No politics, please

From the archive (legacy material)

Dana Gilerman | Haaretz | 1 May 2003

A controversial award-winning artist, accusations of censorship, and a resignation. And the Tel Aviv Museum says it wants to keep politics out of art.
What did members of the Gottesdiener Prize committee at the Tel Aviv Museum expect last year when they awarded the prestigious prize to artist Ahlam Shibli? The $10,000 Nathan Gottesdiener Prize for an Israeli Artist is awarded annually and includes a solo exhibition at the museum. It was clear beforehand that Shibli, a political artist, would not forgo any part of her critical worldview for this exhibition, nor her concern with the lives of Arabs in Israel. Evidently what earned her the prize also created the inevitable rift between Shibli and curator Ulrich Loock, and the museum. The dispute developed as a prelude to her exhibition, “Goter” [a Negev Bedouin term; a corruption of “go there,” i.e., go live where we tell you to], which opened last Friday at the museum, and ended with Loock’s resignation from the Gottesdiener Prize committee.
Loock, a respected international curator who has served as one of the judges on the committee for the last five years, resigned after the museum censored, he says, an entire segment from the text he wrote for the exhibition catalog. The segment dealt with the history of the Negev Bedouin and their rights to the land. “I got the impression, after this move, that the committee could go on to censor, for political reasons, good work that might be submitted for its review. I wasn’t prepared to continue working in such a place,” says Loock, explaining his resignation. The museum chose not to respond to the allegations.
Even if it wasn’t precisely censorship, but merely text editing, Loock says no one from the museum tried to talk it over with him. He adds the censored segment was an essential part of the exhibition. Indeed, he said as much at the award ceremony held last Friday: Without disclosing the dispute or mentioning his decision to resign, he hinted at his dissatisfaction. “It may be that you’ll sense some lack of background about the exhibition, but that will be forthcoming in an article to be published in the future, elsewhere,” he said.
In response to allegations made by the museum, to the effect that the text was full of errors, he emphasizes that his research relied on, among other things, published articles by professionals. “They said there were mistakes, but they were unwilling to provide details,” he says. Loock surmised that the response was related to the use of loaded words like “the conquered Negev” and “poisoned fields,” and submitted a revised version in which the word “conquest” was replaced by “rule,” and “poisoned” with “sprayed.” The museum didn’t accept that version either.
“This time it was obvious to me that the museum, as an art institution, didn’t want to link art with history and politics,” he says. Among the sections deleted was a quote from Moshe Dayan published in Haaretz in 1963, which seems to have prefigured Shibli’s photographs: “The Bedouin have to be made into urban workers – although it’s a drastic transition. The point is that the Bedouin won’t be living on his land with his flocks, but will be an urban dweller who comes home in the afternoon and puts on his slippers. His children will get used to a father who wears trousers, doesn’t carry a shabariyya [dagger], and isn’t picking off lice in public.
“They’ll go to school with their hair neatly parted. It will be a revolution, but it can be done in two generations. Not by force, but with direction from the government, this artifact called `Bedouin’ will disappear.”
Loock wasn’t prepared to accept the argument that a work of art has no connection with the context in which it was created. “All art criticism in recent years connects works of art with other fields,” he says. “The link creates context and contributes to an understanding of the work.” After he sent a few letters of protest to the museum and received no reply, he says, he decided to resign.
`Arik eats children’
This example brings home the problems inherent in winning an establishment prize. One need not go as far as the case of Moshe Gershuni – who refused to attend the official state ceremony to accept his Israel Prize for Art, a step that prompted the education minister to retract his prize – to understand that the ideology of the artist is different than that of the establishment. Sometimes one even contradicts the other. It appears as if both sides here – the committee, and Shibli – were overly naive in not anticipating this inevitable clash.
Anyone who is familiar with how museums in Israel are run knows that they try not to tangle with the establishment that funds them. For that same reason, a series of paintings by David Reeve captioned “Arik eats children” was omitted from an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum. Everyone who knows Shibli’s work knows it cannot be separated from her ideology, nor can its critique of the establishment be neutralized.
In her exhibition “Unrecognized,” Shibli documented daily life in Arab A-Na’im, a village not recognized by the authorities, where conditions reflect that fact. About six months ago at the Acre Festival, she showed photographs from the lives of the Arabs of Acre’s old city, most of whom are unemployed and living in poverty and squalor. Shibli’s photographs don’t portray drama, but bring home the trivialities of the everyday. The neglect and the discrimination – the frame in which she photographs – resonates throughout. Loock notes that when Shibli was selected, the committee implied to him that his role was to guide the artist in a documentary direction and avoid politics. “I wasn’t able to,” he says.
Explaining what is routine
In the current exhibition, Shibli criticizes the establishment for its attitude to the Negev Bedouin. For about a year, she documented the lives of the residents of seven recognized towns built by the state and various unrecognized villages. Forty of the photographs in the exhibition document day-to-day living and convey an acute distinction, says Shibli, between “home,” as in home and homeland, and “house,” a structure one occupies without a sense of belonging. Nor does the current exhibition contain drama. Shibli documented the routine, not of houses being razed or children fleeing as the fields were sprayed. All of that was supposed to appear in Loock’s text, which was to have given the viewer additional information to round out the picture. “A documentary photograph needs a text to locate the viewer in a specific place and explain its uniqueness vis-a-vis other places in the world that look just like it,” says Loock. “The photograph itself cannot say that. That’s why the text is so important. Its absence opens the way to understanding the photographs incorrectly. My goal as curator wasn’t to criticize Israel, but to give the viewer the relevant information about the work.”
Loock adds that his resignation wasn’t done as an act of protest. “The public has to decide whether it wants a museum that is willing to present only certain things, or a museum that is willing to deal also with sensitive subjects that are connected with the social, political, and public agenda,” he says. “To my regret, I found out there’s no place for that. On a personal level, I find it unfortunate, because it was important to me to be involved in the local scene, but it’s sad also to see Israeli society ostracize Shibli – an artist who tries to create a meaningful dialogue with the Jewish Israeli public.”
Shibli also came out strongly against the censorship. She sees the excision of the text as a concrete demonstration that the establishment can be liberal and democratic so long as the individual doesn’t rebel or speak out in a way different from what is expected of him. She says that the dispute makes clear who is permitted to speak and who is not, and cites a chapter called “The Conquest of Be’er Sheva and the Negev,” in a book entitled “El Hanegev: hamishim shnot hesegim bebe’er sheva vehanegev” (“To the Negev: Fifty Years of Achievements in Be’er Sheva and the Negev,” Lidan, 1998).
“When [the establishment] uses the term `conquest’ that way, it’s legitimate because, from the Jews’ standpoint, the word has no negative connotation,” she says. “But someone who isn’t part of the establishment isn’t permitted to say it. There are words that I, as an Arab, am prohibited from using. It’s worrisome that an identity is forced on a person and they don’t want to listen to who he really is. The establishment doesn’t want to accept someone who tries to be a free human being and define himself. They want to erase that and redefine the person from scratch. I insisted that the press release say that I am a Palestinian resident of Israel, and they changed it to `Palestinian Israeli.’ It’s not a question of a territory or a state, but of a cultural identity. None of that contradicts my Israeli citizenship. I see myself as a citizen of the State of Israel.”