Art from garbage

Dalia Boneh and her daughter Yifat Boneh Lahav express their hope for the future with things people throw away.

art from garbage (photo credit: courtesy)
art from garbage
(photo credit: courtesy)
Dalia Boneh stares at a photograph and tries not to cry. The picture, taken more than 60 years ago, depicts a happy moment. A robust young man, in the full bloom of youth and health, is holding a beautiful little baby girl.
The man wears clothes and a hairstyle that say “late 1940s”; the girl’s face is framed by her strawberry blond curls. Both are smiling – the man cheerfully, the girl blissfully – and both appear to be looking beyond the camera at some point on the horizon, without a care in the world.
The girl is Boneh at age two. The man is her father, Yehuda Blecher, at age 24, shortly before his violent death in the War of Independence. Boneh puts the photo down on the table in front of her and quickly runs her fingers under each of her welling eyes.
There is perhaps nothing more alive than a long-dead father, lost during childhood.
A member of the Irgun Zva’i Leumi, Blecher fell during fighting at Antipatris Fortress, near Rosh Ha’ayin and the source of the Yarkon River. It was while trying to secure this vital water source that Blecher was killed by Iraqi forces. Not until the passage of four long years were his remains finally discovered and buried in a communal grave in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl.
Boneh’s mother, Rachel Blecher, received some official papers from the Red Cross, attesting that the newly interred remains were indeed her husband’s, and Boneh, then almost seven years old, suffered the second great tragedy of her young life.
Her mother, who had been at best indifferent to Boneh after her husband’s death, now found that she was emotionally incapable of raising her daughter at all. Unable to so much as look at the girl without grieving for her dead husband, Boneh’s mother sent her away, first to an aunt, and then to a series of boarding schools, bouncing from one to another.
She attended six elementary schools in the course of eight years.
“My mother always said, ‘I’m a widow, I’m a widow, I’m a widow!’ But she was never able to understand that I was an orphan,” she recalls.
Her mother was later to remarry, divorce, and remarry yet again.
It was only when Boneh herself grew up and got married – to a man named Yehuda, like her father – that she finally found some stability.
“When I married my husband, I told him that I didn’t want to move around, that I wanted to buy a house and live there for the rest of our lives. And that’s exactly what we did. We bought a house at Moshav Kerem Maharal and have lived there ever since.”
She settled in for some quiet years. She went to work as an accountant; her husband was employed by the National Parks Authority. Four children appeared in due course. Boneh took up embroidery as an afterwork hobby. Life was calm and easy.
“And then, at the age of 43, I decided I needed a change,” she says. “I left my job as an accountant and went to work as a cleaner. I think I was trying to clean out myself as well. And since my husband’s salary was not high, I also opened a gallery in front of our house, where I began to sell my embroidery and handicrafts.
“I believe in recycling, so I made my creations out of things that people were throwing away – newspapers, used tea bags, olive pits, plastic wrap, things like that. I was very excited about being able to use my imagination to take garbage and make things out of it that people liked and wanted to buy.”
One of Boneh’s specialty items at this time was jewelry, which she continues to make and wear.
Life sailed comfortably along on this course until around eight years ago, when Boneh’s husband moved into a new office near the Antipatris Fortress national park, not far from the site where her father fell in battle.
“It may have been my husband’s new job location; it may have been my advancing age. It may even have been the fact that my grown-up children wanted to talk about things I had kept inside myself for so long. Whatever it was, at that point I started thinking about things.”
By the time she had finished “thinking about things,” Boneh discovered that she was going through a life-changing paradigm shift. As the daughter of an Irgun fighter and child of a right-wing Revisionist extended family, much of her adolescence had been involved in the Betar youth organization, where she absorbed the ideology of working and fighting for a greater Land of Israel, in its entirety.
Now, after meeting Arabs and listening to their varying points of view, Boneh found herself moving toward the center and wondering how to bring the two groups, Jews and Arabs, closer together. At the same time, she began a friendship with fellow moshav member Ami Ayalon, former commander-in-chief of the navy, Knesset member and head of the Shin Bet (Israel’s security agency), and now a peace activist.
Before long, there appeared on the wall of her Kerem Maharal gallery a short parable, written in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Called “The Fable of the Rope,” it reads: “When two ropes want to connect with one another, each will inevitably have to give up some of its length. A connection will never occur if each rope wants to keep its full length. The connection occurs only when giving up is taking place. Giving up is the basic element of connecting.”
As Boneh’s raison d’être expanded to include not only Jews and Arabs but also Israel’s seemingly irreconcilable conflicts among different classes of Jews – Left vs Right, secular vs religious – her art began to evolve as well. No longer content merely to fashion handicrafts and jewelry, she now began to create art.
Three things about her new art were clear from the very beginning: First, she would continue to work with the same kinds of recycled materials – or, in other words, the same “garbage” – that she had been using for her handicrafts and jewelry. Second, Boneh’s art was to have the distinctly political theme of bringing opposing groups in Israel together through dialogue and compromise.
“I want my art to be involved and to say something about our people, all of our people, sitting together and trying to make a better future for Israel,” she declares.
The third distinctive feature of her art would be its manner of production – virtually all of it is made in partnership with her daughter, artist Yifat Boneh Lahav, now 38 years old.
Boneh’s papier mâché work in newspaper or used tea bags becomes a canvas on which her daughter draws and paints.
“Together with my daughter, I can do everything. We fit together and become whole,” she says.
At a deeper level, the close partnership between the two women is exactly the opposite of Boneh’s relationship with her own mother, who aside from being a negligent parent, was – yes – also an artist.
The body of work that Boneh and Lahav have created together has been both therapy for Boneh and a journey within herself. The therapeutic aspect largely involves finding her father, after an absence in her life of more than 60 years.
A work called Empty Chair, for example, consists of seven chairs, each with its own particular characteristics, each symbolizing something different. In the middle of the row stands an empty chair with no special characteristics or treatment. That chair is dedicated to Boneh’s father, the space in her heart that has remained empty since his death.
The “journey” part of her art – often symbolized by such objects as shoes, suitcases and handcarts – is essentially political, detailing Boneh’s journey from the far right to the center of Israeli society.
An early work, entitled Ha’et Ledaber in Hebrew and Time to Talk in English, features a table covered with maps and drawings of weapons. On the table are two hands made of papier mâché, each holding a pen – one blue, the other green.
“This is like Rabin signing the peace agreement with Arafat,” Boneh says.
Asked whether she feels her current views might be a betrayal of the Revisionist ideals her father died for, Boneh answers with an emphatic no.
“Although my father was a Revisionist and I am not, we both have wanted the same thing: a peaceful place to live in. I want people to know that my art is not on the Left nor on the Right; my art is about being in the middle, where people meet.
“People come to our gallery not only to see the art. We meet with them, and talk to them. We meet all kinds of people – religious people, non-religious, left-wing, right-wing.
“Just last week I had a long conversation with one of the women in Machsom Watch, who monitor the soldiers’ behavior at the checkpoints in the West Bank. We are all family, and we must all talk to each other.”
Boheh and Lahav’s most recent exhibition, held at Beit Sokolow in Tel Aviv, was provocatively called Extremes.
Says Boneh: “I can never separate my personal feelings from what is going on here in Israel. If Israel is going through bad times, I feel bad as well. What hurts me is that today people in Israel are stuck. The Right is stuck in their position, the left wing is stuck in theirs. The two positions seem to be getting farther and farther apart, and they can’t manage to meet.
People are angry, and they are stuck.
“A week ago, I got a telephone call from a woman reporter at Ma’ariv. A few words into the conversation, she made an angry comment about Bibi Netanyahu. I said to her, ‘Give me just a few minutes, and I will change the way you think about him.’ And I did. That is what I want to do with my art – make people think differently and bring them closer together.”
Throughout much of the artwork in both their recent exhibition and at their gallery, Boneh and Lahav make rather liberal use of used tea bags as a base medium for additional work.
Says Boneh, “Used tea bags are not basic to me in themselves; what is basic is what they represent to me, which is people sitting together around a table, having a conversation, and sharing opinions and ideas. I like to think that each tea bag I work with was used in this way.”
Large installations of tea bag murals, often covering an entire wall, yield various messages on closer examination – such as drawings or paintings by Lahav, or almost subliminally embedded words like “real negotiation,” “truth,” “hope,” “responsibility,” “reconciliation” and even “sail for the future.”
One work in particular, called Landscape, has embedded within it such expressions as “not losing optimism” and “for the future of our children.”
A particularly interesting work is a large mezuza encased in a material that looks like burnt ash, and containing a rolled-up map of Israel instead of a parchment section with passages from the Torah. Entitled Guardian of the Doors of Israel, it is, says Boneh, “a mezuza for the religious and for the secular – it’s the State of Israel for everyone.”
Stones appear frequently in their work as well – both real stones and papier mâché cleverly fashioned to look like stone.
“Stones can break and stones can build,” Boneh says tersely. One work, for example, takes the form of a carpet made from used plastic bags, decorated with three big stones from different places in Israel. The stones, according to Boneh, are a symbol of the breaking of our society.
She mentions the expression tohu vavohu from the Book of Genesis, referring to the formlessness and nothingness from which God created an ordered world. She says that after a period of messy disorder here in Israel, things will all come to order.
“There can be no other way,” she insists.
“I always have hope. And I believe that no matter how bad things seem at the moment, something good will come.
“A couple of years ago, when the situation here in Israel looked very bleak, I told my daughter to remember that she and I together make beautiful things from garbage. If we can make beautiful things from garbage, then beautiful things can also come out of a bad situation. I really believe this.”
The work of Dalia Boneh and Yifat Boneh Lahav is on view at the Warp and Woof Gallery at Moshav Kerem Maharal. For further information call 052-673-0995 or 052-370-2051.