Artists and Workers against Racism: The 5th annual Bread and Roses exhibition
by Yoav Tamir
The Bread and Roses art exhibition opened on December 25 at the Minshar School of Art in Tel Aviv. This is the fifth year in which the Workers Advice Center (WAC) has enjoyed Minshar’s hospitality in hosting Bread and Roses. The purpose of the exhibition is to raise funds for “Women and Work,” a WAC project to place Arab women in agricultural jobs under terms of fair employment.
The exhibition’s popularity broke all its previous records: 550 works from more than 300 artists were exhibited and sales amounted to $150,000, about 60% more than the previous year. As ever, the exhibition showcased works by well-known Jewish and Arab artists alongside newcomers whose work was being exhibited for the first time. For example, Hadas Reshef, a promising young artist, related in “Erev Rav” how she had been “discovered” by Bread and Roses and gained artistic exposure. On December 23, Haaretz arts correspondent Eli Armon Azulai described Bread and Roses as “the most important charity exhibition today.”
Wafah Tayara, a former farm worker who now heads the Women and Work project in the Wadi Ara region, gave the opening speech before some 200 visitors. Wafah spoke about the rare cooperation between the artists, the organization and the workers. By supporting the exhibition, she said, “you are contributing to our struggle against unemployment and against the government policy which deprives us of the few places of work open to us. Don’t forget that about 83% of Arab women do not work, and this is the main cause of poverty amongst Arabs in Israel today. “
Wafah spoke of WAC’s efforts to place Arab women in positions where they will earn NIS 160 a day and receive the social benefits to which they’re entitled, as opposed to NIS 100 for eight hours’ work with no social benefits when they work via a “ra'is” (local contractor).
“The government keeps talking about the need to motivate women to work, but in reality, by importing migrant workers, it keeps subsidizing cheap labor for the farmers at the expense of Arab women, and then it blames us for not wanting to work,” she said. “We are the proof that Arab women want to work, if only we are paid what we deserve and our rights are acknowledged.
WAC spokesperson Asma Agbarieh Zahalka also addressed the government’s incompetence in dealing with poverty and unemployment. “Today, when racism raises its head shamelessly and the government helps incite hatred against foreign workers and Arabs, the Bread and Roses exhibition sends a bold message of solidarity,” Asma said. “This defective government policy has led to poverty and the largest socioeconomic gaps in the western world. The government has the means and the resources to change the situation but it lacks one thing: the will. In this exhibition, we voice the will of a large group of artists and workers, Arabs and Jews, men and women, who demand a fair and just society.”
Tami Barkai, a teacher and artist involved for her third year in organizing the exhibition, spoke of the difficulties in struggling against exploitative employment. “When I fought for my rights at my workplace I often heard people say, ‘that’s just the way things are’,” she said. “What I find inspiring among WAC people is that, for them, there is no such thing [as simply accepting poor employment].”
Solidarity is the basis of the Bread and Roses exhibition, just as it is the basis of Women and Work and all WAC projects. It can be seen in the growing support for the exhibition, expressed in the increasing number of works contributed, artists, and sales.
“This is not an ordinary charity exhibition where you donate and disappear,” said Nir Nader, the organizer of the event. “WAC, its members and its volunteers work throughout the year to improve the employment conditions of these women so they match those of the working class in Israel. This isn’t much, but it allows them to escape a life of constant struggle.”
This objective also receives support from many who are not directly exposed to it. “Over the years, we have succeeded in bringing this important issue into the Israeli mainstream,” Nader said. “The goal of bringing together [Jewish] Israeli and Arab societies to work towards a common cause, to change the face of society, is bearing fruit. More and more people come to see and support. More and more people perceive themselves as part of the project. We have managed to get an important message across: this project, like all WAC initiatives, is not our own private sphere, but a very wide social framework which allows many to participate. Furthermore, many people who in previous years would just show up and purchase art works, this year joined the exhibition staff, each contributing their particular skills.
Dani Ben Simhon, head of the agricultural employment project and an artist himself, emphasizes the message inherent in the cooperation between well-known artists and newcomers in the context of the struggle for work and rights.
“Raising public awareness on this important issue helps us and the workers send the message to policy makers: Allow us to integrate into society by letting us work and earn a living in dignity,” he said.
This cooperation, he continued, counters the separation between artists in Israel who are often isolated in their ivory towers and the workers who are usually busy struggling to survive, cut off from art and culture, and deprived of the ability to be creative themselves. This message is at the heart of WAC’s exhibition as well as in its other activities.
Assaf Romano, an artist and formerly a teacher at Bezalel Academy, heard of Bread and Roses through Tami Barkai. Although he doesn’t see himself as political, he found himself in agreement with the exhibition’s social and human aspects and donated two of his works. The artists’ contributions cannot be taken for granted, he said. Artists are not rich people and they don’t own capital. In contributing, they are taking a stand, especially when it’s for a cause seen as marginal in Israeli society, such as workers who only want employment in agriculture. There’s nothing heroic or glamorous about it, he said, but it shows a spirit of giving and caring.
About 40 Arab artists participated in the exhibition. Some of them exhibited their work for the first time while others are well known and contributed in previous years. After seeing works at the exhibition, Dani Ben Simhon said, some collectors went to Galilee and the Wadi Ara region to purchase works directly from the artists who had no previous exposure to the art world and had not sold their work at all.
“There’s an important message of solidarity in this,” Ben Simhon said, “especially at a time when racism is spreading and eating away at everything.”
A group of young people from Tamara, participants in WAC’s Youth for Social Change project, also attended the event along with 25 farm workers, as well as basket weavers from a project run by Sindyanna of Galilee, a fair trade organization. After the opening ceremony, the women and the youth group held a discussion in order to explain the importance of encouraging Arab women to work. This idea is not self-evident in a society where working women are often perceived in a negative light and treated with suspicion.
WAC hopes to turn Bread and Roses into a cultural event that goes beyond selling and raising funds. We would like to extend the duration of the exhibition from one day to a whole week, and include meetings with schools, art colleges and groups who would not meet under normal circumstances.
“I believe that we shall eventually bring an annual cultural event into being, one wider in scope than the exhibition itself,” Nir Nader said. “The slogan, which was adopted by striking women workers in Massachusetts in 1912, was taken from a poem by James Oppenheim: ‘Yes, it is bread we fight for – but we fight for roses, too!’ It was not picked at random. With great respect we take their slogan into our century and fill it with the content of our struggle.”