The name derives from a famous labor struggle in 1912, when female textile workers in Massachusetts demanded not just better job conditions but also time for culture and art. “We want bread and roses!” they cried. The exhibit at Minshar had a similar aim. The sales went to benefit “Women and Work,” a project undertaken jointly by the Workers Advice Center (WAC-Ma’an), Sindyanna of Galilee and Hanitzotz Publishing House. WAC has devoted itself this year to opening agricultural jobs for women.
The globalization of industry in the last decade has caused a sharp drop in the employment of Arab women. The textile firms, where many used to work, have outsourced production to countries with cheap labor. At the same time, workers brought in from Thailand—unorganized, ill-paid and exploitable—have taken the agricultural jobs. Bucking this current, WAC has so far found work for 140 women at fair pay and under supervised conditions. It also offers courses for enrichment and empowerment.
At the Bread and Roses exhibit on September 16, more than half the 200 paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures were sold, bringing in $33,000—of which 25% went to the artists and the rest to “Women and Work.”
The exhibit was part of a broader project, now in its fourth year, called “Art in the Community: Another Society is Possible.” Compared with the last three exhibits, however, the number of Arab artists rose from 3 to 23. The advancement of their art is one of the project’s main goals. Whereas the Israeli Jewish art world thrives on generous budgets, galleries, museums and strong public interest, the situation of art in Arab society is bleak at best.
Among those attending Bread and Roses were sixty collectors, as well as many of the contributing artists. The usual art buzz was interrupted, however, by the arrival of thirty women workers. They had taken their free Saturday to make the journey to Tel Aviv and see the works that had been dedicated to their cause. Two worlds mingled in the gallery.
A striking feature of the exhibit, as said, was the participation of so many Arab artists. Sindyanna of Galilee, a fair-trade organization, has taken on the task of helping them increase their exposure. It has produced a calendar for 2007, illustrated with twelve of their works. One of those featured in the calendar is Ahmad Canaan, artist and founder of the Tamra Gallery. Canaan stressed the importance of doing this show precisely in Tel Aviv: “For some of the Tamra artists here today, it is the first time their work has ever been seen outside the village. In Arab society you can count art buyers and collectors on the fingers of one hand.”
Imad Houri, a young artist from Abu-Snan, makes a living doing repair work on apartments in an artistic style. He first learned of WAC through the exhibit. In his view the Arab artist resembles a person thirsting in the wilderness. At the exhibit, he said, he could scarcely believe his eyes. He was astonished by the number of artists, the richness of their creations and the unending flow of visitors.
Hanan Abu Hussein, a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design who grew up in Um al-Fahem, believes that the artist should be socially involved and active in promoting equality, especially that of Arab women, who suffer from double discrimination—within Israeli society as Arabs and within Arab society as women. “In the current political situation,” she says, “artists need to be active, even if it means less studio time.”
The encounter was a new experience for those attending Bread and Roses. They bombarded the organizers with questions about where the Arab artists had studied and exhibited. Well-known collectors admitted that it was their first acquaintance with most of them. Almost all their works were sold.
Artist Naomi Siman-Tov, who has contributed to “Art in the Community” twice before, mentioned how different the exhibit was from most she has experienced. “There isn’t a cynical use of people. I feel that my contribution really does benefit the workers and the goal. I’m not giving charity. There’s a sense of everyone pulling together for a common cause. Maybe this will sound old hat, but it’s important to me that I contribute to someone who hasn’t had the same opportunity as me—and only because she was born in the wrong place in this country.”