I am usually wary of art exhibitions described as “dialogues” among Israelis and Arabs. Often they are less dialogues than sustained arguments, pitched shouting matches, or one-sided monologues.
But an inaugural exhibit by The Middle East Center for the Arts (MECA) at Mana Contemporary Art Center in Jersey City lived up to its billing — as a “meaningful dialogue about the Middle East through artist collaboration.”
MECA is the brainchild of Mana founder Eugene Lemay, Israeli artists Yigal Ozeri and David Wakstein, and Said Abu Shakra, an Israeli Arab artist who founded a museum of Jewish and Arab art near Haifa. It aims to turn Mana’s surprisingly bustling headquarters — a bright warren of art studios and conservation workshops inside a seemingly forbidding former factory — into a “neutral ground for artists to engage in collaborative processes.”
The plan is to invite Israelis and Arabs — Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, you name it — to collaborate on exhibitions, film screenings, and performances and “see what will emerge conceptually,” said Chen Yerushalmi, MECA’s Ra’anana-born director. “We’re not making a political point, but something that will just be. It’s an open-ended process.”
Wakstein curated “Spring, 2012,” the inaugural exhibit, bringing together over 30 works representing the range of religious and ethnic backgrounds in Israel. Wakstein is familiar with New Jersey’s Jewish community: A few years ago he established a community art project in Ofakim-Merchavim, a southern Israeli district partnered with United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. Wakstein created similar “art stations” around Israel, pairing children with established artists. “Spring, 2012” includes a large mosaic that Wakstein created out of one of those collaborations.
Mosaic is both medium and message for Wakstein, who said the individual works in the exhibit create a larger “picture” when juxtaposed with others. He points to a print by Micha Ullman, a Jew who was awarded the Israel Prize for sculpture in 2009, which hangs catty-cornered to a painting, “Soldier and Civilian,” by Asad Azi, an Israeli Arab born in the western Galilee. Paintings of shepherd children by Bedouin artist Khader Oshah stare across the gallery at Jennifer Bar-Lev’s star of David “mandalas,” themselves homages to Lady Di and the Dalai Lama.
The exhibit is “like a mosaic, where each stone is coming together — l’kabetz,” said Wakstein, using a Hebrew word meaning “to gather.” “Here we are making a new kibbutz.”
As Yerushalmi suggested, few of the pieces are overtly political — although it’s hard to view any serious piece of Israeli art or literature without trying to read between the lines or add significance that is or isn’t there. Dina Shenhav also creates mosaics, but out of painted sponge glued to cardboard. According to a catalogue of her work, her 2001 mosaic “Rest” is based on a newspaper photograph of Israeli soldiers taken during the Second Lebanon War. The soldiers’ expressions are ambiguous. “What is reflected in their eyes?” asks the catalogue. “What do their gestures conceal? Is it exhaustion? Anticipation or tension, sadness or fear, or maybe embarrassment: thoughts about home, about a friend from their unit, about a girl, about death….”
These aren’t questions about the “conflict” — or at least, they aren’t particular to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It always feels like a small victory when you can talk and think about Israel’s situation without treating it as singular, unprecedented, or uniquely cruel or complex.
Which isn’t to say that the exhibit doesn’t feel uniquely Israeli. While Yerushalmi suggested an exhibit featuring artists as varied as these would be rare in Israel itself, you can’t spend much time in Israel without bumping into reminders of its diversity — among faiths, ethnicities, races, and loyalties. The misconception held most dearly by Israel’s critics may be this: that Israel is a monoculture — white, Western, affluent, and religious — and thus culturally and historically alienated from the “indigenous” Palestinians under its thumb. Even among Israel’s Jews, however, there is a mosaic — and sometimes, a mess — of cultures, backgrounds, and classes. Creating a functioning society out of the Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Russians, and Ethiopians, not to mention their geographic and religious subgroups, is a challenge nearly as daunting as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself.
For now, anyway, MECA seems content to point to this mosaic without critique or controversy. If anything, the inaugural exhibit is a celebration of all these strands and how they influence, rather than antagonize, one another.
MECA aims to be an “inclusive environment for artists of all backgrounds to come together as a unified community.” Of course, knowing Israel, you have to ask how long that can last. At some point, you suspect, collaborations among Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Arabs, will have to turn to conflict — or at least turn to The Conflict. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. You can’t have dialogue, or negotiations, without both sides at the table. And you can’t solve the big problems if you ignore them.
Collaborations like these create the space for dialogue — in this case, brightly lit, with plenty of white space and elbow room. I hope it won’t be long before all sides start to mess it up a little.