Ironically, imprisonment provided the freedom to paint

Asylum-seeker art at desert detention center is a surprising splash of color

Exhibit opening Thursday in Tel Aviv features four artists who painted on walls of now-closed Holot facility during their incarceration

Tsegay Berhe's "Tea Break in School," painted in the Holot Detention Center in 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Tsegay Berhe's "Tea Break in School," painted in the Holot Detention Center in 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Tsegay Berhe has been interested in art ever since he can remember, drawing and sketching with pencils or pens or anything he could find during his childhood in Eritrea. But he didn’t immerse himself in art until he reached the Holot Detention Center in Israel, where he was held from December 2015 to December 2016.

Berhe, 39, painted on the walls of Holot with the cooperation of the Israeli Prison Services, which ran the detention center that housed approximately 13,000 male asylum seekers for 12 months apiece until it closed in 2018. “I painted nonstop [in Holot] because I wanted to pass the time, and when I was working I didn’t think about being in jail,” Berhe said.

Now, his paintings are part of a new exhibition in Tel Aviv called “With the Wind in my Mind,” which will be at the Kiosko bar and gallery in the Florentine neighborhood for two weeks starting Thursday.

Organizers say they want the exhibit to become a traveling art show, but have no concrete plans yet to showcase it elsewhere.

“Art became a way to pass the time, to reinvent themselves in a place where they had nothing, and to express strength and resistance,” said exhibit organizer Hamutal Sadan, founder of the Art of Refugees in Israel initiative to highlight asylum seeker art. The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this week, sponsored the exhibition.

Holot was originally envisioned as a way to encourage illegal migrants to leave Israel or face unlimited detention. After human rights organizations petitioned the High Court, the courts ruled that detention would be limited to 12 months.

According to the Population Authority, since the early 2000s, 64,850 people illegally crossed the border from Egypt into Israel. Most of the approximately 40,000 asylum seekers in Israel live in south Tel Aviv, crowded into crumbling neighborhoods and maintaining tense relations with veteran Israeli residents.

“Tropical Rain Forest” painted by Tsegay Berhe at the Holot Detention Center in 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

About 72 percent of the migrants are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese. Eritrean asylum seekers fled a harsh dictator and compulsory military service that can last for 40 years. Sudanese asylum seekers fled genocide in Darfur as well as fighting between Sudan and South Sudan.

Berhe is one of a handful of men detained at Holot who painted and drew on many of the building’s available surfaces. Outside, these detainees-turned-artists painted symbols of the Prison Services and the flag of Israel and other things requested by the officers in charge. Inside the TV rooms, the artists had free range to paint whatever they wanted, although political or controversial themes were not allowed.

The exhibition at Kiosko in Tel Aviv features photographs of paintings from Tsegay Berhe, Afwerki Teame, Angosom (Sheba) Grmatsion, and Mikiele Yewhans, all of whom are Eritrean asylum seekers imprisoned at Holot for a year.

Sadan, a 31-year-old masters student at Tel Aviv University, organized the exhibition in cooperation with graphic artist Ophelia Petrosian, as part of her thesis on art in the asylum seeker community.

Tsegay Berhe’s “Portrait” painted in 2016 in Holot Detention Center. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“People hear about my thesis and they say, ‘is there even art in the asylum seeker community?’” Sadan said. “It’s hard for me to explain just how much art there is, there is painting and sculpture and theater and music. I want people to come to this exhibition and see asylum seekers, see who they are as a person, and also to see what was happening in Holot.”

Holot closed in 2018 as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to advance a plan to deport thousands of asylum seekers to Uganda and Rwanda. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees attempted to broker an agreement that would have settled half of the asylum seekers in other countries, which Netanyahu accepted and then canceled hours later.

Since the deportations snafu last spring, the asylum seekers continue to live in limbo. Government policies, including a law that requires asylum seekers to deposit 20% of their salary in a fund that’s only available to them when they leave the country, continue to make life difficult for the community. They are unable to qualify for many social services, including full health insurance, and are forced to work long hours at multiple jobs. Berhe said so many asylum seekers are so focused on surviving, they can’t find the time to create.

“This is work that needs quiet, that needs relaxation,” he said. He knows many Eritrean women who were trained in the art of traditional weaving at home, but aren’t able to engage in their craft in Israel due to lack of time. “If people here had quiet, they could make these here as well,” he said. “We [asylum seekers] are not making a big mess, we can do beautiful things. Everyone could make beauty, but they have no time. Your thoughts are so busy and so distracted. Every year the law is changing, with the deposit law or something new, they don’t want us to advance.”

Tsegay Berhe, an Eritrean artist, in Tel Aviv on July 9, 2019. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Berhe fled Eritrea in 2009 after deserting the army, where he had served eight years of a mandatory conscription with no end date. After arriving in Israel in 2010, he moved to Hadera and worked as many jobs as possible, too busy trying to get enough money to survive to think about making art. In 2015, he was forced to report to Holot for a year of detention, one of the tactics used by the Interior Ministry to encourage asylum seekers to leave the country.

When Berhe found himself in Holot, he noticed other paintings on the walls and asked officers in charge if he could also paint. They provided him with paint, and some direction about where and what to paint. The prison services offer art therapy in many of the prisons across the country.

A spokeswoman for the prison service declined to comment specifically on the Holot painting program, which was overseen by an independent art therapy worker, as in many other prisons. She noted that the prison service offers a number of rehabilitative and vocational programs for prisoners and detainees. At Holot, detainees were able to gain experience working in gardening and landscaping and carpentry at workshops on the premises.

Berhe said while he was working on his paintings in Holot, he would lose himself in the painting, forgetting for a few hours where he was. He painted almost every day, around four hours a day, for the entire year he was detained.

Asylum seekers protesting at the Holot detention center in the southern Negev Desert of Israel, February 17, 2014. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

His favorite paintings are ones he did of peacocks.

“I was at Mount Hermon and I saw this peacock. And suddenly it spread its feathers, it was so colorful and beautiful and it really touched me,” Berhe said. “It is always beautiful, when it is walking around, or when it has opened its feathers.”

In a number of paintings, Berhe captured animals and other natural scenes to bring beauty to the stark walls that surrounded him.

Berhe said that he gained some fame within Holot for his artwork, and sometimes people from other sections of the prison would come to the TV room in his section to hang out surrounded by it.

Tsegay Berhe’s “Untitled (Two Deers)” painted at Holot Detention Center in 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Sadan, the organizer of the exhibition, said the painting that most touched her was a mural Berhe created of the Israeli flag surrounded by bright flowers. The flag was commissioned by the officers, but the decision to turn the flag into a sort of vase was Berhe’s.

“When we see a Star of David, we have a lot of ideological connections, but when he sees the Israeli flag, he sees it more as an aesthetic thing, and he thought the colors were pretty, but something was missing,” said Sadan. “They told him what to draw, but he took it to his own place as an artist and a person, and he decided to do it in his own way. What does it mean to draw the flag of a country that has put you in a detention center? And to draw it with so much color and life? It’s so ironic.”

“The asylum seekers come to Israel and they’re like cut flowers, they hope that this place will give them water to live, but the state doesn’t allow them to grow roots,” Sadan added. “If a plant grows in the ground it will thrive, but if you put a cut flower in a vase it will eventually die. The country is always doing things trying to encourage them to leave, and you see, after years the flowers are wilted and faded.”

Untitled (the Flag of Israel with Flowers), painted by Tsegay Berhe at the Holot Detention Center in 2016. (Tsegay Berhe)

Afwerke Teame, another artist from Eritrea, also knew from age 8 that he wanted to be an artist and would on every available surface as he was growing up. Teame served eight years in the Eritrean army before fleeing.

“I was supposed to be in the army for 1.5 years, but I didn’t get released for eight years,” he said. “After five years, I decided to flee, but it took me three years to find an opportunity. I couldn’t live like that, I had no future. It’s very depressing to see your whole country destroyed. You don’t feel like you’re a person.”

Teame had no plans once he left Eritrea, he just knew he had to get out. He eventually went to Sudan and then Egypt, before arriving in Israel in 2008.

“In the seven years in Israel before I went to Holot, I drew at home, because my life was just about survival, working in order to survive,” Teame said. “When I went to Holot, there I had time to think for the first time, where I am, where I’m going.”

Teame spent his first few months at Holot creating colorful murals featuring animals and traditional landscapes. “I never studied art, so for me, [painting on the walls] was like my school,” said Teame. “Drawing on a wall is like drawing on canvas. It made me want to study art further.”

For Teame, this forced detention crystallized his decision to pursue art full-time. Before his detention, Teame was just starting to get involved in the art world through contacts he made at English classes and Hebrew classes held in Haifa at an art school. Teame took part in two exhibitions in Haifa, and met the president of Shenkar College of Engineering, Design, and Art, who arranged a six-month scholarship for Teame during his detention in Holot.

Afwerki Teame and Isobel Rubin’s “Africa Sunrise,” painted in Holot in 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Holot was an open detention center, meaning detainees were required to be inside in the evenings, but were free to leave during the day. Because the facility was located more than an hour by bus from Beersheba in a desolate part of the Negev Desert, most detainees were not able to leave on a regular basis. But Teame received special permission to study at Shenkar every Thursday in Ramat Gan.

Rather than worrying about making rent and having enough to eat, Teame jokes that Holot was like his student dormitory. Ironically, imprisonment allowed him the freedom to immerse himself in art. Teame said that while the reality of Holot was terrible, in a strange way, he is almost grateful, because it enabled him to concentrate on art.

“Holot was really hard for people, some people tried to commit suicide, others really went crazy,” said Teame. The painting and studying kept him focused.

Tsegay Berhe’s faded Flag with Flowers at Holot Detention Center, photographed in June 2019, three years after painting. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“I never thought these paintings would be in an exhibition, I never thought about why am I here, what are these policies that put me here,” said Teame, noting that he was still in survival mode while in Holot. “I was just doing something that I loved.”

After his release, Teame obtained a scholarship at Minshar School of Art in Tel Aviv and has now completed two years of a bachelor’s program in Fine Arts. Berhe has struggled to find time to make art while working two jobs, at a rehabilitation hospital for people with severe mental disabilities in Pardes Hanna and a vegetable stand in Hadera, though he has recently started painting again.

The exhibit of paintings from Holot was originally Teame’s idea, because he noted that while many asylum seekers struggle to create art due to lack of time, ironically, Holot was bursting with color and creativity.

I met Teame when he was teaching drawing classes at a community center I help manage at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv last spring, and he brought up the idea of an exhibit about these paintings. Holot, bursting with colorful paintings, was a kind of living museum to how asylum seekers attempted to deal with a difficult situation, bringing color to their bleak detention in the desert, he said.

Through my connections with the Prison Services spokesperson, I helped organize access for Flash90 photographer Miriam Alster last June and again for Sadan and Alster this past month to photograph some of the works, despite the facility being closed.

“Untitled” by Mikiele Yewhans painted in Holot Detention Center in 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

For both Teame and Berhe, it is strange to see paintings from such a difficult time in their lives on the walls of a gallery.

“I go back and think about what Holot was, not just for me but for all of the community,” Teame said. “Now everyone knows what Holot was, I want them to simply see what was there and to also see the beauty that we made there.”

After living in Israel for 11 years in limbo, he is frustrated and disheartened by the lack of progress on the asylum seeker issue, especially the infighting and disagreements within the Israeli Jewish community about what to do with the community of approximately 40,000 asylum seekers. The Interior Ministry and Netanyahu maintain that the asylum seekers are economic migrants who came to Israel to work and not to flee persecution, and have granted just 13 Eritreans and 1 Sudanese asylum seeker refugee status, out of thousands.

“It’s hard for me to understand, Jews built this country from nothing 70 years ago, overcoming so many challenges,” said Teame. “And this small problem, you can’t solve?”

Teame and Berhe both said the experience taught them the importance of simply picking up a paintbrush every day, to create beauty despite being surrounded by a challenging reality. “It doesn’t matter how difficult it is, just do something,” said Teame.

“Everyone has the ability to make things and to make beautiful things,” said Berhe.

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