Contemporary art in Umm el Fahem

Contemporary art in Umm el Fahem To many in Israel the city of Umm el Fahem is synonymous with Islamic fundamentalism and nationalistic protest. People familiar with the Umm el Fahem Art Gallery, however, associate the city with contemporary Palestinian arts and efforts to improve coexistence between Arabs and Jews in the country. In the coming future, when the city’s art museum will open its doors, the latter image might take over, and the city might even turn into an international attraction.

Umm el Fahem (‘the mother of charcoal’ in Arabic), with its 50.000 inhabitants is Israel’s second fully Arab town after Nazareth. It is located on the Israeli side of the green line - the border with the territories occupied in 1967 - and is the main centre of the Wadi Ara area. Some politicians in Israel have suggested, sparking enormous controversy, that Wadi Ara, with its dense Arab population, should be joined to the West Bank and handed over to the future Palestinian state.

Like other Arab cities and villages in Israel, Umm el Fahem looks like an energetic yet somehow overcrowded and neglected place. The city is also known as the main centre of Islamic activism in Israel: Sheikh Raed Salah, leader of the (tougher) Northern Branch of the Israeli Islamic Movement is a resident of Umm el Fahem, and the municipality is run by a mayor issued from the Islamic Movement. The city has been over the years the location of many protests and clashes with the Israeli authorities, becoming very suspicious in the eyes of many Jewish Israelis, but also gaining a leadership status among many Israeli Arabs.

‘We have many problems here in Umm el Fahem, but we can’t just sit down’ says the founder and director of the Umm el Fahem Art Gallery, Said abu Shakra. ‘We need to take things in our hands and ensure that new generations are connected to their culture and roots, able to take responsibility for their life and future and are committed to pursuing peace.’

Eleven years after founding the Art Gallery in 1996, abu Shakra can be proud of his part in this endeavour. This is one of Israel’s most successful contemporary art galleries, several temporary exhibitions are held every year giving exposure to well known artists as well as new talents; conferences and master classes for artists are regularly organised; the gallery has become a beacon of culture for the community, and its social activities are making a real difference for local children and vulnerable groups. The exhibition currently on in the two stories gallery, ‘See Not/Fear Not’, presents the work of a wide group of artists (from Israel and the Palestinian territories, Arab and Jews) addressing the political situation. A series of photographs by Naama Yuria depicts a tourist on Vacation in Jenin. With the use of Photoshop, the artist inserted a tourist into press photographs taken during the 2002 Israeli army operation in Jenin. The tourist is shopping and having fun while surrounded by destruction and death, a possible transposition of the feelings the artist felt during those days. A separate series of pictures in the same exhibition also depicts the suffering of Jewish settlers during their 2005 forced evacuation from the Gaza strip.

The 2005 exhibition ‘Foreign Language’ exposed the work of two artists whose personal stories well represent the endless nuances characterising the life of people living in this small piece of land. The series of paintings expressing the desperate helplessness of the child who lost his Israeli soldier father are by Asad Azi, a Druze from Galilee. The paintings full of longing and sadness for a lost landscape are by Meir Pichhadze who spent his childhood in the Soviet Republic of Georgia before immigrating to Israel. Interestingly, both artists present among their works paintings showing their mothers on their wedding day. Located in different worlds, and expressed in different artistic styles, these paintings ultimately invoke parallel emotions of longing and tenderness.

The 2003 exhibition ‘In House’ had some pieces shown in five private homes. ‘This’, says abu Shakra, ‘was also a way of bringing Jewish Israelis into Umm el Fahem houses, confronting them with their fears, and contributing to breaking stereotypes’. Each exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue in three languages: Arabic, Hebrew and English. The gallery, currently the only cultural centre operating in Umm el Fahem, also offers activities addressed to schools, children, women and vulnerable groups. These include regular art and dance classes; "art day" programmes for school groups; enrichment courses for teachers; summer art camps and workshops for parents and children in trouble. A fine balance is kept as activities can sometimes be at odds with Muslim rules relating to the representation of human forms.

The future Umm el Fahem Museum of Art will continue the gallery’s activities, adding a permanent collection of contemporary art. It will also expand current activities to include Palestinians culture and traditions. An archive of objects, photographs, recordings and documents is currently being collected and will ensure that local Palestinian heritage, today at risk of disappearing, is documented and can be rediscovered.

The visionary abu Shakra sees the future museum as a true revolutionary step, a milestone in the development of a new self consciousness for the local Palestinian population, offering a real sense of identity and belonging. ‘It will be the first cutting edge contemporary art museum in the Arab world showcasing local talents, not only foreign artists; it will also contribute to reshape the way Israeli Palestinians are perceived by Jewish Israelis, as well as by Arabs in neighbouring countries’. After seeing what Abu Shakra has been able to realise with the gallery, little doubt remains that the museum he envisions will soon be a reality.

A piece of land has already been allocated to the museum project by the Umm el Fahem municipality, and expertise is being developed to ensure that the museum will function according to state of the art technology and standards. An international competition is now being launched to identify the project and the architect who will build the museum. Fundraising is ongoing for the museum's construction.

Miriam Anati

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