Between Vision and Reality
By Said Abu Shakra, Director of the gallery and the creator of the concept of future Umm el-Fahem Museum of Contemporary Art
The city of Umm el-Fahem, an Arab city in Israel, lies on the slope of Mt. Iskander and the adjacent hills, overlooking the important historical route that once connected large and distant regions of a war-torn land. Many people and various cultures wound their way along the Wadi at the foot of the mountain, thus making it a pivotal crossroads and a major link in the development and future of the entire region.
Fifty thousand people reside in this now fast-growing community, destined to become a central cultural meeting place for the large, dense concentration of Arab population in the Wadi's surroundings by virtue of its location and unique qualities. For centuries the local residents have cultivated the land that became the source of their dignity, pride and livelihood. This persistent connection with the land has given rise to a diverse and fascinating culture encompassing fashion, poetry, pottery and building, as well as various customs and traditions.
The war that broke out tore the rich, delicate cultural fabric. In its wake, the large settlement became a place of gloomy corners and dark alleys. Families were scattered, leaving years of hard work and a devastated culture behind. The once rich and sprawling town was now poor and struggling to survive. Its residents were no longer masters of their own faith; they became persecuted refugees. Poverty, unemployment, and an identity crisis brought about one of the worst battles for survival the city has ever had to face. Under difficult social and political circumstances the community forged ahead with a clear message of protest, becoming the vanguard of the entire Arab population in Israel.
It was into this harsh and complex reality that the Umm el-Fahem Art Gallery was born. Within a short period of time it became a center of culture and activity for the whole region. A sense of commitment to the past as well as to the future of the place motivates the people who continue steadfastly and lovingly to operate the Gallery. The mission is clear. Whatever was destroyed by the war should be rebuilt. This should be done at once, without compromise, and with a great effort. We realize that it is our heavy and long-term responsibility to rebuild, collect, study, commemorate and present all we can pertaining to the Arab and Palestinian culture that was crushed. The output of this work will be incorporated into a large building, the first ever Arab museum to provide a bridge between past, present and future, a home to a vision that will reinstate people with happiness, pride, and a sense of belonging.
The idea to establish a museum was born in a vast and anguished void, a devastating lack of professional staff, of resources and infrastructure. The Gallery started operating out of a sense of awareness and responsibility for the future, aiming to pave a new way in a new direction. The means are meager and the road is long and arduous. With only the existing means we have embarked on several different activities. Artists, curators and other professionals from different countries and cultures have been invited to take part in this joint collaboration. The Gallery has become an important social and cultural meeting place. The creative workshops, seminars, gallery talks, symposiums, the many art exhibitions and unique display spaces have turned it into a central place in the local and international culture scene.
The Gallery is now on its way to becoming the first Arab museum of contemporary art in Israel. This museum will be an inviting, embracing and enriching place, capable of bridging gaps and connecting different cultures that live side by side in the heart of a troubled, war weary region. We shall strive to raise a generation steadfastly true to its culture and identity, a generation that will take responsibility for its life and its future; a generation of proud and deep-rooted young people, committed to reclaiming the wilderness and to pursuing peace.
The Benevolent Tree
“The Benevolent Tree,” the exhibition scheduled to take place at the Umm El Fahem Art Gallery, is an attempt by 78 Israeli and Palestinian artists, to reinvigorate the broader discussion on the essence, importance and symbolism of the olive tree.
The sanctity of the olive tree has become intertwined with the sanctity of the land, to form a single entity symbolizing the difficult arguments and bloody conflict that have been going on for years on end. Many artists have been inspired by the image of the olive tree and its diversity of connotations and have incorporated the tree into their works. Even though it is “the benevolent tree,” the olive tree – uprooted from its natural surroundings, passed around from hand to hand, vandalized and rehabilitated – has experienced hardships and bumpy roads. Ironically, the intensity of the ongoing conflict escalates during the olive harvest, when the tree’s bounty – its fruit and its blessing – is manifest.
Despite the difficult times, art and cultural activity still have the power to shift public discourse back its central position, as the basis for a lively, respectful dialogue, even on controversial issues. The purpose of this exhibition is to arouse questions and thought, to resuscitate the wide-ranging discussions that all of us are eager to see renewed.
Daniel Kahana, the curator, has spent many years researching the olive tree’s status in local visual art. The Umm El Fahem Art Gallery, which serves as a cultural platform and meeting place for supporters of art and peace, is pleased to host “The Benevolent Tree,” which he has curated. Dozens of leading Israeli and Palestinian artists from throughout the country are taking part in this comprehensive exhibition, which is to be showcased on three floors of the gallery.
“I am using this exhibition to tell the tree’s story as a way of telling the story of survival, since it appears that the tree is a reflection of the stages in the development of settlement in this part of the world all through history, in the clearest possible way. The exhibition will focus on the olive tree – uprooted from its physical and symbolic roots, which play an important part in the identity of its various owners, as well as in the interpretation of local art. “