Sporting new art museum, Sakhnin looks beyond soccer

Known more for its Premier League squad, the Arab Israeli town now hopes to inspire coexistence between Jews and Arabs through culture

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Nesting egrets and other works of art at the entrance to AMOCAH, Sakhnin's new art museum (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Nesting egrets and other works of art at the entrance to AMOCAH, Sakhnin's new art museum (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

After months of setbacks, The Arab Museum of Contemporary Art and Heritage (AMOCA) in the northern Arab Israeli town of Sakhnin is finally open.

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. But, like many coexistence efforts, it has faced a number of obstacles along the way.

It started with the museum’s opening date, which was planned for last fall and then delayed until winter. The initial delay was due to last summer’s war in Gaza, and then was pushed off again because of the subsequent Arab-Jewish tensions that followed, including in Sakhnin.

Yet even now, with the carefully curated exhibition finally in place, the team of curators and local Sakhnin leaders have found themselves embroiled in a conversation about politics while showing the museum to a group of journalists.

Belu-Simion Fainaru is an Israeli sculptor who was born in Romania and immigrated to Israel in 1973; he now splits his time between Israel and Belgium (Courtesy Belu-Simion Fainaru)
Israeli sculptor Belu-Simion Fainaru (Courtesy Belu-Simion Fainaru)

“We’re not here to talk about that,” insisted Belu-Simion Fainaru, the cofounder of AMOCA, a sculptor who has long worked toward finding coexistence in art.

But it’s hard to avoid discussions about Arabs, Jews, peace and politics when that is the very essence of this effort.

“We’re here, in this structure, in this city, because it allows access to other artists,” explained Fainaru. “Our work is, daily, to explain and introduce art, because art is so necessary in daily life.”

He pointed out the example of Ein Harod, one of the country’s first art museums, opened on the grounds of Kibbutz Ein Harod.

“They had nothing to eat, but they opened a museum,” he said.

The situation isn’t quite the same in Sakhnin, but the metaphor is an apt one. This is the city that has the country’s only Arab Israeli soccer club, Bnei Sakhnin, playing in the country’s Premier League and a state-of-the-art soccer stadium built with millions of dollars in donations from Qatar.

The stadium, called Doha for the street on which it’s located, is just up the block from AMOCA, in an area of car garages, tile stores and falafel joints.

Beitar and Bnai Sakhnin fans facing off in the city's Doha Stadium, during a November 2014 game (Flash 90)
Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin fans facing off in the city’s Doha Stadium, during a November 2014 game. (Flash90)

When Bnei Sakhnin plays arch-rivals Beitar Jerusalem — whose fans have a strong nationalist orientation and are known for their anti-Arab chants during matches — the local police require added forces and emergency exits from the stadium and city.

AMOCA, however, tries to avoid those kinds of tensions.

Located on the periphery of the periphery, as artist and museum cofounder Avital Bar-Shay likes to say, it’s intended to make art accessible for everyone, not just people in Tel Aviv.

Avital Bar-Shay, the co-founder of AMOCA (Courtesy AMOCA)
Avital Bar-Shay, the cofounder of AMOCA (Courtesy AMOCA)

Bar-Shay and Fainaru came up with the idea of AMOCA after the success of the Mediterranean Biennale in 2013, a biannual art fair that they set up and curated, in and around Sakhnin.

During the Biennale, local works of art were exhibited all over the city, at the center, in restaurants, in City Hall, even in car garages. It also brought Israelis to Sakhnin, and they’re hoping AMOCA will accomplish the same thing.

The name, said Fainaru, is meant to evoke world-class museums like New York’s MOMA.

“That’s our aspiration,” said Fainaru. “We’re very local, but open to what’s around us. We’re in the Galilee but tied to the world. There’s lots of local art, but it doesn’t have to be only local, it can be made by a Galilean, Jew, Arab and anyone from the neighboring Arab countries.”

Fainaru, an artist who splits his year between Haifa and Belgium, also wants to bring artists, museum directors, buyers and art appreciators to Sakhnin.

“We’re an alternative kind of museum,” he explained. “We work with similar institutions in Europe and Eastern Europe, like [London’s] Tate Gallery and [Paris’s] Pompidou. We’re a start-up like in high-tech, but we’re in art.”

A piece of Fainaru exhibited as part of the HIWAR exhibit at AMOCA (Courtesy AMOCA)
A piece by Belu-Simion Fainaru on display as part of the HIWAR exhibit at AMOCA (Courtesy AMOCA)

It’s a sense that’s carried throughout the space, which feels vastly different from the restrained, modern grandeur of a MOMA or Tate Gallery. And yet, AMOCA, housed in an ecologically constructed two-floor structure on the outskirts of Sakhnin, aims to confront the continuing struggles of the Middle East through the eyes of its artists.

Given that there is no government funding for the museum from the Ministry of Culture, and the local municipal funding is relegated to cleaning and maintenance help, they needed to house the museum in an existing structure.

Fainaru's traffic light symbol, in a quiet courtyard of AMOCA's ecological home (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Belu-Simion Fainaru’s traffic-light symbol, in a quiet courtyard of AMOCA’s ecological home (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The center, which is used to teach local kids about ecology and the environment, is constructed from adobe bricks, with wind and solar generators, high, graceful windows and arched doorways. It feels both contemporary and traditional, an appropriate space for the art it now houses.

The opening exhibition of the museum is called HIWAR, an Arabic word connoting a calm conversation between two or more people, or a process by which two or more parties try to reach an agreement on a certain issue.

xx's inlaid wood panels, ensconced in their own prayer corner (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
One of Muhammed Said Kallash’s wood panels (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The more than 40 pieces curated by Fainaru and Bar-Shay include multiple works of photography and video, as well as calligraphy, collage and embroidery.

There are elements of folk art integrated into many works, such as the phrases from the Koran embedded in the wood calligraphy of Muhammed Said Kallash, whose two detailed wood panels were hung in a prayer corner, complete with cushioned seats and rugs.

“Hanging it like this brings more religious people and brings them closer to the other art,” said Fainaru.

Bohtaina Abu Milhem, from Kfar Arara in the Galilee, intertwines Arabic letters and folk aphorisms in her embroidered works, while Maria Veder and Anna Anders’ video describes the work of a women’s workshop in Arrabeh.

The embroidered work of Bohtaina Abu Milhem (Courtesy AMOCA)
The embroidered work of Bohtaina Abu Milhem (Courtesy AMOCAH)

“We pick pure art,” said Bar-Shay. “Our success is in the discussion that it stimulates. It’s tiny steps.”

The museum plans on launching an artists hosting program to encourage Israeli and international artists to stay in Sakhnin and run artist workshops and activities. The Mediterranean Biennale will also continue and will incorporate the museum’s exhibitions.

AMOCA, 100 Aldoha Street, Sakhnin. The street can be reached by turning left at the traffic circle located next to the Doha Stadium.

The museum is open Sunday to Thursday, 10 am – 4 pm. During Ramadan, June 18 – July 20, the museum will be open from Sunday to Thursday, 10 am – 2 pm.

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