The third Mediterranean Biennale in the northern Arab town of Sakhnin opened Thursday evening, but missing were several works whose creators asked to have them removed from the exhibition because it is taking place in Israel.
The exhibition, which is also being shown in the nearby Arab and Jewish towns of Misgav, Arrabeh and Deir Hanna until December 15, features works by 60 artists from 25 countries, including some who hail from Arab nations that have no diplomatic relations with Israel, such as Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria and Lebanon.
The artists who asked to have their works removed are of Algerian, Moroccan and Lebanese descent, though they currently reside in France and England. Some said they hadn’t been informed that their pieces were to be shown in Israel.
According to a spokesperson for the Mediterranean Biennale, the works in question are part of the collection of the FRAC Museum in Marseilles, which has been working with the Biennale for the past year and a half.
In adherence with the standard operating protocol, the museum forwarded the Biennale’s loan request to its art committee, which agreed to lend the works from the collection. The Biennale was required to pay a standard fee for the loan.
But the artists didn’t learn their works would be appearing in Israel until earlier this week, and several said they wouldn’t cooperate with an Israeli institution due to their support of the Palestinian cause.
A spokesperson for the Biennale accused the international Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement of being behind the decision to remove the artists’ works from the Israeli-run event.
”This is a political decision supported by the BDS movement, whose goal is to boycott Israel in every possible area, including art, as an expression of the new anti-Semitism rising in France and Europe in recent years,” Israeli sculptor Belu-Simion Fainaru, the Biennale curator and founder, said in a statement. “The organization works to spread anti-Semitism around the world by damaging Israel, slandering and promoting an international boycott against Israel. There is a call to action in social networks, tagged by BDS, to boycott the event and refuse to participate.”
“The goal of the Mediterranean Biennale as an art event is to create a platform for dialogue and coexistence through art, while opposing the boycotts and the hate and animosity they breed,” he wrote, pointing out that the works were being exhibited to a Palestinian Arab population.
Fainaru is also a co-founder of the Arab Museum of Contemporary Art and Heritage, established in Sakhnin two years ago, and has long been a proponent of coexistence through art.
The other co-founder of AMOCA, Avital Bar-Shay, came up with the idea for the museum after seeing the success of the first Mediterranean Biennale in 2013.
The museum, which houses 200 works of contemporary art created by local and international artists, is intended to demonstrate a new kind of cultural cooperation between Arabs and Jews.
One of this year’s Biennale participants, local Haifa artist Nardeena Mogezel-Shammas, told The Times of Israel that it marks the first time her work is being shown to an Arabic-speaking audience.
“All of the galleries are scared of my work,” said Mogezel-Shammas, referring to what she termed its “extremist” nature, due to nudity, not politics. “I got excited to show my work here because I’m speaking to my viewers, I’m talking about all of the Middle East with my work.”
Mogezel-Shammas creates art installations about social issues, the treatment of women, and the schisms between tradition and progress. She often works with nudes, but refrained from those pieces for this particular exhibition.
Her first connection with the Biennale was forged when Fainaru came to see her works in the Haifa Artists’ House.
“I also wanted to get out of the box, to be with 60 artists from 25 countries — that’s fascinating,” she said. “You’re showing your work with so many artists and you still have your own stage.”
But she wasn’t surprised when she heard that several artists were pulling out.
“It’s legitimate,” she said. “We’re in Israel, and if these artists had known their work was going to be shown here, they wouldn’t have agreed. I get it: If these artists show in Israel, and their friends find out, they’ll ask questions.”
She was disappointed to have missed out on showing her works alongside theirs.
“They’re free to think what they want, but it’s not what I think,” said Mogezel-Shammas. “I live here and show here, and there’s a place for all of us here.”