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“29 km”

Dani Ben Simhon interviews Shlomit Bauman on separation and preconception within the Israel-Palestine-Germany triangle

Imagine living in an area of 841 square kilometers – an area just a little bigger than Tel Aviv and its satellite towns. Imagine that you can’t wander outside this small patch of land without running into the occupation: soldiers, checkpoints, the “separation fence” and roads closed to you. Artist Majdi Hadid, who lives in Ramallah, tells me he can move freely only within a radius of 12 km from his house. This feeling of claustrophobia, which all artists in the occupied territories feel, is the root of the exhibition’s name, “29 km,” currently on show at the Um al-Fahm gallery, the joint project of curator Shlomit Bauman, the gallery, and the Goethe Institute. Thirteen Israeli, Palestinian and German artists are participating in the exhibition which concentrates on the restrictions imposed on freedom of movement, on barriers both internal and external, and on relationships within the Israel-Palestine-Germany triangle. The exhibition will run until the 24 October 2009.

The works on show were created following meetings between the artists, culminating in a symposium in Ramallah. This is certainly a challenging exhibition. Its strength lies in the fact that it does not just address external manifestations of the occupation, but also turns inward to the consciousness. This consciousness has internalized the separation and limitations that the individual imposes upon himself due to preconceptions and seclusion, to such an extent that he loses his belief in his ability to change the reality around him.

The exhibition’s curator, Shlomit Bauman, is from Kibbutz Amir and now lives in Jaffa. She is also an artist and lectures in various art colleges. Dani Ben Simhon met her at the Um al-Fahm gallery and interviewed her on the occasion of the opening of the exhibition.

Dani Ben Simhon
: How was the project born?

Shlomit Bauman: The idea was to get Palestinian, German and Israeli artists to meet and address the issue of restrictions on freedom of movement. The idea gradually formed during a similar project in Germany in which artists from the three nations also participated. Each artist had the use of a separate studio and was able to work in a breathtaking pastoral landscape. Despite the impressive results, the lack of dialogue between the artists was notable. Together with the artist Sven Kalden, who participated in this meeting in Germany, we developed the concept of a new framework which would facilitate dialogue between the participants from this historic triangle – Germany, Israel and Palestine.

Work on the project continued for two years, one of which was dedicated to dialogue between the artists. Finally we came up with the idea of holding a seminar in Ramallah for nine days, which included a visit to Tel Aviv, Um al-Fahm and East Jerusalem. It was important for us that the discussion would take place within the reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and not in a rural German village. We wanted to grapple with the issue I have called “restrictions on freedom of movement” in the context of the reality here, and investigate how we and the Palestinians cope with this reality. The meeting in Ramallah enabled us to develop questions regarding balance of power, control, and public and private freedom of movement.

How did you select the artists who participated in the project?

We wanted to approach socially aware artists who are willing to enter into dialogue. The quality of their work was also an important consideration. I had no doubt that the seminar should be held in Ramallah and not in Israel because I thought it was important to meet the Palestinians in their own environment, their own reality. We live on different sides of the wall, obedient to the policy of separation, and know nothing of life on the other side. This made organizing the seminar difficult from a logistic and a legal point of view, since Palestinian artists are unable to enter Israel.

It was crucial to get the support of a Palestinian organization. From the start, a good connection developed between me and Majdi Hadid, an artist living in Ramallah. Majdi turned to many institutions, and the only positive response he received was from Khaled Hourani, Arts Director of the International Academy of Arts Palestine. Later we also visited the academy in Ramallah and met Hourani.

The selection process was very difficult. Many Palestinian artists refused to participate, saying that they opposed “normalization” with Israel. I can understand that, but on the other hand I didn’t want to give up on the idea of having Palestinian artists participate, since the connection with them – I believe – is extremely important for any significant dialogue.

In the end, four Palestinian artists agreed to participate, one of whom dropped out because he was unable to get to the meetings in Israel (mainly because he was denied permission to enter). Another artist, Sharif Sarhan from Gaza, did not get permission from Israel to enter Ramallah despite our repeated efforts to assist, and was even unable to send us his video works by post. In his case, we managed to partly overcome the problems caused by the occupation via the internet. He was able to participate “virtually” in the symposium and present his work “Stop!... you are from Gaza”. This work is comprised of video footage documenting his own journey from his house in an attempt to get out of Gaza, and photos of the four closed exits from Gaza (the destroyed airport, the Erez Checkpoint, the Rafah border crossing, and the sea).

We wanted to include Palestinian women artists too, but although we approached a number of them, not one agreed to participate. However, Nasrin Abu-Baker, an Arab artist from Zalafa (in Israel, near Um al-Fahm), agreed to participate.

Another limitation we imposed on ourselves was not to use the system of permits that the occupation demands, in order not to cooperate with it or give it any legitimacy. The policy of separation has succeeded in raising fears, and it seems that apart from a “lunatic minority”, everyone has accepted it. Me too – the first time I went to Ramallah to prepare the seminar participants, I too was frightened, until I got into Majdi’s car and the fear dissipated completely. Other Israelis who were supposed to join me for this visit dropped out one by one, each with his own reasons. The fear is so rooted in us that it is felt even by those with an open, curious and egalitarian worldview, even when we try to think rationally. I think that getting Israeli artists into Ramallah was an important moment in the project.

We approached German artists through our project partner, Sven Kalden. In the end, the exhibition included: Sharif Sarhan (Gaza), Majdi Hadid (Ramallah), Hosni Radwan (Ramallah), Nasrin Abu-Baker (Zalafa), Oliver van Denberg (Berlin), George Klein (Berlin), Gert Bendel (Berlin), Ines Schaber (Berlin), Sven Kalden (Berlin), Ron Amir (Sde Warburg), Rinat Kotler (Givatayim), Ravit Lazer (Modiin), and David Goss (Tel Aviv).

Why did you decide to create an “Israel-Palestine-Germany” triangle?

Hegemonic Zionist thinking perceives the Holocaust as a formative factor in the creation of the State of Israel, and thus it avoids having to address the Palestinian Nakba. The question at the heart of the project is whether we are willing to develop new ways of looking at history, and to adopt a more complex approach that prefers historical continuity over a dichotomous division: Israel and the Palestinians on one side, Israel and Germans on the other. Most Israelis see 1967 as the moment in which ethics met praxis. Only a small number are willing to look at 1948 and the events of that time. In my opinion, we should look even further, to the period before the Second World War, if we want the correct perspective, and we need to address reality with more refined tools. Less with tools that are known to us in advance, shaped by hegemonic patterns of thinking, and more by trying to understand our own narratives, each from his own point of view.

In this context, the question arose of which languages to use. We used mostly English in the seminar, as we had little choice. As for the catalog, we put German alongside the Hebrew and Arabic in order to emphasize the local above the international. English automatically symbolizes internationalism, which is what would have happened if we’d left only English. In my opinion, the addition of German was important for two reasons. Firstly, it is an extension of the fact that German artists participated, and that their participation was part of the exhibition’s subject. On the other hand, in Israel the publication of German is still problematic. So from my point of view, the appearance of text in German in Israel makes the text legitimate. It was important to me to shake up the automatic response of antagonism which this language provokes in Israeli public affairs.

In Europe, which has undergone a process of becoming connected in the framework of the EU, there’s a different way of thinking about open borders and having one joint authority. Here it’s the opposite process – one of reduction and closure. We are still living in the reality of occupation, and the gaps between occupier and occupied are growing ever larger. This contrast is fascinating, I think – in a sad sense. In Ramallah, the only ones able to wander freely are the Germans, while we, the locals, both Israelis and Palestinians, are prevented from doing so. It just illustrates the absurdity of it all.

In the context of policing and separation and the concept of “security”, Gert Bendel’s documentary film “Everyday’s State of Exception” addresses different aspects of the concept “security” as they are reflected in a series of interviews with members of the police force guarding Berlin’s largest synagogue, Jewish community representatives, and people from Germany’s security services. The film brings together a series of contrasts derived from the daily presence of the connection between the lessons of the Second World War and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

How did the seminar influence the participants?

The learning process and the discussions during the seminar were an integral part of the artistic act. The works were created as a continuation of the seminar. The seminar not only enabled the exchange of information and personal acquaintance – the stay in Ramallah and meeting people in the street were of paramount importance. During the symposium we met lecturers from various fields – art, public planning and architecture, health etc. We explored physical and emotional, external and internal aspects of the project themes. This was a powerful joint experience that affected us all.

A month after the seminar, we were shaken by the attack on Gaza and the continuation of the project was thrown into doubt. The attack pushed everyone into an extreme position which raised questions regarding the relevancy of the project. This indecision led to works that directly address the attack, such as the work by Nasrin Abu-Baker, “Babies,” or the work by Ravit Lazer, “Witnesses,” which brings together images from Israeli television broadcasts during the attack and images from women’s cleansing rituals from the Jewish Niddah custom (separation of menstruating women), as a metaphor for issues of cleanliness and impurity of conscience, both personal and social.

How is the exhibition received in Israel?

The responses have not been easy. There are many on the Zionist left who feel comfortable as long as the subject is Israel and Palestine, but feel that we crossed a red line when we included the issue of Germany. Anything that can be understood as a comparison between the Holocaust and the occupation provokes a harsh response from part of Israeli society. The project makes no such comparison; instead, it hones tools for the analysis of the historical narrative and its characteristics. The Israeli population is fixated with its security fears, and it’s hard to get out of this way of thinking.

Some people who heard about the project expressed an interest. On the other hand, some people ask, “And what about our freedom of movement, as Israelis? What about the exploding buses?” The perception of the Palestinians as enemies is so deeply rooted in Israel, it’s difficult to see from any other point of view. But that’s exactly the aim of the project – to get the complexity across, to see reality as open to change and not as fixed in stone.

Why did you choose to exhibit in Um al-Fahm?

I want to show the exhibition in Ramallah, Berlin and Tel Aviv too. I suppose it will not be possible in Ramallah because of the Palestinian boycott against any collaborative work with Israel. This of course raises questions about automatic boycotting by the Palestinians, and the inability to relate to each project as a separate case. Despite this, our aim is to get the message across even during this particularly difficult period. It isn’t certain that the exhibition will be shown even in Tel Aviv, because of the complexity of the issues it raises, but I will make every effort to find it a home. When I thought about a place suitable for such an exhibition, the gallery in Um al-Fahm seemed best, as a continuation of the dialogue between the artists, gallery staff, viewers and art students, and the Arab population. The need for support and the building of relationships is greater today than ever before, and this is our contribution. There are many Israelis who are afraid or who don’t want to come, not just to Ramallah but also to Um al-Fahm, and this is yet another emotional barrier that they need to get past.

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