A Photo Exhibition About Israel and the West Bank that Chooses Sides

Detail of
Detail of Frédéric Brenner’s “The Hatuel Family” (2012) (all photographs Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

On the heels of last Saturday’s protest at the Brooklyn Museum, a more careful examination of one of the two exhibitions targeted by the protesters is in order. This Place, a photography exhibition about Israel and the West Bank, was presented in Prague, Tel Aviv, and Palm Beach, Florida, before landing down at its current destination in Brooklyn. As the title of this essay suggests, I am not intending to write an art review per se but rather to examine and critique the show’s vision and how it projects that vision.

My interest was first piqued several months ago when I came upon a February 14 article about This Place in the New York Times entitled “Seeing Israel as Place and Metaphor.” Twelve photographers had been commissioned to create work for the exhibition: Frédéric Brenner, Wendy Ewald, Martin Kollar, Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Gilles Peress, Fazal Sheikh, Stephen Shore, Rosalind Fox Solomon, Thomas Struth, Jeff Wall, and Nick Wapplinger. Only Brenner, whose work focuses on the Jewish diaspora, was an unfamiliar name to me.

A portion of the exhibition invites visitors to provide feedback and post it on a specially created section.
A portion of the exhibition invites visitors to provide feedback and post it on a specially created section.

The Times article, by Arthur Lubow, is in fact a profile of Brenner and the project.  Brenner conceived it, raised funds, hired staff, coordinated its execution, and, once the project was underway, decided to include his own work. The article suggests that while Brenner called the shots, he was willing to bend when pressed by some of the photographers. Originally, for example, the West Bank was not included. The article does not say whether anyone pressed Brenner to include Gaza, nor does it explain the latter’s absence from the show.

Also absent from the show, amid the roster of internationally acclaimed photographers, are any local artists. Midway through the project Brenner did attempt to include a few local photographers.  However, as Lubow writes, “he could find willing Israelis but no Palestinians would collaborate.” Neither Lubow nor Brenner explain that in 2006, a large majority of Palestinian cultural workers called upon international artists and filmmakers to join them in the boycott against Israeli cultural and academic institutions that receive funding from the State of Israel — part of a larger movement known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). The existence of the BDS movement might well explain Palestinian artists’ unwillingness to participate in an exhibition destined for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, among other venues.

Another explanation for Palestinian artists’ refusal to participate in the project might be its impresario’s desire to exclude certain approaches to the subject:

“‘I knew one thing would disqualify a photographer — anger,’ he said. ‘It was important to look at Israel without complacency but with compassion. I believe art has a power to address questions that an ideological perspective cannot.’”

I was jarred by Brenner’s implication that anger lies outside the domain of art, and within the domain of ideology. “Divisive specifics” and “the fractures in Israeli and Palestinian society” are mentioned in the article, but absent is any mention of occupied territories, illegal settlements, home demolitions, evictions, or human rights violations. Would mentioning these undisputed features of the past and present of ‘this place’ be considered by Brenner to be ideological?

In other words, I was concerned by the lack of historical context in the article. Would my concerns be borne out by the exhibition itself?

By way of disclosure, I am a curator who has focused most of my attention since the 1980s on work that fuses political and conceptual content with a poetic sensibility. Particularly relevant to This Place are two photo-based shows I organized. The Power of Words: An Aspect of Recent Documentary Photography was presented at PPOW Gallery in 1991, and Framing and Being Framed:  The Uses of Documentary Photography in 2008 at Wesleyan University’s Zilkha Gallery, where I was curator. The latter examined how contemporary visual artists and photographers use their work to comment on traditional assumptions about documentary photography in order to encourage viewers to grapple with issues of context, subjectivity, and interpretation. Artists included Perry Bard, Matthew Buckingham, Wendy Ewald, Koto Ezawa, Eric Gottesman, Alfredo Jaar, Emily Jacir, An-My Lê, Susan Meiselas, and Ann Messner. I also curated a solo show of Alfredo Jaar’s work presented at Zilkha Gallery in 2005, which contained three works: a film, a video installation and a series of digital prints, and included him in another show called Tainted Landscapes, also at Zilkha Gallery. Two questions posed by Jaar’s work are relevant here: Can suffering be evoked metaphorically? And how does text or its absence influence what we see?

I have now seen This Place three times. Indeed, what I read between the lines of the Times profile is borne out in the show. The exhibition design, introductory wall texts, and most of the photographs themselves work hard to keep politics at bay. Only a few of the photographers push back against the attempt to keep things on the level of what Brenner calls “the human condition,” i.e., to exclude political and historical context. The exhibition remains largely mute about the latter, so one is unlikely to leave the Brooklyn Museum better informed about Israel-Palestine than when one arrived.

Jeff Wall's large photograph greets visits to the This Place exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
Jeff Wall’s large photograph greets visits to the This Place exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.

One enters the exhibition through a small room, a kind of vestibule that contains introductory wall text and a single large photograph by Jeff Wall, the only work by him in the exhibition. Because of its location, Wall’s photograph can’t help but function as an introduction to the show. Titled “Daybreak,” it depicts a group of Bedouin olive pickers sleeping outdoors on the road of a farm, which, according to the catalogue, is near Mitzpe Ramon. Beyond the olive grove is a large prison. The wall text informs us that the Bedouins, a traditionally nomadic Arabic people, have lived in the Negev for centuries. As Lubow wrote in the Times, “To [Wall], it is not a picture about Israeli politics. ‘I decided I was going to treat Israel like any other place,’ he said. ‘Some men sleep outside under the stars, and some men sleep underground in a prison. It’s like a haiku. That’s true everywhere.’” What does it mean to treat ‘this place’ “like any other place”? For the purposes of this show, it evidently means one does not say that about 80,000 of the 92,000 Palestinian Bedouins were expelled in 1948 from the land they inhabited in what is now Israel, that their homes and livestock were destroyed, and that evictions and home demolitions continue today. It also means one needn’t mention anything about the two prisons located in Mitzpe Ramon, one a prison for “security” (political) prisoners, the other mixing Palestinian political prisoners, along with some convicted criminals. Wall observes in the catalogue that he was “struck by the freedom of the workers to sleep out under the sky while there are thousands of people sleeping in cells underground just a half a mile away.” I am struck by the chilling irony of the word “freedom,” not least because most of the farmland in the area pictured has been either bought or leased from the State of Israeli by Jewish Israelis, making the Bedouins, in effect, migrant workers on land that was confiscated from them.

Wall’s image, which is not a staged tableau, as most of his work has been, is indeed haunting, but the exhibition’s concealment of the facts about the land and the people depicted in it offers primarily an aesthetic experience for the viewer. As New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote in a slightly different context recently: “What about beauty? Will magnificent objects suffer if they are found to have unbeautiful back stories?” And it is exactly the tendency to aestheticize a highly charged landscape — in effect, to silence it — that sums up, for me, what is problematic about a major part of this undertaking.

A view of part of Wendy Ewald's contribution to the project.
A view of part of Wendy Ewald’s contribution to the project.

Wendy Ewald and Fazal Sheikh must be singled out here. Their work does provide historical context via the text with which they accompany their photographs. Together, they unwittingly provide a critique of the project as a whole. As we learn from the wall text in Ewald’s part of the exhibition, her pioneering process emphasizes collaboration, participation, and self-representation. She engages in discussion with her subjects about their lives and the language of photography, distributes cameras, and provides basic photo instruction. Community members choose their subjects and take pictures of things that are important to them. For This Place she worked with fourteen different communities in Israel and the West Bank, including Israelis in Tel Aviv, Jewish stall owners in Jerusalem, sixth graders in Nazareth, gypsy children, women elders in East Jerusalem, Bedouins, and Druze. The installation consists of small, postcard-size photos and texts installed on shelves in window-like frames, each frame representing a different community. The richness and diversity of the collective images are reinforced with brief but starkly factual historical narratives. (Part of a typical narrative reads, “Since the Six Day War the gypsies have become stateless; they hold Jordanian passports and Israeli IDs, but they don’t have the customary rights of citizens of either country.”) Together the images and texts reveal the causes and effects of the wrenching upheavals experienced by many of the communities, as well as the strength that has allowed them and some of their traditions to survive.

Detail of Fazal Sheikh, “Desert Bloom” (2011) (click to enlarge)
Detail of Fazal Sheikh, “Desert Bloom” (2011) (click to enlarge)

Fazal Sheikh’s  “Desert Bloom,” comprises 48 aerial views of the Negev Desert arranged in a grid, four images high by twelve across. (Note: This Place uses the Jewish Israeli name for the desert — Negev — as opposed to the Palestinian name — Naqab — thus subtly reinforcing a point of view via nomenclature.) While the coloration of the photographed desert is similar across the grid, each image bears different markings, which in effect are scars of the desert’s history and transformation since 1948. An accompanying brochure provides extensively researched accounts of the histories embedded in each aerial view from ancient times to the present. In the brochure we learn, for example, that one of the photographs shows an afforestation project of the Jewish National Fund, in preparation for which the homes of three families of the al-Turi tribe were demolished and the families expelled. The brochure describes numerous other home demolitions, evacuations, evictions, and expulsions of Bedouins and their livestock, as well as militarization, industrialization, and Israel’s extensive afforestation program to “make the desert bloom.”

Interestingly, Sheikh’s catalogue interview, with its intellectual rigor, critical analysis, and openness, was conducted not by the exhibition curator but by Shela Sheikh, a professor in the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, an editor of the individual monographs published for each photographer, and a cousin of Fazal Sheikh. Among the topics they discuss is the need to contextualize his photographs and, by implication, others as well in an exhibition of this nature; the underbelly of “desert bloom” and its potentially negative long-term impact on the natural ecosystem; and how colonialism is inscribed in the desert landscape. Alas, very few museum visitors will read the catalogue; even fewer will see the monographs or, for that matter, his exhibition brochure.

 Stephen Shore, “Hebron” (2010)
Stephen Shore, “Hebron” (2010)

As I said, the presentation of the work of Ewald and Sheikh are exceptions. More typical is a photograph by Stephen Shore, titled “Hebron,” (the Hebrew name for al-Khalīl) which depicts a row of shuttered storefronts in the eponymous West Bank city.  Nowhere is there any mention of the events that led to the shuttering of these shops on Hebron’s Shuhada Street, depicted in Shore’s image. It had been one of the busiest commercial centers in the Old City of Hebron. The street was lined with small shops whose Palestinian owners often lived upstairs. All that changed in 1994, after American-born Jewish extremist Baruch Goldstein massacred worshippers at Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 Palestinians and injuring 125 more. In response, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) began shutting down the street — to Palestinians.

Today, Shuhada Street is a ghost town. The doors of the shops that used to line the street are welded shut and defaced with racist graffiti. The few Palestinians who still live there are banned from parts of Shuhada Street. As a result they are forced to use back doors or rooftops to reach their homes. Only Israeli Jewish settlers are allowed to walk there freely. The photograph is beautiful, but without knowing the back story a viewer might reasonably assume the shot was taken early in the morning before the shops were open. Contrary to what Brenner believes, the silence surrounding this and so many of the other photographs in the show is a silence that chooses sides by remaining mute about unequivocal injustice. As Herbert Marcuse said, “The truth of art lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality to define what is real.”

I do not ultimately hold the photographer, Stephen Shore, responsible for this omission. It is important to clarify here that it is the responsibility of the curator to provide context for a group exhibition. In this case, however, it seems that Brenner, the initiator of the project, assumed a curatorial role as well. Curators choose artists to convey the concept or point of view of a show.  Sometimes, the artist’s intended meaning of a work is not necessarily that of the curator. But curators can create resonances that reinforce their own intent by juxtaposing the work with other works. A curator’s vision for a show encourages viewers to make certain kinds of connections.  Wall text and captions reinforce that vision and those connections. In This Place, the artists’ own words are occasionally selected to reinforce the organizer’s vision. For example, Josef Koudelka is quoted in the text that accompanies “Wall,” his dark and powerful work about the separation wall: “One day, while we were walking along the Wall, I saw a graffiti that said ‘One Wall, two prisons.’ That sums up how I was feeling.” Whatever Koudelka’s intention may have been, this remark of his, selected by the curator and contextualized by its surroundings, implies that everyone is equally imprisoned.

In the catalogue’s afterword Brenner writes of the “metaphorical Israel, the place that gave birth to the notion that a particular territory can hold out promise to humanity, an idea that has shaped global history from the Crusades, to the founding of America, to the revolt against colonialism.” The metaphorical Israel Brenner invokes is indeed appealing. The real one less so. The same may be said of the Crusades and the founding of America. The rhetoric of America’s founding documents is lofty and egalitarian, but America as a historical entity was built on slavery, the genocide of its native population, and the confiscation of their land.

As for a particular territory holding out a promise to humanity, evidently not included in that category are the Palestinians who were forced off their land in 1948 and whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed and continue to be today.  Nor are the Bedouins who were evicted from their communities and continue to be. Home demolitions for both these groups are still widespread in the region to make way in many cases for more illegal settlements. And what of the thousands of African asylum-seekers who are kept in detention centers in the Negev, surrounded by barbed-wire fences?

According to Brenner, “Israel is a place of radical otherness, where every single person is an other for someone else.” But it seems to me that in Israel some people are more “other” than others. Nowhere in the exhibition itself is the critical distinction made between the rights granted to Israelis and Israeli Jewish settlers, and the far more restricted rights granted all those upon whom otherness has been thrust. Nowhere are we reminded that the latter are governed by a system frequently compared to South African apartheid — a system in which their rights are violated on a daily basis, with little or no legal recourse. I think the metaphor of Israel is quite different depending on whether the Israeli in question is a Palestinian or a Jew.

I agree with Brenner that art has the power to address questions central to the human condition. But we sharply diverge on what those questions are. For me, social justice and its lack are not to be expelled, if you will, from the territory of art. As William Carlos Williams put it:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

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