Lots of Palestinian crafts were on view in the West Bank: textiles in the Hebron market, hand-blown glass and ceramics on the way out of town. In Nablus, shoemakers, soap manufacturers and bakers worked away on semi-automated equipment that must have been Ottoman. Absent the demolished buildings and ruined squares, the old parts of the city could have been a theme park.
There was also community art in unlikely places: in the Aida Refugee Camp outside Bethlehem I visited Al Rowwad Center, which began with theater and has expanded into dance, visual arts, and computer training for children and programs for women. Its director, Abdelfattah Abusrour, spoke eloquently about wanting to give the latest generations of refugee children a way to express themselves and to “remain attached to the human values we share.” He called his program “Beautiful Resistance.”
When I asked him about collaborating across borders he answered only with examples of difficulties. A play he’d co-written with Americans Naomi Wallace and Lisa Schlesinger was said to support terrorism before it was even produced. An exhibition of paintings by the refugee camp’s children curated by an Israeli student was taken down by a university museum shortly after it went up.
Another tourist mentioned a prize competition that pulled Larissa Sansour’s funding for a piece called Nation Estate. In the proposed work, Sansour had imagined Palestinian cities squeezed so small that they’re single floors in a skyscraper; you’d go by elevator from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. After traveling between the two, I thought the idea was funny, and possibly an improvement on the existing system of segregated roads and checkpoints. Back in the U.S. I heard about another short-lived U.S. exhibition including both Palestinian and Israeli artists including Sigalit Landau, whose Barbed Hula is a video of herself hula hooping on a Tel Aviv beach with barbed wire.
What is art for? To decorate walls? Romanticize what is? Naturalize power? Make visible another’s experience? Express trauma? Imagine a different world? Unsettle the givens of this one?
In Jerusalem I joined a community art tour given by the Muslala group of artists and activists. They work out of a repurposed bomb shelter on the seam line between east and west Jerusalem. Irit, the Israeli guide, took us to see the sometimes subtle interventions the group has made in the built environment of this transitional zone.
She asked whether a sprinkling of arabic-inspired flowers decorating a European styled housing complex was a naive or critical gesture. But when people on the tour started talking about history and architecture, an American said that this was not the place for that kind of discussion.
Irit showed us a rebuilt staircase that reconnects the Arabic and Israeli parts of the city. And a lemon tree–important to Palestinian families, someone said–grafted onto a Eucalyptus, a species that’s been used to drain swamps in Israel. “Is it working?” Irit asked. Is the “Lemonyptus” alive?
On the road back to Tel Aviv, Fred pointed out a detention camp. Then came corporate office buildings, a military complex, malls, lively streets and pleasant neighborhoods with one-story houses that reminded me of vintage California bungalows.
My hotel was a repurposed movie theater in the soft Bauhaus style that makes parts of Tel Aviv feel like leafy european neighborhoods. It’s not far from the site of another suicide bombing near Dizengoff center. In the hotel lobby, a film of Charlie Chaplin as the Great Dictator was looping over and over. No one watched. Outside, Arab shops sold humous and falafel. I strolled down Rothschild Boulevard and checked out the inscrutable graffiti on Sheinkin that conference art historians had told me about.
On St. George’s Street I ran into an Israeli “Stop the Occupation” protest; there were drummers, chanters, clowns and sign-bearers. They looked enthusiastic, marching in support of Palestinian rights. I found my way back to the hotel. In Tel Aviv, my maps worked.
As a tour guide, I try to keep Duchamp’s idea in mind, that the viewer completes the work of art. I wonder whether the tourist passing through a place has an analogous role and what it might be. To consume what the place offers? To represent it? Tag it? To bear witness? Are we responsible for what we see?