As the talk about Israel’s intended annexation of Area C in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) was being overshadowed by the coronavirus crisis, the de facto efforts to minimize the number of Palestinians in the OPT threatened with annexation continued — indeed, intensified.
During the past few years, I have been reporting in social media on these alarming developments as a member of Ta’ayush and Torat Tzedek, two direct action groups that accompany Bedouin and Palestinian small farmers in the occupied Jordan Valley, who face attacks by Israeli settlers who are almost always backed by the army. I believe it is time to show my photos from the series The Jordan Valley, Just Before in an art gallery in the hope of reaching a new, wider audience instead of continuing to preach to the choir of people who already follow our reports from the OPT.
As an artist, I often ask myself what the relationship between my art and my activism against the Israeli occupation is, whether I have a responsibility to speak out through my art, and, if I do, how I can bring my political photography into the gallery as an artist rather than a journalist. Alternately, can I show these photographs in a publicly funded gallery that would risk its funding if they raise critical issues that do not find favor with the ruling powers?
In 2018, I brought the two — my art and activism — together in a work called The Little Prince in Al-Auja, created for a group exhibit on artists’ interpretations of children’s books. I cast St. Exupéry’s Little Prince as a Bedouin shepherd boy, shown in a lightbox triptich, with a photograph of his beloved sheep — in a (light) box – on one side and, on the other, an army tower along a road that cuts through the fields toward a Jordan Valley settlement, exemplifying behaviors of domination, possessiveness, and arrogance, that do not make sense in the logic of the child.
In selecting the photographs of my Jordan Valley activism for my art exhibit at Agripas 12, a cooperative gallery in Jerusalem of which I am a member, I wondered which images would be most effective in getting across the merciless situation of the Israeli occupation while also speaking as art. On one hand, when does the photo become a political poster? On the other hand, were I to choose the photos with a more intimate, personal vision — for instance, capturing the magic of the early morning light when the shepherds go out into the fields — would I risk making them too aesthetically pleasing, thus beautifying an oppressive reality and trivializing the grave issues? Or, precisely by focusing on the breathtaking landscape and on the Bedouin’s sense of freedom to roam, would the photos emphasize what they stand to lose? Would the aesthetics of the works beckon the viewer to take note and ask deeper questions about how the Jordan Valley is slowly but deliberately being emptied of its native Palestinians?
By grouping together photos on a certain theme, I can enable one photo to strengthen the other, illuminating a loaded situation while at the same time remaining suggestive. For instance, there are the images of young settlers on horseback or in all-terrain vehicles riding into a flock of sheep, scaring them away, with one close-up shot of a horse’s mouth, which I took from a distance of half a meter when its rider tried to run into me. These images of hilltop youth from outposts that are illegal even by Israel’s standards immediately call to mind the lawlessness of the Wild West. A photo of the settlers standing together with soldiers, making sure the shepherds retreat from their grazing fields, suggests the collusion between the settlers and the army and should raise questions about whether those illegal outposts that terrorize the shepherds serve as a convenient way to carry out a policy of what is essentially ethnic cleansing, allowing the state to blame “a small group of delinquent kids.”
Another set of images portrays soldiers confronting the shepherds, declaring a huge area surrounding an illegal settler farm a closed military zone, clearly on orders of its influential owner. Or a dusty army jeep driving through the flocks. Or elsewhere, an army officer enforcing a live-fire zone, something that only started to happen after the nearby Wild West outpost was established. These are strategies used by the authorities to severely limit the grazing grounds of the Bedouin, so that they are forced to buy hay for their herds at an enormous expense and, ultimately, give up the struggle and move away.
Then there is the strategy of depriving the local population of its water sources. Wells are intentionally clogged and water pipes cut by the army if the small farm and grazing communities dare to connect to the Palestinian Authority’s supplies, so that the Bedouin have no choice but to bring in water in tankers at exorbitant prices. This is shown in photographs of a Bedouin watering his sheep from a last remaining well; of sheep crowding around a water tanker; and of an empty blue water barrel in the barren landscape.
A text accompanying the exhibit, eloquently written by Prof. David Shulman, expands on his personal experience of going out with the shepherds, providing a more explicit background to the photographs. Due to corona restrictions, a planned panel discussion was held on Zoom to further elucidate the subject and reach out to new audiences.
My exhibit Black Sabres — Inner Journeys in a Burning Reality, which opened on July 23, 2020 at the Agripas 12 gallery, shows my series Jordan Valley, Just Before alongside another set of photographs titled Black Sabres, which show large, black and white extreme close-ups of the decaying of the prickly pear cactus, opunta ficus indica, called sabres in Hebrew slang. The photographs, evocative of both death and eros, carry weighty political and symbolic meanings, as the cactus is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their own in their art and national consciousness.
What ties the two series together is the Palestinian concept of sumud, translated as “steadfastness.” On the one hand, the black and white extreme close-ups of sabres relate to the prickly pear cactus hedges that stubbornly persist around the remains of Palestinian villages in Israel, refusing to be uprooted. On the other, the color photographs in this exhibit show the Palestinian Bedouin in Area C who persevere in going out with their sheep in the face of encroaching annexation of their lands.
A remarkable thing happened in the gallery, where I also created an installation of actual sabres leaves that I cut off the living cactus and painted black. After about a week of lying on their low stage on the gallery floor, the black, torn-off sabres leaves miraculously started to sprout new life! Holding on, despite all the blackness, hope never dies.