Interviews

Two Artists Confront the Politics and Prejudice of Mourning in Israel

Copies of their posters in Jerusalem (all images courtesy the artists)
Copies of posters by Romy Achituv and Illana Sichel in English on a Jerusalem wall (all images courtesy the artists)

Earlier this month, artist Romy Achituv and writer Ilana Sichel responded to the recent bouts of violence against Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians with a poster project that uses a stark Israeli graphic language of mourning. The duo posted two sets of black-and-white posters — one set in Hebrew, another in English — in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere around Israel in an effort to commemorate two young people whose lives were tragically cut short.

Posters for the Palestinian toddler are torn down, while the posters for the Jewish Israeli teen remain.
Posters for the Palestinian toddler were torn down, while the posters for the Jewish Israeli teen remain. (click to enlarge)

What is unusual about the posters is that they remember a Jewish Israeli teen stabbed to death at the Jerusalem Pride Parade on July 30 and an 18-month-old Palestinian child who was killed in the West Bank — both by right-wing Jewish Israelis. In a land where Jewish and Palestinian communities are legally and politically separated, sometimes by force, the gesture was a poignant action that pointed to the layers of symbolic mourning on the streets of Israel and provoked the question: who is allowed to be remembered?

While most of the posters for Shira Banki, the victim of the Pride stabbing, remained on the walls, the posters for Ali Saad Dawabshe, the toddler who was burned alive, were more frequently torn down.

I spoke to the artists about their project.

   *     *    *

A man in Jerusalem reading one of the posters.
A man in Jerusalem reading one of the posters

Hrag Vartanian: What moved you to make these posters?

Ilana Sichel: A few weeks ago, on a visit to Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, my eye caught on a poster issued by the Tel Aviv Mayor’s office in 1942 announcing the tragic sinking of the Struma and the deaths of nearly 800 Jewish refugees after being refused port in Palestine and Istanbul. (Some examples are here, but since I couldn’t take a photo of it I’m not sure if the one I saw is represented.)

The poster they had on display looked strikingly similar to the traditional mourning posters seen all over Israel, especially in Jerusalem, and I was struck by the public nature of that expression of mourning, and the power of grief turned political. The posters announced that Purim celebrations were being called off and shops were closing early to honor the dead, but the mourning had a tinge of protest, too, against the Mandate authorities of Tel Aviv, the very Mandate that denied entry to the ship.

When I learned of the so-called “Price Tag” attack in Duma and the brutal arson and murder of the toddler Ali Saad Dawabshe, that poster I saw came to mind and I imagined traditional mourning notices with the baby’s name on them all over Jerusalem. I was particularly compelled by the intersection of grief and protest, and the idea that a Jewish reader might glimpse the poster with a feeling of openness and emotionality and would not, until reading it, realize that she is being asked to mourn the “other” and to condemn policies in her own society.

While there has been widespread soul searching in Israel following the arson in Duma and the stabbing at the Jerusalem Pride March the day before, there’s enormous disagreement in Israeli society about the political underpinnings of those crimes.

I made these mourning notices together with my friend, the Israeli artist Romy Achituv.

Posters in Jerusalem
Posters in Jerusalem (click to enlarge)

Romy Achituv and Ilana Sichel: As we see it, the murder of 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabshe that resulted from this so-called “Price Tag” arson is a logical extension of the violent crimes that militant settler factions have been committing for years, mostly in the West Bank, and which the Israeli government could have chosen to crack down on long ago.

We wanted to suggest to fellow Jews and Israelis that we are collectively responsible for, and implicated in, this heinous act, which is inseparable from Israel’s occupation policies, which grant Jewish criminals relative impunity, and from the growing trend of Jewish extremism here in Israel. During the first day of postering, the news broke that 16-year-old Shira Banki died of the knife wounds she incurred at the Pride March. We immediately created a second poster for her. A few days later, baby Ali’s father, 32-year-old Saad succumbed to his burns, and we created one for him as well.

Though the specific political context for [Shira] Banki’s burtal murder is different than that of the Dawabshe father and son, they have tragic commonalities: both result from extremist, messianic forms of Judaism, both could have been prevented had the justice system dealt properly with dangerous extremist elements in Israeli society; and both are underpinned by a regrettable Israeli trend toward intolerance, fundamentalism, vigilante violence, and hatred for the other.

Posters in Tel Aviv
Posters in Jerusalem

HV: Can you tell me about the design you chose and why the posters are in this specific style, without faces or other markers of identity or personality?

RA and IS: Grief, in Jerusalem, has a rich visual language. It is common in Israel, but mostly in Jerusalem, for families to post mourning notices of this particular style all around the city to announce a death. They serve both an emotional purpose and a practical purpose. Practically, they alert neighbors to a death, and often let well-wishers know where the shiva is being held. In some parts of the city, on certain walls and message boards, you can see layers upon layers of these posters. Months and months, sometimes years, of personal grief turned communal.

The idea for this project came from within the standard form of Israeli mourning notices, which is an extremely minimalist form, generally saying just a few words about the deceased with some adjectives following their name. And given that we didn’t know any of the victims, the most we could say about them was a few generalized words. And as victims of hate crimes, the scant words we could say about them are similar to how they were identified by their killers.

HV: Did you see anyone rip down the posters? If so, did you ask them why or confront them?

RA and IS: One evening when a few of us were postering in Tel Aviv for both of the children (before Saad Dawabshe died), we befriended a shop/bar owner who at first we thought was going to take down our posters. Instead, he provided us with better tape and pointed us to some prime spots on his shop windows.

Two minutes after we finished hanging up the posters and were crossing the street to our next destination, we heard a scuffle break out behind us. The shop owner was shouting after two teenage girls who took off down the street, hurling insults at them. “If you were men I would have smashed your head on the sidewalk!” he yelled. Why? They’d sauntered by his cosmetics shop and torn down the posters for the baby, not expecting to be chewed out by the brawny man on the sidewalk with a pitbull. Otherwise, we’ve only seen the aftermath: torn posters, disappeared posters. Overwhelmingly for the baby, though some of Shira’s mourning notices were torn down, too.

Posters in Jerusalem
Posters in Jerusalem

HV: How would you characterize the result of this project? Was it what you expected?

RA and IS: We didn’t quite expect how much, and how many, people wanted to be involved, whether by liking or sharing the photos on social media, joining postering efforts, or printing out posters and putting them up on their own. Though we did expect it to spread on social media, we were surprised by the tone of of people’s comments, the feeling that people shared the images because they felt they had a moral imperative to, and were almost glad to do it, because it gave them a feeling of doing something in the wake of such horror.

We were, however, really surprised when images started circulating back to us from strangers and friends, some of whom changed their profile pictures to images of the signs. We expected the American Jewish press to take an interest in the project but were surprised by how quickly, and how much, with articles in JTA and The Forward. It partially goes back to the sense we had about participants: that people wanted something to do, some way to express their own grief and distress, both on behalf of the innocent victims of these crimes, but also on their own behalf, as members of or stakeholders in this society. Other press coverage included that in the Israeli newsmagazine +972.

HV: Are you surprised by anything about this project?

RA and IS: We were surprised and really encouraged that an organization called Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights was so moved by the mourning notices that they made the PDFs a permanent resource on their website and emailed their list of 1,800 rabbis/cantors as well as their general mailing list of many thousands about the project, framing the posters as an educational resource. We’ve been contacted by many rabbis and Jewish educators expressing gratitude for the initiative. Though Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel were not the intended audience of the political message, we’ve been moved by positive responses in those communities: a woman who took four signs from me as we were hanging them, one in each language, to hang at the mixed Arab-Jewish educational institute she studies at in Jerusalem; two young men who took photos and uploaded them to Facebook.

We’re disappointed that the project has gotten little traction in the Israeli media, other than that on +972 and in personal blogs and on social media. This is, however, partially a reflection of our own press contacts, which are heavily concentrated in the US. If we could do it all over again we’d make more of a concerted effort to gain the attention of Israeli media. This was such a tiny operation, though, that there was really no time for more press outreach, especially considering that we did this in the midst of other deadlines and commitments.

The posters at the top of this post after a few days.
The posters shown at the top of this piece, a few days after being posted

HV: Why did you choose to do the project in two languages, as opposed to one or possibly three?

RA and IS: We made the posters in the two languages that traditional mourning notices generally appear in (though Hebrew signs are far, far more common), which are the two languages spoken by most Jewish Israelis and Jewish tourists in Israel. We wanted these to be legible and recognizable to Jews, and visually/linguistically consistent with the form. A commenter on the Facebook album asked why we didn’t create any in Arabic, and Ilana responded:

We actually decided not to include Arabic deliberately. Since the political message is really geared toward Jews, our language considerations were based on how to appeal to Jewish readers. We wanted to create the immediate visual impression of familiarity and sympathy, and to have the surprise of some of the posters honoring a Palestinian to come with actually reading it as opposed to disregarding it on first sight, as we fear would happen with Arabic script.

Image of Romy Achituv and Ilana Sichel's "Re-facing Jerusalem" (2009) project (image courtesy the artists)
Image of Romy Achituv and Ilana Sichel’s “Re-facing Jerusalem” (2009) project

HV: Is this part of a larger body of related work, or is this a specific, one-off project?

RA and IS: While we weren’t thinking of it as part of a body of work when we embarked on it, this project is actually our second sad Jerusalem street intervention. In 2008, we launched a project we came to call “Re-facing Jerusalem,” which sought to “repair” a rash of racist vandalism on Jerusalem’s street signs, in which the Arabic names on many of the city’s trilingual street signs were violently crossed out. Together with Arabic calligrapher Josh Berer, we climbed up on ladders and replaced the vandalized Arabic with handmade signs, like Band-Aids over a bleeding wound.

Broadly speaking, this project is consistent with the social orientation of much of Romy’s work. (Ilana is primarily a writer, not a visual artist.) Many of his recent projects respond to the current situation in Israel, such as the Garden Library for Tel Aviv’s migrant worker and refugee communities; “Krapp’s Last Tape,” after the Beckett play, which offers echoes of Israel’s existential condition, wherein a 60-something-year-old man reflects on his birthday, disillusioned by the hubris of his youth; and “The Dance,” with reflections on Israeli masculinity and collectivism. And in South Korea, where he was based until recently, much of his work has been socially engaged, some of it particularly related to grief: “Memory Stain,” an installation memorializing the 192 victims of a 2003 subway arson which the city has failed to memorialize, and “Husk and Ash” and “Jo-Gak-Bo,” two projects involving rice husk, which respond to Korean industrialization and urbanization.

HV: Do you think people would’ve reacted differently to the notices if they’d realized it is an art project? This is assuming you consider this an art project — do you?

RA and IS: We hesitate to frame this project as artistic in part because, regretfully, the place of art in society is such that designating a work as art can undermine its potency and its ability to speak to the general public. We didn’t hang these mourning notices to invite artistic evaluation or to offer an aesthetic experience, but rather to spark people to consider some burning social issues.

That said, the mourning notices project is consistent with certain strategies employed in art. It comes from the same type of thinking, the same type of approach. The notices are a kind of take on the Brechtian idea of creating work that distances the viewer from immersive experience by calling attention to the contrived nature of the medium, and in so doing opens up a space for reflection. We’re interested in that element of subversion, in the way that throwing a twist in the familiar can express and reveal a different point of view. As an example of how this strategy works, this project aims to draw in the public through the common form of the mourning notice, only to undermine their expectations. The political message is delivered through this twist.

comments (0)