US, Israeli and Palestinian Artists Unite Across Borders

by Robert Hirschfield

Transposed upon the face of the famous Wall, in the photo-shop print by Suleiman Mansour, is Michaelangelo’s hand of God and hand of Adam reaching toward one another—only separated by a chasm, not a inch, as on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Mansour’s print is part of the Three Cities Against The Wall exhibit that began Nov. 9 in Ramallah, Tel Aviv and New York. The New York site, ABC NO RIO, a gallery in an old tenement building on the Lower East Side that evolved from a squat into a center for art and activism, was chosen by artist Seth Tobocman, the primary organizer of the show in the US.

“We knew that ABC was very independent, and wouldn’t allow themselves to be prevented from doing the show,” he said.

The idea for the show grew out of Tobocman’s meeting with artist Tayseer Barakat in Ramallah four years ago. Israeli artists were not included in their original plans, but when Tobocman discussed the show with Steven Englander, the director of ABC NORIO, he thought it would be good to have Israeli participation in the project to broaden its political scope.

“I wrote Tayseer a proposal for Three Cities Against The Wall. 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 the Wall where people had been shot by the soldiers. They were legitimate activists.”

Barakat appointed Mansour as his outreach person 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,” said Tobocman, “has been a major figure in the resistance of Palestinian artists to Israeli occupation.”

At the show’s opening in New York—jammed with neighborhood people, as well as Palestinians, Israelis, Europeans—the works displayed ranged from Hamadi Hijazi’s brooding oil painting of ladders with broken rungs climbing the blood red Wall into an ochre-colored sky, to a photo display by American artist Susan Greene of little children painting the Wall with flowers, with fish, with green and red streaks, with a huge yellow bird, its beak pointing skyward.

Suleiman Mansour was among the crowd. A white-bearded man with deep set eyes, he spoke of how the Wall throws his life as an artist into daily chaos.

“I live in East Jerusalem, and my studio is on the other side of the Wall, towards Ramallah. Coming back from the studio, it can take me two or three hours to get through the checkpoints.”

He shrugged. “I am desperate,” he said, “but my work is not desperate.” He was jailed three times by the Israelis, once for photographing a West Bank village he wanted to paint. He was imprisoned a month for that.

“They put sacks on my head. I was beaten. I was made to stand up for long periods of time.”

Palestinian art, he said, has tended to reflect the stages of the Palestinian struggle. In the years following the Nakba, artists painted refugees. When the Fatah was formed in the mid-sixties, 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. I came up with mud. I painted with the land itself.”

In the early ’70s, Mansour was one of eigtheen Palestinian artists who decided to form a union. They asked the Israeli military authorities for permission. It was denied.

“We went ahead and started our union anyhow. We called it Legal Palestinian Artists in the Occupied Territories.”

Mansour related that the shipment of American art works bound for Ramallah was seized by Israeli security at the airport in Tel Aviv. They refused to release the works until the addressee in Ramallah came to claim them. A Kafkaesque excursion, given Israeli travel restrictions.

The artists involved in the Three Cities exhibit drafted a statement. Part of it 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 work places, thereby ‘contributing to the departure of Palestinian populations’, as the International Court of Justice has warned.”


This story originally appeared in the January issue of Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Three Cities Against the Wall page, ABC NO RIO website


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Feb. 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution