painted soldiers and border policemen.
“Of course they’ll want their picture taken, go stand between them. Are they Israeli soldiers?” After reviewing their papers, the border policemen, who seem unsure of what to do, let them go. Braun and his companion escort them silently from behind as all four make their way to Jaffa Gate.
Braun chuckles as he views the video clip on his computer during an interview with The Jerusalem Report in mid-November. The midday Friday noise of downtown Jerusalem streams into the apartment, which he shares with two roommates and a skinny, almond-eyed cat named Shraga.
“She was completely unaware of the situation. We couldn’t go anywhere and she was dancing around,” says Braun, who has recently completed a performance of “White Soldier” ( as part of a larger artistic event with 32 artists entitled “Visit Nomansland,” produced and curated by Muslala, a Jerusalem-based non-profit artists’ collective, and the Autonomous Broadcast Authority, a new-media performance-intervention art project set in venues throughout Israel.
For his performance, Braun patrolled areas in and around the Old City, including Damascus and Jaffa gates, wearing a military uniform and covered from head to toe in white water-based acrylic paint.
“We escorted them [the border policemen] in. It is all just an idea, a small action. I am the same soldier as he, but I am white and it changes everything,” says the tall and lanky Braun as he views the video, his thick head of curly hair and full beard framing his face. “The smallest action changes how we view our relationship with this place.”
In another video segment that he shares with The Report, young Jewish men wearing kippot are seen shouting angry insults at Braun and a companion soldier as they walk on a Saturday evening along Jerusalem’s downtown Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. The clip ends with one of the youths reaching out and breaking Braun’s gun.
Braun is reviewing the video segments for an exhibit scheduled to open at the Haifa Museum of Art. His work will include still photographs, a video, and a performance of “the White Soldier” as he patrols the streets of Wadi Nisnas, a downscale mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood in Haifa.
For some, the “White Soldier,” with its stark contrast between the purity of the white and the harsh connotations of the military uniform, symbolizes peace. To others he is the Angel of Death or an angel of protection.
“I am very influenced by everything, my world, my upbringing, my collective consciousness. Maybe I’ve seen too many Vietnam movies; maybe I served in the army. I’ve lived here, where you see maybe two dozen soldiers every step you take – so my work is all these things together.”
The piece is thus a very personal, Israeli work, says Braun, and it is important that it takes place in Israel, in Jerusalem, in the settlements and in Palestinian villages, and not elsewhere. “This is just how I am reacting to the world I live in. It is important for me to take part,” says Braun.
“I feel responsible and I want to take a stand in this debate that is going on.”
The project began more as an idea of an image, he says, and the character of “the White Soldier” has evolved over the past two years. Initially, he would encourage interaction with the people he encountered; now he remains completely in character.
He experimented at first using body paint and theatrical paint, he says, but then specifically chose to use the acrylic paint.
“The theater paint and different body paints look soft and I am looking for that rough edge. The fact that the paint cracks and peels and dries your skin adds great depth,” says Braun.
The hardest part of using the paint is cleaning his beard after a performance, he says. “On a personal level it is important to suffer. Ideologically, I am very total about my work. There is no compromise. I am not a pop singer and I don’t sing love songs.
It is important for me in some way to be a martyr even though I don’t like that word.
When I go out for photographs I walk for six, seven hours. I walk, and it is not easy.”
In this work, as with his other works, he says, he prefers to work with his intuition.
“Thinking can sometimes pollute the purity of the art process,” he says.
His works have included an exhibition of photographs of his family members taken in Ginot Shomron called “Yishuv”; a performance piece called “Pagan Painting”; an installation in the In-DNegev Music and Art Festival called “Fed Up” in which plaster bust faces nestled in the sand are “nourished” with glass Coke bottles filled with cultural icons, such as toy soldiers, Barbie dolls , coins and MP3s; and sculptures of rams’ heads and other artwork in “Sacrifice.”
“Don’t think about it, just do what feels right and we’ll be smarter tomorrow,” says Braun, who studied photography at the Musrara School of Photography in Jerusalem after his mandatory military service, where he served in a special forces unit of the Golani Brigade.
Recently he sent out a message on several social media outlets and art magazines asking, “Do you dare to be a White Soldier?” and received so many responses that he has been unable to handle them.
Braun is the eldest of five siblings and he grew up in the West Bank settlement of Ginot Shomron. His father is from Chicago, his mother from Toronto.
“The White Soldier” is not about something which he wants to convey but rather something he himself is confronting, says Braun. Having left his religious settler environment to live a secular art-based life, he is living the complexities of Israeli reality, he says.
“On the one hand, I have a lot of criticism against the settlers, and, on the other hand, these are my people, I live there… that is my family. And I see it in the big picture,” he says. “We are speaking of it in general terms and that is the complexity in which we live. It is neither black or white. It is black and white at the same time, at the same minute, in the same place. Go try and deal with that.”
His parents don’t quite understand his art in general but they are supportive of what he does, he says, and they came together with his friends to watch his performance in “Visit Nomansland.”
“I don’t expect everyone [to understand].
It is very sensitive. Maybe [my parents] see it as a sort of criticism but they come and compliment me, which I really appreciate.
It is not easy for them in this situation. It is not easy for me either, and yet here we are coexisting,” Braun says, emphasizing the final word.
Braun has also taken “ the White Soldier” to the settlement where he grew up – where at first the residents didn’t recognize him but received him with hospitality – as well as to El Matan and Ma’aleh Rehavam, settlements on the West Bank, and the Palestinian village of Wadi Kanna.
However, says Braun, before anything political, he is first and foremost having a conversation with himself. “It is about complexity. Here I am going back to all these places where I’ve been, whether in my military service or my daily life – the place I grew up or the Palestinian village where we used to go and swim in the springs, where today there is no chance that could happen, or east Jerusalem,” says Braun, opening a window to light a cigarette.
His army service was perhaps the most influential experience he has ever had. “It was three years in a combat unit. How could that not affect how you perceive things? All of a sudden you have a different insight into the conflict. It’s not in the paper. It’s not on TV. It’s here, man. We’re living it. I am the conflict,” he says. After completing the army, he spent some time in Hawaii and six months in Australia trying to “absorb a chill Western civilization, where you don’t have to think about survival.”
It is not important what “the White Soldier” symbolizes for him, he says. It is important what it symbolizes for the people who experience his performance.
“Every one of us here has a relationship with this very loaded character – as an Israeli serving in the army, or as a Palestinian on his way to work being stopped at a checkpoint by a soldier… and that is why there are so many various reactions. Because it is so hard to stay oblivious to the presence of this figure even though this figure – this soldier – lives among us. You see it all the time and you don’t even blink,” he says. “All of a sudden ‘the White Soldier’ is in your face: ‘Dude, there is something wrong, check this out, let’s reevaluate.’” Some of the patrols of “the White Soldier” have been a spur-of-the- moment impulse, while other times it has been planned for specific purposes, for photos or otherwise.
Braun has patrolled with the demonstrators against Jewish settlers in Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem and he felt the pain of the evacuation of Gush Katif, he says. He has been arrested three times. In one instance the Border Police “overreacted,” pointed their weapons at him and took him to the police station for a two-hour interrogation.
“They didn’t know how to react and chose the easy way out – power. People take the performance to their own personal place,” he says. “That is the power of the ‘White Soldier.’ It opens an emotional conversation.
And here I come and I don’t talk. It gnaws at people.”
During some of his visits to the Damascus Gate, Braun was invited by local Palestinians to sit and have coffee or offered an ear of hot corn on the cob. Other times boys threw rocks at him. He felt the most threatened when he was once surrounded by a group of young Palestinian men waving toy guns and shouting in Arabic. He could not understand what they were yelling, he says, but he felt it was a tense situation.
“Let’s just say I wasn’t welcome. I didn’t run away. I walked. I was still in character.
I won’t let them win, but I felt there was a territorial fight,” says Braun, his words coming out in a slow and easy pace.
Most of the time Braun goes out with a photographer. Since the start of the project, he has been working with the same Germany-based photographer who, Braun says, is as committed to the project as he is and comes every few months to photograph, with a videographer and an assistant, so it is normally easy to ascertain that “the White Soldier” is some sort of artwork.
Though he has been performing and evolving “ the White Soldier” for two years, and has been producing performance art and installations for several years before that, Braun says none of his previous works attracted the media as much as the “White Soldier.” He is learning how to deal with the attention, he says with an open grin.
“This is something which touches everyone here in Israel and is also very sexy.
Everybody likes talking about the conflict,” Braun says.