Interviews

Curator of Israeli Exhibit Stolen Arab Art Explains It Is a “Hostage-Taking Situation”

An exhibition in Tel Aviv is reputedly using works by leading Arab artists without their permission, and the curators say they’re doing so deliberately to provoke a conversation around the topic of boycott.

Omer Krieger at the opening of Stolen Arab Art (via 1:1 Facebook page)

Stolen Arab Art, a new exhibition that opened on Thursday at the 1:1 Center for Art and Politics in Tel Aviv has proven to have a very literal title. The exhibition features four video works by two world-renowned Arab artists exhibited without their knowledge or consent. The artists are not credited for their works in the gallery space or in the exhibition’s press release, but visitors have recognized portions of Walid Raad’s The Atlas Group project (1989–2004) and Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades (2010–2015) in the videos on display.

That is all part of a deliberate “performative action,” according to exhibition curator and 1:1 artistic director Omer Krieger. “We are acutely aware of this act of expropriation,” it reads in the press release after borrowing from French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s 1840 What is Property? as an epigraph. “We chose not to publish the artists’ names, on the assumption that they would not want for their work to be shown in Israel, as part of the Arab and International Cultural Boycott of Israel, and with the aim of not foisting an undesired cooperation upon them, so as to shield them from criticism and accusations of treason in their countries of origin.”

The poster for the exhibition (image courtesy omerkrieger.org)

Whether it was intended as a publicity stunt or a genuine attempt to cross borders and to expose the Israeli public to Arab art, the exhibition has already garnered a good deal of publicity within and outside Israel. A video published on social media captures the opening reception escalating into shouts between opponents and proponents of the show. Raida Adun, a Palestinian artist who attended the opening, confronts the curator with her opinion: “This is beyond shameless. It is a total lack of respect to artists who have never given their consent to this. You are endangering those artists’ lives and careers.” She is then seen arguing with Adi Englman, who is the director of Hasharon 4 complex in Israel. Another local artist adds: “You are committing violence here. I would not have agreed to showing my works without my consent, even as an Israeli artist. The only political power I possess as an artist are the works I produce.” Others have called to boycott the exhibition. The Israeli art magazine TOHU called the project “despicable” in an editorial and asked the public “not to cooperate with its organizers.”

Artist Raida Adun confronting the curator of Stolen Arab Art at the gallery (via the 1:1 video)

On the phone from Tel Aviv, Krieger dismisses the criticism towards his project as ramblings of “the old impotent left.”

“They’re frustrated that their art isn’t bringing any change. And some of the reactions on social media were downright Trumpian. I’m proud of what we did,” he told Hyperallergic.

Krieger, a central figure in Tel-Aviv’s art scene, is best known for his work as the artistic director of the Under the Mountain art festival in Jerusalem between the years 2011–2015. The project, which was funded by government agencies and politically right-leaning patrons, was criticized for art-washing the conflicted and violent reality of the city.

For this new exhibition, Krieger originally wanted to include the works of 10 leading Arab artists. But when but when he tried to reach out to those artists more than two years ago, he was either rejected or ignored. The decision to show Raad and Shawky’s videos without their consent came after a Palestinian artist from Gaza withdrew from an exhibition at the gallery out of fear of Hamas. Those political obstacles, claims Krieger, propelled him to proceed with his projects with or without the artists’ consent.

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Hyperallergic: What point are you trying to make by stealing the works of non-consenting artists?

Omer Krieger: The idea is first of all to show the works to an audience that hasn’t seen them before. But this is also a political performance. Everyone who comes to the exhibition is complicit in the theft. We also want to examine the idea of ownership and authorship in art. The idea of intellectual property is worth rethinking. Art should not be a rare commodity kept in the vaults of collectors.

H: I feel that this is more about politics than about intellectual property.

OK: This is also an act to challenge BDS[, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement]. I support an economic boycott but not a cultural one. Artists are usually the people fighting for democracy. To lump all Israelis together in one group would be a mistake. It weakens the opposition against the Israeli right-wing government.

H: The BDS claims to target state funded projects rather than individuals. Its declared purpose is to encourage citizens of Israel, like you, to exert more pressure at their government to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories.    

OK: The Israeli government should be pressured, but not by a cultural boycott. It is hard to distinguish sometimes between BDS and plain hatred towards Israelis. There were people who refused to appear with me on international stages although I had projects that were not funded by the Israeli government.

H: Will you take down the videos if you were asked to do that by the artists?

OK: First, they need a reliable source to tell them that their works are being presented. If so, we’ll have to negotiate. This is a hostage-taking situation.

H: Are you taking hostage of these works to force the artists who made them to talk to you?

OK: That’s right. We want to break the boycott. Real theft is usually something that people want to hide. Here we have it in our title. This is a performance rather than a theft. We want to get the visitors in trouble, to participate in the theft. I hope that the artists will appreciate the sophistication of this action, that they will understand its purpose and create contact with us. I’m sure they have enough sense of humor to understand [what] we tried to do.

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Krieger’s hopes will most likely remain unanswered. Artist Wael Shawky condemned the exhibition on his Facebook page: “What is the point of being a thief and being so proud of your act?” He added that this exhibition only reinforces the need for a cultural boycott against Israel. Walid Raad refused to respond to the story.

Stolen Arab Art continues at 1:1 Center for Art and Politics (HaSharon St 4, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel) until September 6 with more planned talks and events on Arab art, piracy, and copyrights.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Adi Englman as one of the exhibition curators.

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