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Naomi Safran-Hon has — by her own admission — terrible taste in music, which explains how she became a regular listener of Israel’s trashiest radio station, Galgalatz. That was until last summer, when the army-sponsored station began airing missile alerts whenever a Hamas rocket was launched toward Israel. The recurring sirens made it impossible to concentrate on work, so Safran-Hon switched to podcasts. When we meet in her Brooklyn studio, our backdrop is another cataclysm of violence in our homeland. It’s again hard to concentrate. I ask her whether she follows the news from home. “I do, although I really try not to,” she answers, and hears me echo her response when she returns the question.
Escapism, however, is the last thing that Safran-Hon’s work offers. In her Wadi Salib series, the painter presents a unique use of cement: she glues photographs of abandoned Palestinian homes onto canvas, draws on them, and guts parts with a Stanley knife. She then stitches lace along the backs of the empty frames, through which she casts wet cement. The unusual meeting between cement and lace, between dismal brutalism and domestic tenderness, defines Safran-Hon’s images, a number of which are currently on view in her solo show at the Silber Art Gallery at Goucher College.
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Hakim Bishara: Cement plays a central role in the history of Zionism, being the base material for the construction of the new Jewish state. How did it become a leitmotif in your work?
Naomi Safran-Hon: In 2007, I had a life-changing tour of the West Bank. It made me realize for the first time that Israel has no intention to allow Palestinians a state of their own — it only wants to annex as much land as it can. I came back with many photos of the separation wall and of refugee camps, and they were all full of concrete. After a few unsuccessful attempts to draw the wall, I decided to mount it physically onto canvas. Instead of seeing a representation, you see actual concrete.
HB: Later on, you started working with images of abandoned Palestinian homes in the Arab Wadi Salib neighborhood in Haifa. More than 60,000 Palestinians were expelled from Haifa in the late ’40s. How did you deal with the realization that your hometown was in fact a site of ethnic cleansing?
NSH: Well, that’s why I’m not there anymore. The conflict has been a daily routine since ’48. It hasn’t changed. I was brought up on the notion that the Israeli occupation started only after the ’67 war, with the annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. I know now that it isn’t true.
HB: Is it possible that your choice to puncture and deform the images of those ghost houses comes from a difficulty in confronting their reality?
NSH: I couldn’t just contend with still photography. I didn’t want to present “ruin porn.” Content-wise, by cutting these images and deforming them, I reconstruct them. I literally stich the stories inside of them and bring back those people who are absent from the image. I destroy the photographic image in order to build a painting, a narrative.
HB: And yet, you couldn’t resist shoving cement into those old houses …
NSH: As Israelis, we have a special regard for cement. Florescent lights and bare, grey concrete walls are reminiscent of my country. In a way, I created a sample of home. Lace allows me to weave domestic space into the brutal aggression of the outside world. Cement cannot hold itself alone; it usually needs an iron net to hold it. That net in my work is lace. The two materials, lace and cement, complement each other until they start changing attributes — concrete becomes flexible, while lace becomes rigid. It’s symbolic of our lives in Israel, in the sense that it’s impossible to separate the personal from the political.
HB: You’ve been away from home for more than a decade, finishing two university degrees in the US, a bachelor’s degree at Brandeis and MFA at Yale. What’s the shape of your longing now, with all this distance?
NSH: I call myself a “self-inflected exile.” My exile to America emanates from privilege, though. I can return home at any time, as opposed to Palestinians who cannot. I just didn’t want to be part of the terrible things done in my name in Israel. Besides, discomfort is always helpful for art, as the cliché goes. I’m still an Israeli: I have an accent and my diet is still Mediterranean. However, I wouldn’t be able to do the work I do today had I stayed in Israel.
HB: State censorship and political persecution of artists are increasing in Israel. Many artists choose to err on the side of safety.
NSH: It’s not a matter of state censorship. Living there mingles the present and the past. Living through the conflict on a daily basis makes work complicated. Here in the US, I can make that separation between my daily life and my subject matter.
HB: Let’s get concrete: do you still believe in the two-state solution?
NSH: No. [laughs] I respect the Palestinians’ national aspirations, but do I think it will happen? No. I don’t think Israel ever intended to allow it, not even in the Oslo Accords, which turned out to be a hoax.
HB: So what option is there left for an Israeli Jew reaching the conclusion that the establishment of Israel in ’48 was the cardinal sin? Should all Jews just leave the country?
NSH: No, I think the Palestinian refugees should be allowed to return to their houses if they still want to … I don’t know. First we must acknowledge what really happened and then try to live together. Had the Zionist project started a hundred years earlier, while colonialism was still in fashion, they would’ve gotten away with it …
HB: But it worked anyway.
NSH: Not completely …
HB: Oh, you mean exterminating us [Palestinians] all?
NSH: Yes, you know, like the Americans did here.
HB: You would’ve done us a huge favor.
NSH: True. [briefly laughs]
Naomi Safran-Hon: House Without Home continues at the Silber Art Gallery at Goucher College (Sanford J. Ungar Athenaeum, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Baltimore) through April 3.