Using gallery walls to tear one down in the Middle East


By Tim Chan

When artist Seth Tobocman visited war-torn Ramallah in 2002, he found a city besieged by violence and uncertainty. He also found a fertile ground for compelling art.

“I saw people shot there for opposing the war,” said Tobocman, referring to the long-standing Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “But I also saw creative, intelligent artists who had something to say.”

Years of oppression had shaped the artists into crusaders and resulted in work that was both political and personal. The depth of this artistry amazed Tobocman, who decided to bring several artists and their work to America. Now, three years later, these works, along with pieces from Israel and the United States, come together in an ambitious new exhibition at ABC No Rio entitled, “Three Cities Against the Wall.”

The exhibition, opening November 9 at the Lower East Side gallery, protests the separation wall currently under construction by Israel in the Occupied Territories of Palestine. Through an unprecedented effort by artists from Ramallah, Tel Aviv and New York, the show hopes to raise awareness about the wall and tear down misconceptions about the thousands of people affected by this barrier.

“It is important to show that some Israelis, Palestinians and Americans are opposed to the building of this wall,” said Tobocman, who helped organize the project, “and we hope that this show will open up a window to discussion and shed new light on the Palestinian situation.”

The exhibition will be held in all three cities and artists from each have been invited to contribute three works to be displayed. Pieces range from oil paintings to sculptures to full-color comic strips, each evoking themes of grief and suffering but also of hope.

In one particularly poignant piece, the hands from Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” are sculpted from two crude stones and then set against a picture of the separation wall. The result is a powerful image that speaks at once to the harshness and beauty that fight for influence each day in this region of the world.

In another piece, a Palestinian artist burned images onto olive wood, metaphorically engraining his people’s struggles onto a tree symbolic of his state’s history.

“The pieces are challenging and ironic,” explained Tobocman, who said he was particularly pleased to see the number of younger artists contributing to the show. “They’re not afraid to ask hard questions about the situation.”

Planning for the exhibition began over a year ago in Ramallah and ABC No Rio agreed to host the New York show shortly after. According to organizers, coordinating a project of this significance proved to be no easy feat. Costs ran higher than expected, and there were some communication and delivery challenges between the galleries. “It’s difficult when you’re a little grassroots organization working with people thousands of miles away,” said Steven Englander, Director of Visual Arts Programming at ABC No Rio. “Given that, however, we’re very pleased with how everything came together.”

While there have been other activist art shows in the past, organizers say that this is the first show with an Israeli-Palestinian collaboration.

“What makes this show unique is that Palestinians and Israelis are displaying their work together,” said Englander. “It’s a throwback to activist shows in the late 70s and early 80s about Central America, only it’s dealing with a different issue.”

“The discussion in the U.S. is often dominated by extreme voices that present simplistic views,” added Tobocman. “The fact that we have artists who live in Israel and Palestine allow them to bring a greater perspective and humanity not found in government agencies or groups.”

Tobocman recognizes that there are strong views on the conflict and says that audiences are free to make their own judgments. But he hopes that at the very least, the exhibit will point people toward a greater appreciation of the issues and challenge their preconceptions.

“This is not a propaganda show,” he said, “but we hope that people come with an open mind and learn to see things in a different way.

“We have three different artistic communities with three different backgrounds, but they all share a common goal: universal human rights, justice, and peace.”