Making the desert a work of art

“At Ben Gurion University, art is far more than an academic discipline... It is a source of beauty, both on campus, and for the wider Beersheba community.

‘The Dancers’ by Dorit Levinstein in the Ita and Eitan Dayan Garden, donated by Riki and Coby Dayan in tribute to Prof. Rivka Carmi. (photo credit: DANI MACHLIS)
‘The Dancers’ by Dorit Levinstein in the Ita and Eitan Dayan Garden, donated by Riki and Coby Dayan in tribute to Prof. Rivka Carmi.
(photo credit: DANI MACHLIS)
When David Ben-Gurion said, “We will make the desert bloom,” he might not have envisioned the Negev as a mainstay of Israeli art. In the past decade, however, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), through its Department of Art, has worked to make art more accessible to the residents of the South.
THE END of Utopia (The Big Balloon Is Far) (1999). (Dani Michlis)THE END of Utopia (The Big Balloon Is Far) (1999). (Dani Michlis)
Most recently, BGU took a leap when it inaugurated a campus-wide Sculpture Trail that includes sculptures by Israeli artists from various generations and genres.
The Sculpture Trail initiative was launched in 2013, as part of then-BGU president Prof. Rivka Carmi’s initiative to increase the presence of art in public areas on campus. Other aspects of the initiative include plans for a 2,000 square meter art gallery to house the university’s growing collection, which will eventually be displayed in a permanent facility on campus. 
The trail is curated by Prof. Haim Maor and includes pieces by leading Israeli artists, such as Yaakov Dorchin, Sigalit Landau and Israel Hadani. 
Landau contributed a piece she calls “Sisyphus and Jacob Meet by the Well.” In it, Landau told the Magazine, she created a collaboration between Sisyphus – who took pleasure in killing people to rule with an iron fist – and the romantic shepherd Jacob, who upon meeting Rachel lifted the immense rock that covered her well. 
Both Jacob and Sisyphus got into trouble with God/the gods. Sisyphus was punished in the afterlife to push a huge boulder uphill, only to watch it roll back down just before it reached the top, repeatedly. Jacob was punished for his trickery, and God gave him a limp. Now they’re both pushing Sisyphus’s boulder by Jacob’s well, united.
“The sculpture is biblical, mythological and archaic all at the same time,” Landau said.
Landau said she specifically wanted to contribute to the university’s Sculpture Trail because she feels the school embraces a “pluralistic narrative” in its art, and that it is an expression of her Zionist ideals.
“Ben-Gurion developed the Negev, and it is blooming, and I want to be a part of that,” Landau said. “The university has a lot of vision, and this piece has an edge of pushing forward, too.”
To create the trail, Maor said, the school reached out and asked dozens of Israeli artists to submit sculptures for consideration. Proposals were vetted by a seven-person committee from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Department of Art. At the end of the process, 10 sculptures were selected. Many of them have already been erected, and the rest are coming soon.
All the sculptures were donated. 
The trail was inaugurated at the end of Carmi’s tenure and at the start of newly selected president Daniel Chamovitz’s term. Carmi told the Magazine that she was personally invested in making the project a success for her students and the community. 
“Today, more than ever, the humanities and the arts form the moral compass of our society, and they spark public discussion that almost certainly would not be possible without the arts,” she said. “Academia is a place for research and study, for curiosity and imagination, and excels mainly when guided by a creative spirit and the inspiration of artists who inspire us. 
“At BGU, art is far more than an academic discipline,” Carmi continued. “It is a source of beauty, both on campus, and for the wider Beersheba community. It inspires creativity, discussion and debate. It acts as a tool for communication and for bringing people together, and gives us an additional way to involve and serve the community.”
She said it is “very important” for students to become acquainted with Israeli sculptures and artists, and to enjoy the aesthetics 
Maor, an artist himself, was awarded the Culture and Sport Ministry’s 2018 Arik Einstein Award for Veteran Artists in the visual arts category last year. He said the trail presents an inter-generational exhibition of the biggest names in Israeli sculpting, and that he hopes the project will continue to grow and develop. 
Maor chose to make the country’s periphery the central arena for his activity over the past 30 years. In his art, he examines memory and identity, in consideration of his family’s traumatic experience in the Holocaust and in Israel. A large body of his work investigates his own identity in a range of media and contexts, through complex installations that are in dialogue with “others.”
“My curatorial focus was the exposure of and to artists from the geographic periphery of Israel, including Bedouin artists, religious artists, and Mizrahi artists, subjects I feel were not properly handled in other exhibitions in Israel,” Maor said.
He is also the director and curator of the university’s galleries, and coordinator of the creative art division, which was founded in the 1990s. Today, there are three exhibition spaces/galleries. One, in the old city of Beersheba, provides a solution for residents of the city and the Negev. The others are on campus, including the new trail.
Maor described the art at BGU as “eclectic.” He, like Carmi, said he sees art as fundamental to the university experience.
“Art and culture are basic human needs that nourishes the soul alongside food,” he asserted. “In addition, art is a field of knowledge that deviates from its image as a ‘beautiful product,’ and its importance as a cognitive field is equal to the fields of science, religion and philosophy.”
He said teaching art at BGU “exalts his spirit.”
“I planted the love of art and the tool to impart this love to others,” he said. “In the area of art, I know that a number of learning young artists have received their first training in my courses. This is heartwarming.” 