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Art in the Arab Sector

22 November 2011 No Comment

Susan C. Dessel

Susan C. Dessel

Women in traditional clothing and head coverings mingle and work in the gallery with women wearing short sleeves and jeans. It is a non-judgmental environment in a society that is not always so open.”


As a longtime supporter of social justice initiatives, and as a feminist who is attuned to domestic and international realities through involvement with NGOs, I understand that no intellectual exercise, no matter the emotional component, is as powerful as the experience of living in a community. I was reminded of this during my time this fall in the Arab-Israeli city Umm el-Fahem as a Visiting Artist and Volunteer for Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery—the first Israeli gallery to exhibit contemporary Arab and Palestinian art and the work of Arab-Israeli artists.

I had not spent time in Israel in almost 20 years. As a mature emerging artist, I wanted to combine a focus on art with an experience that would enable me to better understand the lives of “the other” in Israel. Through research, I learned about the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery. I applied, my references were contacted, and the gallery accepted me as a Visiting Artist/Volunteer. Before I arrived the gallery made clear their interest in making my experience meaningful and I hoped that I would be able to make a valid contribution.

The gallery houses volunteers in a top floor apartment. Living on-site gives one a sense of ownership: The gallery became my home, the staff became family. It was the people, rather than the location itself, that made the experience. Founder Said Abu Shakra and staff members welcomed my fellow volunteer Joanna and me without reservation. Their openness and trust, evidenced through our individual assignments and responsibilities, were a gift. We tried to respond in kind through the quality of our work and our shared desire to absorb all that we could about the goals and workings of the gallery and the lives of the residents of the Wadi Ara region.

I was nurtured as an artist through my work with the gallery’s collection, opportunities to meet and speak with local artists, and living with the art and photographs on exhibit. Conversations with visitors to the exhibits – Arab and Jewish-Israelis, tourists, school children, and members of local women’s groups – were invaluable, as was meeting others working in shared society and cross-border programs.

Children at the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery

The gallery wears many hats. It is a venue for Arab and Jewish-Israeli artists to show, talk, and participate in dialogues such as the 2010 International Ceramic Symposium. Three days a week art-in-education sessions introduce school children who might not otherwise be exposed to art and art-making. It offers women’s groups opportunities to experience art as observers and participants, and high school students to learn photography and participate in the gallery’s Archive Project, collecting oral her/histories of community elders through videotaped interviews, as much of Umm el-Fahem’s past has not been written down and may soon be lost.

Women in traditional clothing and head coverings mingle and work in the gallery with women wearing short sleeves and jeans. It is a non-judgmental environment in a society that is not always so open. It is a place where one’s voice can be heard and is listened to. The gallery offered Joanna and me an opportunity to experience life in the “Other Israel” that was unfiltered.

Although my inability to understand Arabic presented challenges, I was able to communicate using my basic command of Hebrew, English, and the help of Google Translate. Not knowing the language, Joanna and I often depended on others, but essentially we lived each day through our own eyes, ears, taste buds, and hearts. We were invited into homes and taken to huge out-of-door gatherings (feasts!) to welcome a new baby and offer thanks that a diagnosis of cancer was wrong. We shared the roof of the gallery with an exhibit of fanciful ceramic sculptures that fed our imaginations as the melodic sounds of wedding music filled the night air. And in the morning, men, fulfilling community service through work at the gallery, often shared their coffee with us before we had time to brew our own.

We were faced with the reality of guns and violence in the Arab community in a way that the Jewish community does not experience. Israeli law is in effect in Umm el-Fahem but the police appear to avoid involvement. We participated in a demonstration organized after the murders of three family members asleep in their home in Umm el-Fahem, despite discomfort at not being able to read the posters or understand the demonstrators’ chants and speeches.

We came to understand, as we walked with the women and children and met up with the men at the soccer field, that the anger was indeed aimed at the refusal of the police to act to identify the murderers and bring them to justice. It was the largest demonstration ever in Umm el-Fahem and the city’s first demonstration to involve women in an organized way. It was a grass-roots effort to communicate to the police that violence would no longer be tolerated. In a state where policies and actions are driven by security concerns, the demonstrators communicated directly that the lives of its Arab citizens are as valuable as the lives of its Jewish citizens and they will no longer tolerate the status quo.

My experience at the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery was compelling. Plans are now being made to develop a museum, and a design for the museum building was selected through a recent national competition. Now back home in New York, I will continue my connection with the gallery through the content of my art and through my work with the new Friends of the Umm el-Fahem Museum of Contemporary Art, an organization whose future plans reflect the vision, efforts, and energies of a coalition of committed Arab and Jewish-Israelis and others, led by the indefatigable Said Abu Shakra.


Susan C. Dessel is an artist living and working in Manhattan and Long Island City, New York.  Check out her work!

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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.


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