About 1200 people visited the gallery of the Minshar School in south Tel Aviv on November 10, 2007. Here, for the second straight year, Bamat Etgar held the art sale known as “Bread and Roses.” The walls were filled with 350 works by 300 artists, Arabs and Jews. “Where else apart from a museum,” said a collector, “can you find so many works by so many artists at once?”
Beneath the artistic “roses” lurks a less glamorous story of “bread.” The sale was launched to support the third year of efforts by the Workers Advice Center (WAC) to find jobs for Arab women in agriculture. Last year the exhibit raised $35,000, this year $50,000.
Sixteen women farm workers came from Galilee to take part. Most have jobs in a plant nursery. For example, Fasa’el Kadah of Kfar Manda previously worked through a contractor who took half her pay. Now, in a job organized by WAC, she gets it all.
Nir Nader, the living spirit behind the exhibit (it is no light task to get paintings from 300 artists!) spoke to the assembled visitors: “The aim of this project isn’t charity. It is the active entry of women into the work cycle.” He introduced Wafa Tayara, a former farm worker, today a WAC staffer. She spoke:
“In the name of more than a hundred women farm workers from different regions, I wish to thank all the artists who have contributed their paintings to this exhibit. Your support proves that you’re not closed up in an ivory tower, and that you don’t hold back in your commitments to society. It touches us especially that you support us, Arab women farm workers, the invisible force behind the vegetables, fruit and flowers that grace your tables.
“By your deed you contribute to your struggle against unemployment. Don’t forget that 83% of Arab women don’t work. That’s the number-one factor behind the poverty among Arabs in Israel.
“Some claim that Arab women don’t want to work. We are proof to the contrary. We do want to work in return for the wage that is ours by law. We don’t want to be a temporary, unorganized labor force, hired or fired according to the moment’s need. We want our labor to be recognized and rewarded as is fit.
“The work is important to us because it’s a living, that is true. Without it we won’t escape from poverty. Beyond that, however, work opens a new world for us. It takes us out of our isolation in the home. It soothes our nerves and makes us happier. We want bread first of all, indeed, but we also want roses. There is no reason for us to accept oppression as if it were a natural law.”
Wafa’s words were greeted with a long ovation.
David Glassman and his wife are art collectors. Glassman is in high-tech, his wife is a lawyer. “We love art,” he said. “It isn’t a business for us.” He had been at last year’s sale, where he’d bought six pieces. “This exhibit,” he said, “brings together three things that mean a lot to me: it supports women, it supports equal opportunity for Arabs, and it supports finding jobs, which to me is sacred. I was happy to learn that the organizers distribute 25% of each purchase to the artists themselves. This is quite unusual. I am well informed about exhibits organized by non-profit associations, many much wealthier than WAC. They inflate the costs of exhibiting, and the artists are asked to contribute their work without anything in return. I visited the WAC offices last year and saw people who go about their tasks with thrift and efficiency, without ostentation and with tremendous faith in their goal.”
The exhibit included paintings by 46 Arab artists, twenty of them women. Some of the better known are Ahmad Canaan, Ossama Sa’id, Abed Abdi, Farid Abu Shakra, Rana B’sharat, Mirwat Issa, and Anissa Ashkar. I spoke with two of the female artists. Ranya Akel of Kufr Qara, who took part in last year’s exhibit too, prepared a series of three paintings, two of which have been bought so far. Several motifs repeat. One is the swallow, a symbol of freedom. She also employed material from the red belt her grandmother used to wear. “Our freedom,” Akel told the onlookers, “is imprisoned within this belt and it’s up to us to set it loose.”
Hittam Younes of Ara village, a teacher by trade, is at the beginning of her artistic career. “I wasn’t familiar with WAC,” she said, “so I did a little research, and this persuaded me to take part. It’s very exciting to see my work displayed right next to paintings by famous artists. I feel today that I too am an artist.”
In addition to the Arab painters mentioned above, some of the exhibit’s well-known artists were Sigalit Landau, Michal Rovner, David Reeb, Ido Bar-El and Michal Heiman.
Painter Dana Yaakov, 36, broke away from an ultra-orthodox Jewish background. “I find much that is similar,” she said, “between the ultra-orthodox woman and the Arab woman. Both are covered, and the lives of both are full of taboos.” Yaakov has been making art for fifteen years. I asked what had led her to take part in the exhibit. “When the organizers told me it was for women workers, I knew I must contribute. Because of my ultra-orthodox upbringing, I focus a lot on the question of woman and her vulnerability. The issue of the working woman is close to my heart. Today, aside from art, I make a living by teaching, but the years when I earned my bread washing staircases and cleaning houses are deeply engraved in me.”
Artist Michal Heiman talked about a work from her series “What’s On Your Mind?” This is a group of photographs she took mainly between 1983 and1985. She came across them when sorting through her archive in 2003. “My art is based on this archive,” she told me. “What’s on Your Mind? # 11” (see p. 22) was taken earlier, in 1979. It is a sidewalk scene from Lilienblum Street in Tel Aviv. A man reads from a crumpled piece of paper to another man who types the words. Beside them, slightly in the background, sits a woman who is frowning. People in those days often had official documents typed on the street—divorce agreements, for example. (The sidewalk typists are still to be seen in East Jerusalem.) What struck Heiman was the energetic activity of the men, while the woman sat passive, cut off, reacting in silence, unseen by them, irrelevant to the proceeding.
“For some years, says Heiman, “I photographed people without asking their permission. Looking at that series, I really wanted to show it, but there was no way now to ask permission. I felt that if I ‘go back’ to these women in the photographs, back to the place of trauma, and ask them (and the viewers, and my self), ‘What’s on Your Mind?’ (a question taken from the practice of psychoanalysis), it would be a kind of atonement.”
A painting based on a famous Millet turned out to be a kind of logo for the exhibit. It was done by a fresh graduate from the College of Art at Beit Berl: Hadas Reshef.
Reshef told the visitors: “Three months ago, when Nir Nader published my work on Ynet, he put beside it this poem by Nida’a Houri, which I find fitting:
The bread is finished,
The dust has begun.
We’ve begun to gorge ourselves,
Beating the face of the earth.
Presence is finished
Absence has begun.
“I chose to make something based on the painting by Millet, which belongs to the realistic school. This was a philosophical current that focused on the everyday life of human beings and their troubles. Millet shows three women bending to glean the remainder of the crop as evening approaches.
“In this new rendering, work has raised the women from a situation of surrender and oppression to a struggle for dignity. The women are upright and strengthened, they are fighting women, pushed forward about a hundred years into a poster, as in Soviet socialist realism. But they aren’t complete. Absence is present. The remains of the past are still there, eternal.”