Artistic coexistence

Sculptures open a dialogue for Jewish and Palestinian kids

By Daniel Ben-Tal, Israel 21C,   June 21, 2009

Mount Iskander, the highest point in central Israel, offers a magnificent view. It’s a panorama that encompasses the Mediterranean Sea on one side and the West Bank on the other. To the north lies the verdant Jezre’el valley, and on a clear day you can even see the Hermon mountain.

Now five freshly painted sculptures sit atop the hill, the culmination of a unique coexistence program involving the Israel Museum and local students from Umm al-Fahm, a rapidly growing Arab-Israeli town of 50,000.

Over 200 teenagers from Umm el-Fahm, joined by students from the Israel Museum’s high school art matriculation program, put the finishing touches on the metal sculptures this month, each depicting a house and window inspired by Umm al-Fahm homes.

The schoolchildren painted reproductions by famous Israeli artists – Jews and Arabs – on both sides of the sculptures, creating a collaborative public art installation that reflects Arab-Jewish dialogue through cultural cooperation.

The “Open Window Dialogue” project’s success is seen as twofold: Arabs and Jews befriending both each other and art.

“The idea was born over two years ago, in the wake of a similar project we did in Kiryat Shmonah,” recounts Eldad Shaltiel, acting director of the Israel Museum’s Youth Wing.

Turning charred trees into sculpture

In the summer of 2006, swathes of forest surrounding the northern town were burned to cinders by Hezbollah rockets fired from nearby Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War. Under the guidance of Youth Wing art instructors, local schoolchildren turned hundreds of charred tree stumps into pen-shaped sculptures, in a community action that expressed solidarity through art.

“We knew through our connections with the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery that they wanted to conduct a joint art project involving schoolchildren,” Shaltiel tells ISRAEL21c.

“We split this project into two: Some 2,500 children from three Umm al-Fahm schools, aged 6-18, visited the museum over the past two years. Each student experienced a whole day touring the museum, including an arts workshop. For many, it was their first exposure to art. About 300 of their teachers participated in the museum’s training courses. This was the initial idea – the second stage involved establishing the sculpture park.”

The metal sculptures were designed by Youth Wing teaching artists Hanan Abu Hussein and Yael Robin. They are anchored into the ground in cement. Each one measures about six feet by nine feet, about an inch thick. A half-acre plot of hilltop parkland was allocated by the Umm al-Fahm municipality for the installation.

“The local kids were in seventh heaven,” says Shaltiel. “They came early in the morning, and enthusiastically set to work. Through the windows you can see both the landscape and each other. The teenagers connected in particular.”

The project found a warm welcome with the local community. “Ultimately we see not only work in progress, but a cultural asset that remains in Umm al-Fahm,” says Said Abu Shakra, founder and director of the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery. “This project combined practical experience with results on the ground. We are extremely proud of the outcome. It has produced a window of artistic opportunity.”

Coexistence through art

Abu Shakra, who plans to establish the first contemporary art museum in the Arab sector, says the “Open Windows” project was one in a chain of events aimed at enhancing coexistence through art.

“The inauguration attracted lots of attention from the Arabic press. There was absolutely no objection from Umm al-Fahm residents – no parent with a head on his shoulders would object to something as positive as this,” he says. “Even the most devoutly Muslim parents were in favor – they knew where their children had gone. Many were actively supportive, while others did so in a passive way.”

Enthusiasm is running high. “The children really want to maintain the statues,” says Shakra. “Just this morning I spotted some of them cutting back weeds in the park.”

Shaltiel agrees. “From the experience of Kiryat Shmonah, we know that because the local children painted them, they look after them with particular care,” he says.

The Israel Museum, based in Jerusalem, is the country’s largest cultural institution and one of the world’s leading art and archaeology museums, with extensive holdings of Biblical and Holy Land archaeology including the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.

A must-go for Israeli schoolchildren, the museum’s Youth Wing boasts eye-opening art and experimental activities for all ages, and is recognized as one of the largest and most distinctive museum educational wings of its kind in the world.

A series of projects

The Youth Wing, which has a staff of both Jews and Arabs, organizes a host of social outreach projects, including collaborative art projects for Jewish and Arab high school students from Jerusalem, programs for children and families in regions affected by political conflict, and special art courses designed for wounded and disabled soldiers.

The “Open Window Dialogue” project, which was coordinated by Delilah Hizme, associate curator for museum education at the youth wing of the museum, underscores the museum”s commitment to social outreach says Shaltiel.

“It’s not a one-off but part of a series of projects,” James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum, tells ISRAEL21c. “We aim to enhance inter-communal, inter-cultural relations, and do so as often as we can. Ongoing classes bring together Jewish and Arab kids, who communicate not through talking but through creative enterprise – the simplest way to unlock the doors.

Over recent decades, Umm al-Fahm has become the cultural hub for the surrounding high-density Arab populace. For hundreds of years local residents have cultivated the surrounding hillsides, and this prolonged connection with the land has given rise to a diverse and fascinating culture encompassing poetry, pottery, building, clothing and various customs and traditions.

The Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery was established in 1996 on the initiative of local residents and artists who wanted to bring quality contemporary art to the city by exhibiting original Palestinian art, while enabling Arab and Jewish Israeli artists to express their cultures.

“Open Window Dialogue” was made possible through the generosity of The Fine Foundation, Pittsburgh, and produced with support from Evie Musher-Shechter, New York and Jerusalem, and Mary Gilben, Herzliya.

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