A Culture Comes Home, by Larissa Shulman


Culture requires its own sanctuary, and that sanctuary is the museum. The museum speaks to and for its people, and this sacred space enables a people to make sense of its heritage.

No less is true for the Umm al-Fahem gallery which, in some twenty years, has evolved into a place where Palestinian culture can build and progress, turn inward and outward, look forwards and backwards. “We are pushing for official museum status” says gallery founder and director Said Abu Shakra, whose charisma and candor bring a radiant energy to the space. Running with his vision, Said and his team of donors, curators, researchers, and gallery staff have created a singular hub of contemporary Palestinian-Israeli culture.

“There was no place for Palestinian artists [before the gallery]” says Said, who comes from a family of artists and is one himself. The idea for the gallery emerged after the death of Said’s cousin Asim Abu Shakra, a prodigious artist who succumbed to Leukemia before his thirtieth birthday. Coming away from a commemorative retrospective of his late cousin’s work held at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Said was confounded that Palestinians lacked their own artistic ecosystem. He did not want subsequent Palestinian artists to be confined by Jewish-Israeli curators and institutions alone.  Starting from scratch, Said set out to make a home for Palestinian art. Through the evolution of the gallery, to which he devoted tireless and unremunerative sweat, blood, and tears, Said has put Palestinian culture back into the hands of its people.

I had the pleasure of spending the day at the gallery during the installation of “Manifestations of Letter.” This exhibition explores the ways in which written and lingual tradition has buttressed Palestinian-Israeli identity. “Manifestations of Letter” demonstrates this through a diverse body of work which portrays Arabic as a means to bond a people to its past.

Said’s younger brother, Farid Abu Shakra, is showing a few of his works in “Manifestations of Letter” and happened to drop by during my time at the gallery. He spoke with me about the “new, Palestinian every man” depicted in his work, “Abdullah: The Poem, the Flesh.” The piece depicts the confused and disorientated state of the archetypical contemporary Palestinian young man, replete with a jarring yet appropriate message in English: “No Signal.”



I strongly encourage anyone to visit the gallery while “Manifestations of Letter” is up (through 24/5/14, curated by Dr. Maliha Maslamani.) The works run the gamut of traditional, emotional, political, and unnerving; the mark of a well-curated show that seeks to delve, question, enlighten, and move, like the gallery itself.




Perhaps the gallery’s greatest treasure is its extensive photography and footage archive. What began in 2008 as an idea for an exhibition expanded into a project which now accounts for hundreds of testimonials from elders of Umm al-Fahem, Wadi ‘Ara, and Lajjunn (now Kibbutz Megiddo.)  The archive is part of an ongoing permanent exhibition which allows people to learn about these communities. Currently on view on the gallery’s first floor is a subset of photographs by Jewish-Israeli photographer Shai Aloni documenting the eldersof the neighboring Wadi ‘Ara.

 



Mr. Aloni is one of many Jewish-Israeli artists involved with the Umm al-Fahem Gallery. Said himself says that “we would be no where without Jewish-Israeli help.” The El-Saber Association, a cultural benefactor which receives funding from the Israeli Ministry of Education, is a major source of funding for the gallery. The museum exhibits works of Jewish-Israeli artists, and involves Jewish curators in the making of its exhibitions. Pottery workshops for the women of the Umm al-Fahem region are run by Israeli artist Rina Peleg. Collaboration has been a critical component in the making of the gallery from the get-go.


For Said, building the gallery is work that is deeply personal and rooted in a desire to link one generation to the next. “This is for my mother,” says Said of the gallery, “and it is for my children.” He fears that his offspring are uninterested in the past and won’t understand their cultural legacy after those who can remember it are gone. “I carry my family on my back” he says, “this museum is my gift to the next generation.”

It seems that the gallery disseminates two narratives which run in tandem. One narrative is of resistance and regaining; it speaks of a refusal to forget history. The other narrative makes peace with the present, carving out the space for a Palestinian identity that is inextricably Israeli. 

The institution itself is a catalyst for rebranding Umm al-Fahem. The gallery has changed the nature of the city, which was once considered a locus non grata in Israel because of its radical political bent.

The gallery continues plans both for a museum in a new building, and exhibitions in the current space to roll out during this and next year. These plans happen in the midst of a critical time for Umm al-Fahem, which is itself at an identity crossroads.  The city is presumably up for sale as part of a land-swap deal. Whether this proposal changes the nature of the city or the gallery has yet to be seen. This is probably because plans for this deal to unfold are beyond the horizon and also quite tenuous. While politics in the region remain irresolute as ever, culture instead provides a glimmer of faith in the future.








This article is written by one of Diwaniyya's interns, Larissa Shulman.  Larissa is a Masters Candidate in the Middle Eastern Studies program at Tel Aviv University. Her research interests include Islamic identity in the context of the West and Jews of Arab lands. She also writes fiction and non-fiction essays.

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