A Museum with Edge

The Museum on the Seam, nestled in a historic building between East and West Jerusalem, is attracting major Jewish and Arab artists with a message in mind.

Incense (photo credit: Joshua Neustein)
(photo credit: Joshua Neustein)
The New York Times listed it among 29 art institutions around the world that “will open your eyes and blow your mind.” National Geographic named it among the top 10 museums off the beaten path. Yet most Israelis don’t even know about the existence of the Museum on the Seam, a socio-political contemporary art museum.
The independent, private museum, located on Jerusalem’s busy Route 1, which once divided East and West Jerusalem, was established in 1999 in a crumbling mansion with a charged past. Raphie Etgar, the graphic artist who conceived and now runs the museum, kept intact the bullet holes that pockmarked the villa’s deteriorated facade and has turned the interior into a sleek shrine to contemporary art – but with a twist. The art, from Anselm Kiefer to Sue de Beer to William Kentridge, is explicitly political, relentlessly confrontational and aggressively in-your-face.
It is difficult to believe that anyone can view the art and remain indifferent – which is exactly the point, says Etgar.
“The idea is to combine contemporary art with a socio-political message,” he tells The Jerusalem Report in an interview at the museum’s third floor rooftop café, which overlooks the Old City landscape of church steeples and minarets. The call of a muezzin resonates in the background.
“A museum devoted to this way of presenting art is unique in the world,” he says. “Not everyone is keen to believe that art can change the world. They say they don’t know of any art work that prevented one American, or one Vietnamese, from dying in that war. I say that art has its rhythm and it takes time to make the change.”
Etgar refers to Picasso’s famous anti-war painting, “Guernica,” which has become an anti-war icon since it was first displayed in 1937, after the bombing of the Spanish town by German warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. “Like drops on a rock, ‘Guernica’ created a strong image against war,” says Etgar. As water reshapes rock over millennia, says Etgar, “the right way to measure art is if it creates a strong feeling, and this you don’t get in a short time, it’s a long process. Art needs to be seen and it needs to be digested and remembered.”
Etgar, who has mounted provocative exhibitions that explore the complexities of coexistence, has succeeded in attracting top contemporary artists, including leading Arab artists, some of whom live and work in Europe and others from Middle Eastern countries, who needed to overcome the Arab boycott.
“The consensus [in many Arab nations] is, first of all, to punish Israel by not participating in exhibitions here,” says Etgar, although the fact that the museum is private and receives no government funding makes it more palatable for Arab artists to exhibit here. “However, there is fear, real fear, to cross the lines,” Etgar continues. “The artists don’t want to be in the camp that is ostracized by exhibiting in Israel. I get a lot of ‘Maybe next year,’ and ‘I appreciate what you do, but I’m not able to send you a piece at this moment.’ Some artists say they feel they would be criticized if they exhibit here.” He continues, “There is an Iraqi artist with whom I have been corresponding for three years and he is all the time considering [participating], but is hesitant, and each time he promises to participate in the next exhibition. Some artists didn’t want us to mention their names. This is the situation today where Israel is very much isolated and this is the way artists are trying to punish us.
“It took me a long time and much correspondence with artists, galleries, owners and collectors to explain that if they have anything to say, they better say it and bring us their art, so we can see what they do and hear what they have to say. If they keep us away from this knowledge, they can’t hope to make a change.”
Indeed, one can only imagine the energy Etgar must have spent in cajoling Arab artists around the world to send their works to Israel for his latest exhibition – the endless emails, phone calls, the consummate rhetorical skills, the polite and less polite rejections in a long process of building trust.
And there are other difficulties, too. According to Etgar, some of the art for the current exhibit came from parts of the world that don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel and no direct postal service. And one piece was held up by German customs because its name raised suspicions – “Tora Bora” – the cave complex in Afghanistan where Osama Bin Laden had supposedly been in hiding.
Etgar, who is a prominent graphic artist who has taught art at various academies in Israel and abroad, meets with The Report dressed casually, in black. He speaks slowly, measuring his words with care. Despite the slow cadence, Etgar seems restless, eager to move on to other tasks. The nervous energy apparently pays off, he says, as he claims he is able to mount an exhibition in about half the time it takes other museums.
“It’s amazing what they can do with such a small staff and the limitations of the place,” says American-Israeli artist Joshua Neustein, who is based in New York and has contributed a particularly intriguing work to the current exhibit. “It’s a gem and the museum is not sufficiently recognized in Israel,” Neustein tells The Report in a telephone interview.
The museum's latest exhibition, which opened in late June, is entitled, “West End – A Clash of Civilizations and a Battle for Domination in the World of Tomorrow.” For Etgar, “West End” does not refer to the theater district in London, but to the conflict between Islam and the West, first brought to public attention by Samuel Huntington’s best-selling 1996 book, “Clash of Civilizations.”
Twenty-seven artists from Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, many of whom live and work in Europe, exhibit their works alongside works by Israeli, European and American artists. The museum’s texts are displayed in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.
The exhibit explores the effects of the massive Muslim immigration to Europe and the growing fear in the West that it is on the losing side in this epic clash. There are 54 million Muslims living in Europe today, excluding Turkey. There are more Muslims in Germany than there are in Lebanon. And the exhibition doesn’t even make a pretense at being politically correct about this.
“Cracks can now be found in the pillars supporting the Western ideologies that called for liberty and freedom of religion of the other living among them,” writes Etgar in the hefty exhibition catalogue. “Widespread objection to the Muslims’ different appearance, the traditional dress, the head covering, and other religious symbols attributed to them is emerging in the public sphere.”
One of the very first works a visitor sees upon entering the museum is a provocative installation by Swiss artist Christian Philipp Muller, called “Launch Vehicles,” composed of seven almost floor-to-ceiling Styrofoam rockets that look like glistening white mosques with minarets. These phallic-shaped missile-mosques present a threatening view of Islam, assembled and ready for launch.
The conflict between East and West can leave scorched ground, warns a work by Egyptian painter, sculpture and multimedia artist Moataz Nasr. He uses 7,400 densely placed colorful matches to depict a map of Iraq that was conquered by American forces. One match can spark an all-consuming conflagration.
Slovakian artist Robert Kunec’s work is a giant plastic wall-mounted sculpture that reduces suicide bombers to the banality of a children’s plastic toy model, the kind that comes with pieces that need to be snapped off and assembled into an action figure. The suicide bomber is dismantled into numbered components – arms, legs, masked face, gun, bomb – yet another commodity among other consumer products. The artist appears to ask, is the suicide bomber a mere toy in the hands of the people who dispatch him? This is one toy that should come with a safety warning.
A15-minute video work by Moroccan-born Mounir Fatmi, who lives and works in France, is aesthetically pleasing, a refreshing change for contemporary art. The video shows continuously turning machine wheels decorated with flowery arabesques and elegant traditional Arab calligraphy. The piece is called “Modern Times: A History of the Machines” and resonates with Charlie Chaplin’s assembly line in the 1936 film, “Modern Times.” In Chaplin’s movie, the industrial revolution turned human beings into cogs in an assembly line and made World War I possible. According to the exhibition catalogue, Fatmi is showing the machine that “moves the wheels of fortune of the Arab states, allowing them to grow new cities in the desert, in front of humanity’s astonished eyes.”
Etgar says he was surprised when he was told by a crew from the Al Jazeera pan-Arab television network that he should consider removing one of the exhibits, a double-sided, neon-lit Coca-Cola logo, but flipped backwards. They told him the work, by Adel Abidin, an Iraqi artist living and working in Finland, can be offensive for Muslims. It turns out that when the sign is flipped backwards it forms an Arabic font that reads “No Muhammad, No Mecca.” Abidin interprets the mirror image differently and calls his work “To Muhammad, To Mecca.” For him, every time a thirsty Muslim drinks Coca-Cola, he is actually toasting Islam. “This was a surprise to me,” says Etgar. “We thought it was a rumor, or a superstition but it turns out that it literally says so in Arabic. For me it was shocking.”
Perhaps the most telling work is one by the American-Israeli Neustein, entitled “Incense.” A huge crystal chandelier, every part polished and sparkling, hangs low at the viewer’s eye level. Its lights are diffused and refract on the walls, perhaps a metaphor for the dimming of the Western culture that produced the wealth, decadence and sumptuous castles, where such chandeliers once used to hang. Directly below it is an oriental bronze incense burner decorated with the crescent symbol of Islam. Is the light shining brightly on the Islamic symbol the beginning of a new era? Or will the low hanging chandelier fall and smother the incense burner?
“We don’t wish to take a side in any confrontation,” says Etgar. “We feel that we are more like a stage for the art work and we let the audience judge.”
Ironically, the building that houses the museum could serve as a fitting installation in the current show. It is a charged relic of the conflict between East and West. It was built in 1931 by a Christian- Arab architect, Anton Baramki, as a home for his family. Why would an Arab architect build a home for himself with eclectic motifs that speak the language of classical Western architecture – ornate Corinthian columns, a covered portico, a pink facade that recalls Tuscany? Did he long for the tantalizing riches of the West, as displayed in the British colonial buildings constructed in the city at the time? Baramki’s descendants, some of whom now live in the West Bank, have repeatedly refused to answer Israelis’ questions about the home and its plan.
In 1948, the Hagana seized the building to use as a forward military position and, after Israel’s establishment, it was known as the Tourjeman Post. During the 1967 Six Day War the building took a direct hit from a shell that destroyed the upper terrace.
“For ideological reasons I decided not to reconstruct the damage and to leave the facade as it was,” says Etgar.
The bullet holes from two wars that mark the building’s front tell its story as a sentry in no man’s land. The villa’s elegant windows were blocked with concrete and reduced to narrow slits to enable soldiers to avoid sniper fire. The nearby historic Mandelbaum Gate served as the only crossing point from Israel into Jordan until the city’s reunification in the 1967.
In the 1980s, the villa was made into a museum dedicated to the theme of “A City Reunited.” By 1996, the Jerusalem Foundation decided to update the museum, and a generous donation by the von Holtzbrinck publishing family of Germany made the Museum on the Seam possible. The museum’s operational budget also comes from the von Holtzbrinck family. Etgar first connected with the von Holtzbrincks when he was invited to serve as the in-house artist for the publishing company in Germany. During these years, his posters were shown in solo exhibitions in a prestigious list of museums and biennales around the world.
Etgar says he prefers private donations over public funding in order to keep the museum completely independent.
The museum’s current name alludes to its location on the roughly stitched seams between an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood to the west and an Arab neighborhood to the east, between religious and secular, between Arabs and Jews, between right-wing nationalism and cutting-edge contemporary art that recognizes no bounds.
The irony of the building’s past is certainly not lost on Etgar. “This is a former Israeli military outpost,” he says, “and now we have Arab artists from around the world exhibiting here, right in the heart of Jerusalem.”
Dani Karavan, world-renowned Israeli sculptor and recipient of the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest award, thinks the Museum on the Seam is one of the most important museums in Israel. Karavan has a permanent neon sculpture at the museum’s entrance that reads, in Hebrew, Arabic and English: “Our borders will be olive trees.” “If The New York Times says it’s one of the best museums in the world, then it’s provincial on the part of Israelis not to give it its due,” Karavan concludes.