Reconfigured after October 7, Haifa Biennale uses art to work through trauma and loss

Video art installations are focus of Mediterranean art show at Wizo Haifa; beeswax soldiers are lined up at Artists’ House

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

Angelika Sher's photographic work, part of the Fifth Mediterranean Biennale and 'Anybody Home?' exhibit at Wizo Haifa through March 2024 (Courtesy)
Angelika Sher's photographic work, part of the Fifth Mediterranean Biennale and 'Anybody Home?' exhibit at Wizo Haifa through March 2024 (Courtesy)

Reorganizing an art exhibition during a war is not easy, but it can make the messages all the more clear.

Veteran curators and life partners Belu-Simion Fainaru and Avital Bar-Shay had already planned their Fifth Biennale art exhibition for Haifa, but went back to the drawing board after the events of October 7, when Hamas terrorists attacked Israel’s Gaza border communities, killing some 1,200 people, committing atrocities and abducting hundreds more to Gaza.

(Part of the Biennale was hung in the streets of Istanbul at the end of October, but when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a speech supporting Hamas, the Israeli and Turkish curators removed artists’ names that sounded Israeli and replaced them with each one’s family’s country of origin.)

“We worked quickly,” said Fainaru, a professor at Wizo Haifa, a four-year art school whose gallery-lobby is hosting part of the exhibit.

The reconfigured Biennale is now called “Anybody Home?” and it reflects on what the concept of home feels like right now for Israelis when home is meant to represent shelter, refuge and safety. It questions whether people will have the strength to rebuild the homes they’ve lost in the Gaza border communities or even want to return to the homes they had to evacuate near the northern and southern borders.

The exhibit, which opened January 18, begins in the school’s cafe with Fainaru’s video of evacuees from Kibbutz Karmia, who have been staying in Haifa. They took part in a workshop with him and wrote their wishes on pieces of lined paper.

From a video work with Kibbutz Karmia evacuees, part of the Fifth Mediterranean Biennale and ‘Anybody Home?’ exhibit at Wizo Haifa through March 2024 (Courtesy)

The wishes are modest requests such as “I’d like to go home,” or “Hope my [reservist] son comes home soon” and then the participants were filmed throwing the crumpled wish to the next person, the video edited so that each paper ball was visualized as being caught and opened by the next person in line.

These two curators are big fans of video art, and there are plenty of those in this Biennale.

There’s a striking installation from photographer Ori Gersht, whose rich, oil painting-like video of “Pomegranate” shows a bullet piercing a pomegranate, which sprays its red juice over the rest of the still life. This sense of blood and warfare make is clear that something ugly is happening, commented Fainaru.

There is Angelika Sher’s “Last Supper,” a staged photograph of female soldiers eating slices of watermelon, a painful reminder of the surveillance soldiers who were abducted and are still in captivity, their welfare and whereabouts unknown. Sher has several works in the exhibit, most of them featuring female soldiers in uniform, always in dreamlike, unlikely scenarios.

Fainaru’s own contribution is a simple wall clock that looks like part of the school, but this one is set to turn backward, for that wish to go back in time, to October 6.

There are several paintings by Kibbutz Be’eri artist Ziva Jelin — red-stained scenes of Be’eri that were painted well before October 7 and are now pocked by bullet holes after Hamas terrorists shot up her kibbutz gallery on October 7.

The bullet holes “ruin the work,” said Fainaru. “Like the pomegranate. It breaks the balance.”

A work by Kibbutz Be’eri artist Ziva Jelin, part of the Fifth Mediterranean Biennale and ‘Anybody Home?’ exhibit at Wizo Haifa through March 2024 (Courtesy)

Another video work by Shahar Marcus and Nezaket Ekici shows two people buried alive under a pile of coal, while a short film made by AES + F, a group of Russia and New York-based artists, creates a scene of apocalypse or global catastrophe, “which is what it feels like right now,” said Bar-Shay.

An oversized photograph by war photographer Pavel Wohlberg was taken at Nahal Oz, a kibbutz and adjacent army base where more than 60 Israeli soldiers and over a dozen kibbutz residents were killed and others abducted to Gaza.

Wohlberg’s image looks upon the landscape as unlikely scenery, with Gaza in the background and a huge sky up above.

A Wizo Haifa student sits under Pavel Wohlberg’s work ‘Nahal Oz,’ exhibited in the Fifth Mediterranean Biennale and ‘Anybody Home?’ exhibit at Wizo Haifa through March 2024 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

There were more than a few complications in putting this Biennale together, with endless questions and concerns from the Wizo administration about how the school’s Arab students — some 50% of the student population is Arab — would view the exhibit, particularly the works featuring soldiers in uniform.

The curators had to get the school to open its doors so they could organize the exhibit, when the start of the school year was delayed due to the war. Meanwhile, they had sleepless nights as they worried about their son performing reserve duty in the north.

The son of a Wizo staff member was badly injured in Gaza at the start of the war, and a Wizo student, Inbar Haiman, was initially considered a hostage and then declared killed by Hamas several weeks later.

“We thought she’d come home,” said Fainaru. Her boyfriend, Noam Alon, is in his fourth year at Wizo and when he arrived back at school and saw a photo of her, he asked the school to take it down.

Fainaru said some of his Wizo students come to class during days off from reserve duty toting their guns, which they lay across their desks. Meanwhile, some of their fellow Arab students are pro-Hamas, he said.

The exhibit continues in several public locations in the nearby German Colony neighborhood of Haifa, with video installations in cafes, beauty salons and a local mall, among other spots. The Biennale website includes a walking map for the locations of the neighborhood installations.

The curators, though they are lovers of arcane messaging, finish the exhibit with one easy-to-read work by Fainaru, a familiar white rectangular lit-up number sign of the sort used on apartment buildings, this one printed with “yihiye tov” (“Everything is going to be alright”).

“People like that,” said Fainaru.

In glass and wax

Deborah Dworman Sullum holds one of her beeswax cast molds of a soldier, part of her ‘Shema Yisrael – The Fallen’ artwork at the Haifa Artists’ House (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

A short walk away from Wizo Haifa is “Who By Fire,” a one-gallery exhibit in the nearby Haifa Artists’ House that also marks mourning and loss by artist Deborah Dworman Sullum.

Sullum brought together glass works marking her own mourning over an adult nephew’s sudden death in a recent plane crash with glass works to mark each of the hostages still in Gaza.

The focus of the exhibit is “Shema Yisrael, The Fallen,” a collection of casted beeswax figurines cast by Sullum for each of the soldiers killed since the war in Gaza began.

Sullum was mourning her nephew and her sister’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis in a series of window and glass-layered portraits, when the attacks of October 7 occurred, leading her to think about how it all connected for her.

A long-time devotee of flea markets, including Haifa’s daily flea market, Sullum happened upon a 1964 Ken doll during one of her wanderings and used it to create a mold of a soldier, from which she shapes beeswax figurines of the soldiers.

She adds new ones nearly every day to the rows carefully laid out on a sheet of burlap placed on the gallery floor.

“Who By Fire” will be open through January 26.

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