The neighborhood school

Last week the annual MusraraMix Festival in Jerusalem pulled music, art and media from Jerusalem and throughout the world.

Last week the annual MusraraMix Festival in Jerusalem pulled music, art and media from Jerusalem and throughout the world into the "International Festival for Art, Culture and Society." The festival is produced by the lecturers and students of the Naggar School of Photography, Media and New Music and takes place in their two buildings in the Musrara neighborhood. Avi Sabag, director of the Naggar School, is the leading force behind the festival. Sabag founded the school 18 years ago and, under his direction, it has expanded into a second, recently acquired building donated by the Naggar Family of London. Today, the school has 150 full-time students, who come from all over the country and pay NIS 12,000 a year for the three-year course. While this is roughly in line with other art schools such as Hadassah and Bezalel, Sabag does note that there are some scholarships available. However, the municipality, he says, provides almost no support so private donations have to cover equipment and materials. This year's festival coincided with the 100th anniversary of the birth of French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, so the concept of "otherness" - central to Levinas's philosophy - was a central theme in the festival. Basak Senova, a Turkish artist and curator, was one of the invited guest lecturers. Senova is a founding member of NOMAD, a Turkish artists' collective. Noted jazz journalist and author Stuart Nicholson was another guest, invited from England to discuss the concept of globalization in jazz. Several exhibitions were on display around the school. Photography done by the students filled the main rooms in the community center wing of the school - a variety of scenic still-life shots taken in the less salubrious areas of Jerusalem mixed with portraits of local residents. Video installations filled some of the other rooms, as well as a series of animal-related pictures taken by celebrated Israeli photographer Pesi Girsch. Visitors were invited to attend workshops, as well as nightly musical performances by student bands and singers. There is something unusual, perhaps even incongruous, about the setting of an art school in the fairly downmarket location of Musrara - which is officially known as Morasha in Hebrew, although the Hebrew name never took with most Jerusalemites. After the original Arab residents fled the area during the War of Independence, the Israeli government settled Moroccan immigrants in the elegant but crumbling mansions of Musrara, cramming up to 10 families into each home. The dissatisfaction and discomfort caused to the new tenants spawned some of the activities of the Black Panthers social action group in the 1970s. But the neighborhood has undergone something of a revival in the past few years, with artists and more wealthy Jerusalemites snapping up properties in the locale. The reputation of Musrara will take longer to upgrade. Director Sabag claims that it is precisely the location that makes the school what it is. "We are at the center of the earth here, on the border of east and west Jerusalem, in and among our people," he says, adding that being on the doorstep of local residents means that the school can bring art to the people more easily. "We don't sit in our ivory tower as they do at Bezalel," comments Ronit Bekker, who has worked for the school's management ever since graduating the three-year course in 1998. Half of the school is based in the Musrara ("Morasha") Community Center, a functional, drab building, in various states of disrepair, set back from Rehov Shivtei Yisrael. While most of the interior of the building is fairly characterless and bland, the school's top floor is very much in keeping with most art galleries - white-walled and spacious, a tranquil atmosphere in which to study and, for visitors, to view the work on display. By contrast, the second building is one of the former mansions of Musrara, surrounded by the leafy gardens that held the outdoor performances during the festival. The Naggar School emphasizes what is widely called, "new media." Video installations and computer-enhanced music featured heavily in the festival, adding a dimension to the more traditional forms of art on display. The festival drew crowds from all over Israel and Sabag attributed the steady stream of visitors to the school's central location. "We make our art available and convenient to the public, which gives them the opportunity to see things that might otherwise pass them by," he explains. And while he agrees that some of the art may not concur with the public's preconceptions of "what art is supposed to be" and perhaps especially not with the neighborhood's more recent, haredi residents, he argues that challenging ingrained beliefs about art is an important aspect of the school's work.