Palestinian art gets a home of its own

The Umm el-Fahm Art Gallery run by Said Abu Shakra opened 15 years ago to bring culture to a town of mostly farmers, construction workers.

Umm el-Fahm - High up on the hillside, occupying the three top floors of a nondescript building, is the Umm el-Fahm Art Gallery. Run by artist Said Abu Shakra, the gallery opened 15 years ago to bring culture to the town of mostly farmers and construction workers.
“It’s been a revolution here,” Abu Shakra says, adding it is the only art museum in any Arab town in Israel. “We have turned Umm el-Fahm into the cultural center for all Israeli Arabs, and Palestinian artists, too.”
The gallery has drawn international acclaim and attracted more than 40,000 visitors last year, about half of them Israeli Jews. But Abu Shakra’s main goal is to boost art among Israel’s Arab minority, a difficult challenge when most people are mainly concerned with feeding and clothing their families.
A former police officer, Said Abu Shakra comes from a family of artists. He knows an art gallery in this working class town would have to transform the mentality of his fellow residents who shunned art.
“When we started this, people asked me ‘why do we need an art gallery here?’  They would have preferred an industrial zone with jobs than an art gallery. But I said we had to thrive not just physically, but also spiritually,” Abu Shakra says. 
About 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Arabs. Umm el-Fahm is the economic, social and religious center of the area known as the “triangle” of Arab towns around the Wadi Ara valley. Its historical past includes violent clashes with Israeli security forces.
Israelis and the international community have embraced the gallery and the concept of Palestinian art. His gallery has hosted a Yoko Ono show and annual symposiums, and has helped put Palestinian artists on the map. But that really isn’t the idea driving the museum.
“One of our biggest enemies is the boorishness - you don’t know about something so you become against it,” says Abu Shakra, who recalls the time a neighbor came to the opening with Yoko Ono, but was too embarrassed at the way he was dressed to enter.
“If they can’t look us in the eye, then we have to stoop even lower to be at their level,” Abu Shakra says. “We’ll get down on our knees, if we must, because we need to reach these people. Because without them, we don’t have any right to exist.”
Abu Shakra says the gallery has offered courses and art classes, even ballet lessons, that have succeeded in bringing in locals. “It’s hard work, you tell someone ‘Here, it’s honey, eat it.’ They didn’t believe its honey.”
Ahmad Canaan is one of a growing number of Israeli Arabs who has been able to make a living as an artist appreciates the impact the Umm el-Fahm gallery has played.
“Things are changing. Twenty years ago we didn’t have any galleries. We show our art sometimes in community centers, but in the last 15 years we have a lot of changes like the gallery in Umm el-Fahm,” says Canaan
Palestinian art has been making inroads thanks also to the Jaffa Salon for Palestinian Art in Tel Aviv where Arab artists from the Galilee, West Bank and Gaza can sell their work.
Palestinian art tends to be melancholic and often rooted in symbolism, like the olive tree. Some are explosive while others have political subtext, not always overtly expressed.
“If you see this woman in the field, an Arab woman with an embroidered dress, it could also be political, yes. But if you see the paintings of Karim Abu Shakra, you see these purple rockets. It looks nice, but he has something to say about the war on Gaza,” Canaan says. “We know our situation here inside Israel and it’s not easy. But we have a lot to say in our way. So we use art to tell our stories and our history and also our difficulties.”
Yair Rothman, co-owner of Jaffa Salon, opened the gallery as a temporary endeavor last year but kept it open due to demand. He says it was helping change the way Israelis saw Palestinians.
“Most of the people are kind of shocked, because in their imagination Palestinian people, or Arab people, are throwing stones, throwing bottles and making trouble. They didn’t realize how sensitive these people can be and how their artwork can represent their families, olive trees and things they love,” Rothman says.
Rothman says the rising interest in Palestinian art was also due to its relatively low price, which made it a good investment. But he dismissed the idea that it was a passing fad.
“It is kind of a fashion now to have any Arab artist in your house or maybe in your collection but after all this fades away you still have the art and the art is good. I don’t see it as a fad,” Rothman says.
Back in Umm el-Fahm, Abu Shakra shares his dream to build a huge museum to house Palestinian contemporary art, anchored in the photo collection and the town archives.
“We knew the cultural situation in Umm el-Fahm and most of the Arab sector was close to zero. There’s been no investment, not by the State of Israel or by us. But I’m not blaming anyone. I’m here to build,” Abu Shakra says.