Appreciation for the arts is a beloved part of Israeli culture. Israel is crowded with art museums and studios, with public art installations in just about every town. There is even an Instagram account, israeli_artists, devoted to showcasing work from “the Top 🇮🇱 Artists in the Past, Present & Future.”
Many of the most influential artists in the region have focused their works toward the goal of bringing people together, whether that be bringing Jews and Arabs together (Micha Ullman), bringing together Palestinian Christians from different backgrounds (Ian Knowles and Dor Guez), or sharing inspiration during the COVID-19 lockdown (Maya Attoun). Israeli art is all about sparking conversation and connecting through creativity.
Micha Ullman, born in Tel Aviv in 1939, studied and later taught at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. He championed intercultural exchange between Jewish and Arab people in Israel with his 1972 performance art piece “Exchange of Earth.” For this work he, along with local children, dug pits in Jewish Kibbutz Metzer and the Arab village Meser and refilled the pits with their neighbor’s dirt as a symbol of deepening cultural exchange between the two groups and in protest against rising tensions between the two groups. He is most known for his memorial to books burned by the Nazis in Bebelplatz Square, Berlin. His work “The Empty Library” is a collection of empty bookshelves sunken into the ground beneath the square that can be viewed through a glass tile set into the cobblestones. There are enough empty shelves to house all 20,000 books burned in Bebelplatz.
Across the border in Palestine, Ian Knowles, founder of the Bethlehem Icon Centre, teaches the traditional art of writing icons to local Palestinian Christians of all denominations to help them overcome economic strife in the region. Since the centre’s conception in 2011, Knowles has worked with Christians, both local and from across the globe, teaching the liturgical art of writing iconography through painting and mosaic in order to “paint a hymn.”
In a 2017 interview with the BBC, one of his students described the Palestinian belief in icons as a “colored Bible,” and went on to explain that for iconographers, every step in the process of creating their art is a prayer. The Bethlehem Icon Centre creates icons in accordance with the Orthodox tradition that everything used in the process must come directly from nature; they are painted onto wood with tempera paints made from combining finely ground rock pigments with egg whites to create a physical representation of God’s beauty through His creation.
The Bethlehem Icon Centre aims to strengthen Christian spirituality in the Middle East, to help provide Palestinian Christians with a steady and fair income, and to encourage Palestinian Christians in their commitment to their cultural heritage. Ian Knowles is also the iconographer behind the famous icon of the Virgin Mary, “Our Lady of the Wall” or “Our Lady Who Brings Down Walls,” painted on the border wall around Bethlehem as a prayer to bring peace to the region.
Another artist working to bring Palestinian Christians together is Dor Guez. He is a half Palestinian Christian, half Tunisian-Jewish artist born in Jerusalem whose “photography, video, mixed media, and essays explore the relationship between art, narrative, and memory.” His most recent work focuses on bringing archival information about the region surrounding Israel to life through modern art.
Guez’s 2019 exhibition in Brussels entitled “Lilies of the Field” studies albums of pressed flowers that were popular souvenirs for North American and European pilgrims in the late 19th century. He is also the founder of the Christian Palestinian Archive, an online archive which invited members of the Christian Palestinian community to send in their personal family photographs from the early 20th century so that they can be scanned and preserved through his “scanogram” process of three scans. Scholars across fields ranging from sociology to architecture have used these scans to inform their research.
Maya Attoun is a contemporary Israeli artist who is currently making use of the internet to share a project she is working on during the COVID-19 lockdown called “Cultivating Doing Nothing Important.” For this project, she is taking pictures of daily activities around her house that creatively use the phrase “cultivating doing nothing important” and sharing them directly in a gallery on her website and on her instagram account.
She is most well known for her gothic influences, most striking in her projects “2018” and “The Charms of Frankenstein,” a completely hand-drawn artist book in the form of a weekly planner and an exhibition within the Jewish Museum in London respectively, both celebrating the 200-year anniversary of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. For this collaboration, Attoun wove her drawings into the museum’s permanent collection to tie the themes of Frankenstein into the fabric of Jewish history. She has an upcoming exhibition in fall 2020 with the gallery Magasin III Jaffa, where she will be the first Israeli artist to give a solo exhibition.
Israeli artists are interested in sparking conversations and forming connections through their work. These artists are not afraid to reach beyond the traditional canvases of their trade; whether designing poignant monuments, celebrating enduring culture, or crafting politically thought-provoking pieces, Israeli artists look into the world around them and reinterpret what they see into something exciting, beautiful, and new.
All opinions expressed are those of the writer.