Artist Hili Greenfeld found her muse in a questionable, nearly forgotten episode that took place nearly a decade before she was born, during the traumatic Yom Kippur War fought between Israel and a coalition of Arab states.
In 1973, Greenfeld’s Bezalel Academy professor was a soldier fighting in Egypt when he entered an abandoned home on the banks of the Sweet Water Canal — dug to facilitate the Suez Canal — and picked up and pocketed four objects resting on a wooden desk.
Those four objects — two drawings, one small stuffed donkey and a decorated, porcelain Turkish coffee cup — are now the basis of Greenfeld’s exhibit, “The Sweet Water Canal,” open July through October 2017 at Jerusalem’s Art Cube Artists’ Studio in the industrial Talpiot neighborhood.
The professor, who later became a well-known artist, told Greenfeld that he felt an impulse to save the items from destruction, despite clear army orders forbidding the plunder of civilian property. He took them back home to Israel.
More than 40 years later, Greenfeld, by that time a master’s student in fine arts at Bezalel, was meeting with her professor at her studio. He was struck by a similarity between her works and the mementos he had taken from that unknown Egyptian artist.
For Greenfeld, the unexpected connection emphasized the glaring absence of cultural ties between Israel and its neighbors, despite the shared geographical and cultural references.
“Israeli art studies always emphasize Western artists and theories, never those from Arab countries,” said Greenfeld. “But it makes sense that I’d have more in common with someone in Egypt than in New York.”
It was an aha moment for Greenfeld, who decided to turn the fortuitous link between her and the Egyptian painter into an imagined artistic dialogue with him or her, motivated by her own curiosity and desire for a human connection with another artist from the region.
It also opened up a contentious discussion about what is allowed and what is forbidden in the aftermath of battle: Greenfeld’s professor felt he had saved abandoned property that would have otherwise been destroyed, yet his act felt to Greenfeld like a form of colonial plunder, part of the historic appropriation of ancient Egyptian culture to Western history.
“He doubted it would interest me,” said Greenfeld, 36. “But I immediately saw that it could all be some kind of project.”
In the glassed-off gallery of the loft studio, Greenfeld has embarked on a delicate retelling of this unknown Egyptian artist’s story, using his or her works as a visual code for the exhibition.
The two original drawings, as well as the stuffed donkey and Turkish coffee cup and saucer, form the center of the small exhibit in a glass display case, creating an index of sorts for the scattering of objects Greenfeld created as a homage.
The unknown artist’s drawings, small and square, depict an Egyptian landscape, presumably Sweet Water Canal, with simple fishing boats, palm and mango trees, small white houses, a mosque and a military tent.
Those objects, along with the stuffed donkey and coffee cup offered Greenfeld a visual catalog for her creations, which include other familiar objects of Egyptian iconography, such as pyramids and hieroglyphics.
Greenfeld has always told stories with her art, tying it to narratives. She often draws but also explores different media, painting and sculpting various fragments in her process of storytelling.
She and Hadas Glazer, who curated the exhibition, embarked on six months of research into Egyptian icons and influences. After receiving a small grant, the two traveled to London where they spent time at the British Museum, which holds the largest collection of Egyptian objects outside Egypt.
They planned on exploring the subject of British plunder from Egypt during its period of colonial power, and the influences of each culture on the other.
Greenfeld also tried to make contact with Egyptian expatriate artists in London who would be willing to meet and work with her, but found that most weren’t willing to take that risk.
She bought souvenirs at the museum gift shop and created molds out of plastic and plaster, epoxy, felt and pigments in order to make replicas of the items in the drawings, including tiny pyramids, plastic palm trees, donkeys, mosques and houses.
Each of the dozens of objects were then placed on furniture that Greenfeld imagined and recreated from that abandoned Sweet Water Canal home. That included a wooden desk with British and French influences, as well as shelves, an arched window and a mashrabiya, a latticework shade used to keep the strong sun out of Middle Eastern homes.
“Each object creates a story, along with the original drawings,” said Greenfeld.
The recreated objects, placed casually on the various pieces of furniture, are meant to trigger a desire among visitors to plunder the exhibit, in an echo of Greenfeld’s triggers for creating the exhibit.
The exhibit looks at the duality of the act of taking, examining whether something abandoned and left behind then becomes available for acquisition.
“Is something saved, when it’s taken?” said Greenfeld. “It’s complex, but ultimately, he who takes — controls the narrative.”
Hili Greenfeld and Hadas Glazer will speak about the exhibit in “The Anonymous Egyptian Painter,” a gallery talk at 7 p.m., Wednesday, September 6, at the Art Cube, 26 Ha’uman Street, Talpiot, 4th floor.