“We need a cultural revolution between Arabs and Jews,” proclaims Said Abu Shakra, founder of the first Arab contemporary art gallery in Israel. “I believe art is a catalyst for social change. It empowers communities and contributes to progress. Wherever there is culture, pride and a sense of belonging, things proceed in the right direction.”
But before you can start changing relations, Arab citizens in Israel need to know who they themselves are. “Our youngsters suffer from an identity crisis,” laments Abu Shakra. “We have to honour the history and memory of the past. We need to create a place for people to come and learn.”
Abu Shakra argues that since the establishment of the state of Israel, “nothing major was done on the part of the Arab population to preserve their history.” That is why the team at the gallery – located in Umm el Fahem, Israel’s second largest Arab city – have taken “the responsibility for rebuilding, collecting, studying, commemorating and presenting all that was destroyed that has to do with Arab and Palestinian culture.”
In the process, the gallery began to transform relations between Jews and Arabs.
Abu Shakra provides a powerful example of how this transformation occurred. In October 2000, 12 Arab citizens of Israel and one man from Gaza were killed by police officers during a demonstration in Umm el Fahem against Israel’s response to the Second Intifada, the second Palestinian uprising. “The event caused a crisis between Arabs and Jews here, probably the worst since the establishment of Israel,” says Abu Shakra. “Jews would not come to Umm el Fahem out of fear and mistrust.”
The gallery responded immediately. They initiated an exhibition called “In House”. Twenty young Jewish and Arab artists displayed their work in people’s homes across the city. “For two months, Jewish people who came to the exhibition found themselves entering Arab homes and meeting families. It helped Jews and Arabs to look each other in the eye and overcome their fears. It was a great success!”
Also, by displaying artwork from Jewish artists, Abu Shakra believes the gallery helps fight Arab prejudice against Jews. “The exhibitions bring about an extraordinary occasion for the Arab visitor to have a dialogue with a Jewish artist, to meet him or her in person and even to get involved in a common project.”
He also finds it interesting that while many Palestinian artists refuse to display their art alongside Jewish artists, they are often transformed when they meet Jews who visit the exhibition. The Palestinians even end up selling them their artwork.
As a result, the gallery has become a meeting point for Jewish, Arab and international artists. It regularly exhibits contemporary art, not only from Israel, but also from the occupied Palestinian territories and around the world. This month, for example, they are hosting an International Ceramics Symposium with creators from the United States, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Israel.
“The artists are encouraged to meet and learn about each other’s culture, history, pain and aspirations,” explains Abu Shakra.
The gallery also conducts a range of educational and cultural activities, art and dance classes and summer camps for children.
Now the team at Umm el Fahem hopes to build Israel’s first Arab museum of contemporary art. It is supported by the Tel Aviv Museum and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Land has been allocated and three Israeli architects have been awarded the design for the project.
Abu Shakra is now undertaking the mammoth task of raising $15 million to complete his dream. “The museum will be our ‘Big Bang’. It will give citizens new tools to face crises. It will empower the city. It will create a new generation with a clear identity and path.”
* Carin Smaller is a jurist specialising in international law. She is currently working as an independent consultant on human rights, trade and investment issues. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).