A delegation of women, farm workers from the village of Kufr Qara, visited the exhibit in Tel Aviv. For the artists who were present, it was a first, very limited exposure to the project they were benefiting.
This was the motive for a follow-up meeting, held in Kufr Qara on December 16, 2006. In the late afternoon, the hall was bursting with people. There were dozens of women from this and the neighboring villages, all of whom had found work via WAC. There were artists from Tel Aviv and Galilee, Jews and Arabs, many of whom were meeting each other for the first time. The gathering was intended as a further step in creating solidarity between artists and workers.
The main part of the meeting was devoted to a discussion on ways of promoting this solidarity. The participants sought forms of common action that would help the workers achieve bread (a livelihood earned in dignity) and roses (a cultural life), so that, armed with both, they would be in a position to influence reality.
In an age of globalization, the possibility of earning a living by the strength of one’s hands has been severely eroded. This is especially the case with people who are targeted for discrimination, such as the Arabs of Israel. Chronically unemployed but exploited when they work, they have little chance to maintain a full communal and cultural life, including adequate education, a social safety net, and the freedom to create a personal and collective world. In the words of Dani Ben Simhon, artist and WAC activist, “The bosses want workers who are scared stiff of losing their jobs and are ready to work under any conditions, people whose consciousness and culture have been wiped out of them, who’ve forgotten their dreams, who have lost their imaginations, who can no longer think for themselves. They want, in short, a machine for increasing their profits.”
Ben Simhon also stressed the unique role of art in challenging reality. “Art is a tool of thought,” he said. “It educates people to look on reality with open eyes. It demands that we refuse to accept it at face value. It reminds us to take time out from the crazy race of everydayness and look at ourselves and our surroundings, to connect in a new way to ourselves and society.”
Jamal Hassan, a sculptor from the village of Julis in Galilee, talked about how natural and easy it is for artists of different nationalities to find a common language. Their sensitivity, he said, their ability to see the Other, to get interested in what is different from themselves, can make a crack in the all too solid front of public discourse, a front dominated by government policy and big business.
The present writer attacked the myth that Israeli artists live in an ivory tower: “As artist-workers, we suffer constant frustration at government policies and a predatory economic apparatus that seek to channel what we do, limiting our freedom and keeping us financially insecure. As artists and workers, we are underpaid. We are plagued by budget cuts in culture and education. Like other workers, we find ourselves shunted to the margins, ever farther from the centers of power in Israeli society. We are troubled for our children in a society where the educational system is crumbling. We labor beneath the collapse of the welfare state and the moral decline of the society. Very few artists manage to eke out a decent living in Israel. Most of us are freelancers, facing constant exploitation and the violation of our rights as workers.
“Yet it is also clear that Jewish artists in Israel have a more privileged status than their Arab colleagues, who have a much harder time gaining recognition and support from the cultural establishment. Jewish artists have a more privileged status than Arab workers, who must struggle for their daily bread. The recognition of these differences on the part of Jewish artists can help to create a feeling of solidarity and common struggle. We can opt for the story they told us in the art schools about originality and success, about public recognition and career—when the real demand is that we continue to serve the existing centers of power. Or we can choose to overthrow, to challenge, to take a position. We who take the second path are often criticized as being mobilized to a cause, but if we recognize that we are mobilized in any case, whether toward maintaining the present order or overthrowing it, we can then consider where best to mobilize ourselves. What constellation of forces do we wish to advance? How do we choose to see and present the world? As something we cannot influence? Or as a reality that we create through sensitivity, a social vision and a demand for change?
“The real distortion of reality, Paulo Freire has taught us, occurs when people are led to believe that reality is a permanent fixture, something one can do no more than describe. Instead we need to understand that every entity is a historical occurrence, capable of change when acted upon within the present historical order.”
Art as Discovery
The art class begins every Friday at three, but the kids start showing up half an hour earlier and wait by the door. Ranya Akel, a young painter and sculptor, is very popular among the children. So many wanted to join her class that the organizers in Kufr Qara had to split it into two groups.
“Our society hardly relates to the arts,” says Akel. “The school curriculum is short on art lessons. Basic terms such as ‘composition’ and ‘texture’ are missing. The children are clueless in art history, and they have never worked with materials other than crayons and paper. Therefore, my task is to introduce the world of art to them, to provide them with a variety of experiences, to develop their creativity and to use art as a tool for helping them become more conscious of their surroundings and themselves.”
I asked Akel for examples of projects they’ve worked on.
“We worked for quite a while on recycling. For me recycling is important because it embodies respect for the environment.
“We started with simple materials like newspaper. The children learned its character as a material. They cut and glued, made dough and built in layers. We created masks and animal statues. Some of the work was collective, so they learned to cooperate. They built statues recycling old chairs.
“Another activity was with fabrics. I went with the children to factories in the area and we asked the owners for leftovers. These were used for painting, sewing and pasting.
“We also worked with various painting techniques. The children learned the basic terms of light and shadow. We focused on observation. They painted still lifes, learning the variety of textures and experiencing what it is like to work meticulously over an extended time.
“Toward the end of the year, we began a big project named ‘The Environment and I.’ Each kid worked individually on a specific subject. One girl researched the original names of the neighborhoods in Kufr Qara. She met with the village’s elderly and mapped the different areas. We are planning to make signs carrying the original street names, which we’ll hang them beside the existing signs.
“Another girl investigated the flowers growing around us and learned their names. This might sound simple, but in our educational system there isn’t enough attention to our immediate surroundings or to simple things like knowing the names of plants.
“Another project was to collect edible plants growing wild in our surroundings and to list the dishes we can make from them. Going into the fields, collecting plants and cooking them used to be common in our culture. Today, only the elderly know the plants. That culture is disappearing. It is important for me to pass this knowledge to the kids, to encourage their desire to inquire and learn their past. Without a secure knowledge of the past, they will not be able to navigate the future.”