One of Israel’s most prestigious art schools is housed in a kibbutz-like setting, accessed from a dusty road that feels far from the tidy confines of the nearby town of Kfar Saba.
Known as HaMidrasha, it is part of the Beit Berl College, an oasis of simple whitewashed classrooms, palm trees and flowering bushes. The art school, which trains artists and art teachers, has a relatively high proportion of Arab students, lending the school a diverse artistic vision.
This year’s 28 graduates were challenged to create conceptual art for their final exhibit — works that expressed their tensions and prejudices within an atmosphere of understanding and problem-solving.
The students interpreted their identities, explored family histories and eyed the country’s conflicted national culture. They examined domestic “honor killings” — murder of a female by male relatives who claim the victim brought shame upon their family — within close-knit Arab communities and looked at sexual identity in the context of family and friend networks.
HaMidrasha students had to make do with less, creating art with few and low-cost materials in adherence to an early Israeli art movement that was strongly identified with the establishment of the state and was particularly associated with their school.
“Students here at HaMidrasha have to be doubly creative, because art is expensive,” said Sarah Kreimer, the school’s development director.
Despite those limitations, the students’ artworks were sophisticated, thought-provoking and unconventional.
There was a lifelike, 3D Egyptian Anubis by Daniel Levy, a 56-year-old former environmental consultant who found his way to art through the colorful stories of ancient Egyptian mythology that he had heard from his parents, immigrants from Egypt.
Lama Watad, 22, from Jatt, a village north of Tel Aviv, painted the dark and obscured shapes of three male domestic killers from behind, and confronted them with the imagined eyes of their female victims.
“My idea was to show that although the women are dead, they’re still chasing their murderers with their sorrowful and angry eyes,” she said.
A multi-form installation by Ala Haytham, 21, combined video, drawing, embroidery and sculpture to deal with the issue of her Palestinian people’s struggle for political and cultural self-determination.
Haytham filmed herself playing Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” on the violin, but ever so slightly out of tune. Growing up, she toured abroad with Kfar Saba’s Symphony Orchestra, which would regularly open every concert with the anthem — a difficult moment for her given her alienation from the Jewish state.
On one of the walls she put a candle in the form of the Arabic letter “ض” (Ḍād), which means to melt, to illustrate the continuous erosion and erasure of the Arabic language.
Kibbutznik Benjamin Haasnoot, 29, created a stunningly beautiful and highly artful boat out of different types of wood, with the keel of the boat taking on the shape of a duck’s head and the paddle that of a webbed foot. He was trying to make sense of his idealized childhood after realizing that there was no going back to those times.
Another student artist, Inbal Cohen Hamo, 54, who works mainly in photography, sculpture, and media, photographed one of her children, Star, who identifies as genderqueer after taking male hormones and having undergone breast removal surgery.
Cohen Hamo saw this exhibition as a collaboration in which she and her son documented their family’s courageous process of dealing with changes within.
The variety of the artworks reflect the different lives of the Beit Berl population. It’s all par for the course at HaMidrasha, which has been the educational home for many of Israel’s leading fine artists, including Israel Prize winner Michal Neeman, Tel Aviv Museum of Art lead curator Doron Rabina, artists Roee Rosen, Anisa Ashkar, Michal Geva and others.
“Forty percent of the leading fine artists in Israel come from our school, 40% from Bezalel, and the rest from various other places,” said Guy Ben-Ner, the dean of HaMidrasha.
The school is sometimes known as an art teacher’s art school, and is classified as a college of education by the Council of Higher Education. In fact, Beit Berl’s overall graduates are teachers in about 20% of the country’s secular public schools.
Strategically located between the Sharon region and the so-called triangle of several centrally located Arab towns, the college has always prided itself on being “a living laboratory for building a shared society,” said Kreimer.
One in four students at Beit Berl as a whole is from an Arab background, and some 30% of HaMidrasha students are from Arab towns. The college also has a preparatory program for high school graduates from the Arab Israeli community, who don’t necessarily have access to a formal arts education. Launched five years ago in conjunction with Beit Berl’s Arab Institute for Education, this course now enables 70% of the pre-college students to be accepted into the full academic program.
HaMidrasha helped develop the first art matriculation track of its kind in the Arab town of Taibe, which is headed by a Beit Berl graduate.
“HaMidrasha has got a huge impact within the local communities on how art is taught at the elementary level,” said Kreimer. “We go into the local high schools, and try to show the students that the power of art is not just about beauty, but also stimulates creative thinking in other subjects, like science.”