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After Abraham Accords, Jewish-Arab art show tries to transcend historic conflict

Mediterranean Biennale, held in Haifa and Sakhnin, pushes unity and dialogue, with artworks hung in cafes and lounges; some international artists reluctant to participate

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

A work by Israeli photographer Angelica Sher, to be shown at the Mediterranean Biennale, opening April 6, 2021 (Courtesy Angelica Sher)
A work by Israeli photographer Angelica Sher, to be shown at the Mediterranean Biennale, opening April 6, 2021 (Courtesy Angelica Sher)

It has been nearly four years since the last Mediterranean Biennale was held, and organizers of the show have spent the last two of those years on the uphill task of trying to convince artists from Arab countries and elsewhere to overcome their qualms and participate in the Israeli event.

The fourth iteration of the biennale, which opens April 6 and despite its name does not occur every two years due to budget issues, is titled “Living Together — Crossing Borders,” and aims to create dialogue and a new network of connections between artists from countries in the region. Organizers had hoped newly normalized ties with some Arab states would help remove qualms for artists skittish about showing their work in Israel, though it did not quite work out that way.

“The fact that it’s in Israel meant that some artists were immediately interested, others said no, and some said yes, and then no,” said Belu Simion-Fainaru, who created the the Mediterranean Biennale in 2010 with fellow artist Avital Bar-shay. “If I were inviting them to Berlin or Paris, they’d say yes immediately.”

The two still managed to bring 50 artists aboard, about half from overseas, including some of Israel’s neighbors, and the rest from local artists, after two years of pounding the pavement.

An artwork by Lele Ahmedzai, being shown at the 4th Mediterranean Biennale, opening April 6, 2021 in Haifa. (courtesy, Mediterranean Biennale)

Turkish artists Ali Kazma and Nevin Aladag, Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie, the Russian collective Chto Delat, Iranian artist Arash Nasiri, and Bahraini artist Rashid Al Khalifa are among the international artists whose works will be shown in a selection of decidedly untraditional art spaces, in both Haifa, known for its mix of Jewish and Arab residents, and later in the nearby Arab city of Sakhnin.

The driving concepts of the show are unity and dialogue. To create a conversation surrounding the art, Simion-Fainaru and Bar-shay use what they call “non-white walls” — that is, locations that are not traditional museum spaces and art galleries, bringing in audiences who will exchange ideas and questions about the art.

In Haifa, artworks will be hung in a hair salon and a cafe, in bars, hotels, a local mall, and even at a hookah lounge owned by a pair of Russian and Arab partners. The participating artists tend to appreciate the push for alternative spaces, said Simion-Fainaru, along with the event’s aim to bring art closer to real life and real people, creating an urban walking route between the venues.

“You’ll come to see art, or an artist like Ghenie, whose works sell for millions, in a hookah bar,” said Simion-Fainaru. “It’s Ghenie’s first time showing in Israel and I hope the hookah lounge will be okay, but it’s a great concept. It shows the local life of unity.”

Portrait of Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie by Oliver Mark, Berlin 2014. Ghenie will show a work in Israel for the first time, at the Mediterranean Biennale, opening April 6, 2021. (Collection of the Bucovina Museum)

The Mediterranean Biennale always includes works from artists outside Israel, and it specifically targets those from Arab countries, some with no diplomatic relations with Israel, such as Kuwait, Algeria, and Lebanon.

While some artists steer clear of politics or oppose cultural boycotts of Israel, others refuse to cooperate with Israeli artists, or are reluctant, due to their personal views or out of fear of being blackballed by their local artistic community or government. Some have also expressed concerns about how an appearance in Israel would affect their families.

Four years ago, when the third Mediterranean Biennale was held in June 2017, several artists of Algerian, Moroccan, and Lebanese descent who were living in France and England asked to have their works removed from the exhibits because it was taking place in Israel.

Simion-Fainaru thought the 2020 signing of the Abraham Accords with the UAE, followed by peace agreements with Bahrain and Morocco, would ease the process of working with artists from some of those countries. However, it did not help. One artist told Simion-Fainaru that they could meet for coffee in Paris, but not in Israel.

“It’s such a long process,” said Simion-Fainaru. “You talk on the phone and WhatsApp and write and explain and it takes time.”

A work by AES+F, a collective of four Russian artists, Tatiana Arzamasova, Lev Evzovich, Evgeny Svyatsky, and Vladimir Fridkes, to be shown at the Mediterranean Biennale, opening April 6, 2021. (courtesy, AES+F)

Still, there were artists from Arab and Muslim countries who immediately agreed to participate. Afghani Lela Ahmedzai plans to share ideas about women through her art. Bahrainian artist Rashid Al Khalifa was in touch with Simion-Fainaru prior to the recent peace agreement, while Iranian-French artist Arash Nassiri also signed on to participate, though he is not giving interviews to Israeli media.

The uncertainty of the COVID pandemic also provided its challenges and even now, some aspects of the show, such as when it will move to Sakhnin, remain unknown.

“It’s a miracle it’s happening at all this year,” said Simion-Fainaru. “Four months ago, we weren’t sure it would even happen.”

Locally, Simion-Fainaru and Bar-shay sought Arab artists creating contemporary pieces, while also avoiding the Tel Aviv-based arts scene and maintaining traditional village life in the north of the country.

Belu Simion-Fainaru, who co-founded the Mediterranean Biennale, celebrating its fourth iteration on April 6, 2021 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“They aren’t sitting in Tel Aviv cafes all the time, they don’t work with galleries, but their art is no less worthwhile than those who live in the center,” he said. “We wanted to give them the option to show their work and to get them some attention.”

The participating Jewish Israeli artists are predominantly women — and men who have had less exposure in the local art scene. There are some well-known Israeli names too, such as Khen Shish, Pavel Wolberg and Iddo Markus, among others, who are part of this year’s art show.

The show is free of charge and open to anyone, despite a significant lack of funding this year from Israel’s Culture Ministry and the Haifa municipality. Instead, said Simion-Fainaru, they received funding from a German foundation.

The Mediterranean Biennale art spaces will be open from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. each day, April 6 to June 15.

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