Story by Jacqueline Dobbins, Photos by Emily Teague
(Jerusalem, Israel) — Jerusalem, the very heart of Israel—and many would say the heart of the conflict—often calls up images of historical and religious sites. The gleaming, golden Dome of the Rock greets people of many faiths as they make their way to the sites of religious significance throughout Jerusalem, and all of Israel. While it has many claims to fame, Jerusalem and a thriving art world are usually not synonymous. Yet, that’s exactly what it has, though it’s far from typical.
Artists are working together to understand the unique culture of Jerusalem and to create art that reflects and confronts its complexity. In the past few years, organizations, both independently-run and run by the municipality of Jerusalem, have been cropping up with the intention of bringing artists and the community together for dialogue and understanding. Muslala and Beita are two such organizations.
The rights to Jerusalem are a central issue in the Israeli conflict. It’s not surprising then that it’s nearly impossible to escape the conflict in the city. Artists working in Jerusalem are often inspired by the tensions and diversity of the city. If you work in Jerusalem, chances are your work is connected—even abstractly—to Jerusalem. “There’s a certain way of seeing art for artists living in Jerusalem,” said Haim Ben Shitrit, an Israeli artist working and living in Jerusalem. “The people that are doing art in Jerusalem are very much involved. Few of them are in the track of trying to be international. We feel that we are connected to this place.” Further showing artists’ devotion to Jerusalem is the fact that there isn’t a commercial art scene in the city. If you want that you have to go to Tel Aviv. The artists in Jerusalem are more focused on the messages and impact of their work and less on the price it will sell for.
“There’s a desperate need to figure out a way to exist, to showcase your art and to make meaning of your art. There’s some kind of poetic status to what’s happening here.”
“There’s actually no commercial gallery in the city,” said Anat Litwin, an artist and the director of Beita, an urban art center in Jerusalem. “So there’s a desperate need to figure out a way to exist, to showcase your art and to make meaning of your art. There’s some kind of poetic status to what’s happening here. The art itself is created with this consciousness of Jerusalem. Everything is more symbolic.” Their connection to Jerusalem and often deep understanding of the conflict leads artists to use art as a method of discussion and activism. Though themes and mediums of artists’ work is varied, the belief that art can initiate change in Jerusalem is widespread. And for many artists, a change in Jerusalem means a change in the world. “The way we see it, if Jerusalem is the center of the world, or at least so central in the eyes of the believers of the three faiths, the change that can happen in Jerusalem is a change that will release a lot of pain and a lot of hard emotions and thoughts that are part of the subconscious of humanity,” said Matan Israeli, an Israeli artist and the co-founder of Muslala, a non-profit artists group. “Art has the power to do it.”
“We see art as a method of healing.”
Muslala was established in 2008 by artists, residents and community activists in the Musrara neighborhood of Jerusalem. Musrara is on the seam of East and West Jerusalem, representing in many ways the center of Jerusalem’s place in the Israeli conflict. Matan, the co-founder of the group, believes that if a positive change is to happen in Jerusalem, it will happen in Musrara first. To that end, Muslala uses exhibitions, workshops, tours and urban “art-tracks” to make a change in Jerusalem, and consequently in Israel. “We want to see the limits of how art can create change,” Matan said. “We’re searching for a key point where if you change one thing, you can create a significant change… we see art as a method of healing.” Beita is similarly motivated. In September 2014 Anat joined forces with the Jerusalem Municipality’s department of visual arts to create an urban art center devoted to social-based art. Using artist residency programs, workshops, courses and events Beita seeks to both nurture artists and develop social consciousness within the community of Jerusalem. “This is a city project, belonging to the people of Jerusalem,” Anat said. “We want to connect everyday life and art and allow people from the community to come, create and connect. The name Beita means home in Aramaic, in Ethiopian it means community, in English it means new, upcoming, searching for new answers. That’s what we want.” Members of Jerusalem’s art world are working from the bottom up to create change in Israel. They hope to ignite growth with connections and dialogue. “I think there’s always the kind of thinking that through art there’s a basis for dialogue,” Anat said. “But it’s also about being aware. Art can connect.” Read A Discussion with the Artists for a closer look into the Jerusalem art world. Check out A Look Inside Beita for a photostory on the organization.