Washington Report, January/February 2006, pages 50, 53
“Three Cities Against the Wall” Exhibit Opens in New York, Ramallah and Tel Aviv
By Robert Hirschfield
TRANSPOSED upon the Wall, in Suleiman Mansour’s Photoshop print, is Michelangelo’s hand of God and hand of Adam reaching out toward one another—only separated by a chasm, not an inch, as on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Here separation is a way of driving two entities further and further apart.
Mansour’s print is part of the “Three Cities Against The Wall” exhibit that opened Nov. 9 in Ramallah, Tel Aviv and New York. Artist Seth Tobocman, the show’s U.S. organizer, chose the New York venue: ABC No Rio, a tenement gallery on the Lower East Side that evolved from a squatters’ building into a center for art and activism.
“We knew that ABC was very independent and wouldn’t allow themselves to be prevented from doing the show,” he explained.
The idea for the show grew out of Tobocman’s meeting with Tayseer Barakat in Ramallah four years ago. Israeli artists were not included in the show’s original plans, but when Tobocman discussed the exhibit with Steven Englander, the ABC No Rio director thought it would be a good idea to have Israeli participation in the project to broaden its political scope.
“I wrote Tayseer a proposal for ”˜Three Cities Against The Wall,’” recalled Tobocman. “I chose to focus on the Wall because that was one area where the young Israeli artists I knew had proven themselves. They had been involved in actions against the Wall where people had been shot by soldiers, They were legitimate activists.”
Barakat appointed Mansour to handle outreach to the Israelis, as he was a Palestinian artist from East Jerusalem who was more easily able to travel around Israel and keep in contact with the Israeli artists.
“Suleiman has been a major figure in the resistance of Israeli artists to Palestinian occupation,” Tobocman noted.
At the show’s jammed opening in New York, neighborhood people as well as Palestinians, Israelis and Europeans viewed the works ranging from Hamadi Hijazi’s brooding oil painting of ladders with broken rungs climbing the blood red Wall into a ochre-colored sky, to a photo display by Susan Greene of little children painting the Wall with flowers, fish, and a huge yellow bird with a fiercely determined beak.
Among the crowd was Mansour himself. A white-bearded man with deepset eyes, he spoke of how the Wall throws his life as an artist into daily chaos.
“I live in East Jerusalem,” he explained, “and my studio is on the other side of the Wall, toward Ramallah. Coming back from the studio, it can take me two or three hours to get through the checkpoints.”
“I am desperate,” he said, shrugging, “but my work is not desperate.”
Mansour was jailed three times by the Israelis, he said—once for photographing a West Bank village he wanted to paint. For that he served a month in prison.
“They put sacks on my head,” he recalled. “I was beaten. I was made to stand up for long periods of time.”
Palestinian art, Mansour said, has tended to reflect the stages of the Palestinian struggle. In the years following the 1948 nakba, or catastrophe, artists painted refugees. When the Fatah party was formed in the mid-1960s, they painted fighters. During the first intifada, when the emphasis was on self-reliance and the boycotting of Israeli products, Palestinian artists stopped buying oils from Israel.
“We began using other materials,” Mansour said. “I came up with mud. I painted with the land itself.”
In the early 1970s, Mansour was one of 18 Palestinian artists who decided to unionize. They asked the Israeli military authorities for permission. It was denied.
“We went ahead and started the union anyhow,” Mansour said. “We called it Legal Palestinian Artists In The Occupied Territories.
The shipment of American art works bound for Ramallah was seized by Israeli Security at Ben-Gurion airport, Mansour told the Washington Report. The Israelis refused to release the works until the addressee in Ramallah came to claim them—a Kafkaesque excursion, given Israeli travel restrictions on Palestinians.
The “Three Cities” artists drafted a statement, part of which reads as follows: “Through this collaborative exhibition, the organizers and participating artists will draw attention to the reality of the Wall and its disastrous impact on the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians by the separation of Palestinian communities from each other and from the fertile lands, water resources, schools, hospitals, and workplaces, thereby ”˜contributing to the departure of Palestinian populations,’ as the International Court of Justice has warned.”
Robert Hirschfield is a free-lance writer based in New York.