It was a crazy phone conversation, the kind that evidently can only take place in our complicated, conflicted region. Palestinian artist and photographer Eman Mohammed called a Syrian colleague in Damascus and tried to convince her not to withdraw her work from the international photography exhibition of Israeli and Arab artists which opens its doors on September 6 in Vienna and is sponsored by the State of Israel.
It was only one of many touching, suspenseful and also disappointing moments experienced by art curator Sharon Toval, on his way to realizing a goal that had once seemed illusory. Next week will end a year-and-a-half campaign between Damascus, Tehran, Gaza, Oman and Jerusalem — one that included visits and brief stopovers at all these places, in an attempt to coordinate a non-political Israeli-Arab exhibit in Vienna. Toval was assisted by his partner, Austrian curator Sini Coreth, who even visited Tehran on Toval's behalf about eight months ago. Coreth landed in the Iranian capital in order to search out local artists who would agree to participate in the unusual venture. "I was amazed at the numerous responses I received from them," she says. "I received tons of positive reactions."
The message from the encounters with the Iranians was clear: They have no problem participating in a joint exhibition with Israeli artists. "But of course, all of them said that they worried about the response of the regime to such a step," explains Coreth. "You must understand that contemporary art in Iran today takes place in hiding. Invitations to exhibit openings are whispered by word of mouth; guests secretly slip into the building in small numbers. Only after they leave does another group enter the underground gallery, and so forth. Anything so as not to be caught by the authorities."
A selection of hundreds of pictures
The entire idea was born by chance. "More than a year and a half ago, I was introduced to Sini Coreth by a relative. At the time she had curated a digital art exhibit of a number of Iranian artists. Immediately I conceived the idea of curating a group exhibition with her, an exhibit that would bring together artists from Middle Eastern counties and Israel. We embarked on a project that took more than a year, just to find and choose the artists for the exhibit. The concept we adopted was a photography exhibit composed of works of women from the entire region. The idea was to create art without borders. The digital media is also appropriate for this sort of mobile exhibit — photographs may be produced and transported relatively easily, compared to paintings or large stationary works."
How did you make contact with the Arab artists?
"Sini was the mediator. Of course she updated everyone that the exhibition would have an Israeli as joint curator, and that Israeli photographer Tome Bookstein would also take part in the exhibit. Sini recruited artists from Syria, Oman, Gaza and Iran. Slowly but surely, the project began to materialize. We started to receive works from artists. I travelled to Vienna a number of times and together we selected the photographs for the exhibit out of the hundreds of works we received."
And then the battles approached the region of the Syrian photographer in Damascus. "We lost contact with her for a period of half a year. At a certain stage, she wrote us a short email in which she explained, "I don't have Internet, everything is okay, I sleep in a different place every night." We understood that we could not rely on her for the exhibition. But to our surprise, she sent us works from a series of amazing photos entitled, "Raise Your Head." She photographs her shoes in all sorts of places in Syria."
The catalog of the exhibition bears the inscription "Vienna–Tel Aviv" on its binding next to the symbol of the menorah of the State of Israel. This catalog has already been distributed among art fans, and a quick look reveals an alternative reality to the brutal battles in Syria and Iranian nuclear drums of war. Under the title "Individual Journey to Poetry" appear the works of eight female artists from Iran, Syria, Gaza, Oman, Israel and — perhaps to calm things down a bit — three women from Japan, China and Austria. The exhibit opens September 6 in Vienna and in January, it will land in Jaffa, Israel at the Peres Center for Peace. The project is mainly financed by the Austrian Cultural Forum, with the cooperation of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
For a brief moment, it actually seemed that President Shimon Peres could return to his new-old Middle East: an international exhibition sponsored by the Israeli government that would display photographs taken by female photographers from enemy countries. "I also felt that I was in another era," says Toval, who is curator, collector and artist's promoter at Modern Art Israel. "The foreign ministry that also sponsored the project, they didn't care about the business with Iran, Iraq or Syria," he says with a smile. "All they asked was that Eman [Mohammed], the Gaza photographer, should say that she is from the Palestinian Authority and not from Palestine. In general the exhibit is not political; it deals with the boundaries of art, the feminine pursuit of photography and of course, collaboration between female artists from different worlds and from hostile countries."
But the Middle East is still the Middle East, and moments before the exhibit was due to open, the problems started. The borders that, for a moment, seemed to have been breached started to slam shut. After the artistic works had already been framed in Tel Aviv, the catalogs and texts sent to Austria and already published, the Syrian and Oman artists asked to cancel their participation in the exhibit. Their argument? They hadn't been aware of the Israeli involvement in the venture.
"Of course, everyone knew in advance," says Toval. "Each and every one of them had to authorize the public-relations and exhibit texts with her signature, including the catalog, with all the logos of the State of Israel inside. They also notified us that they would withdraw their works from the Peres Peace Center exhibit and would not allow their names to appear in the catalog with the Israeli logo. The reason is clear: They are afraid that people in their country will find out about this and they will be put in danger. At the end a compromise was achieved. It was decided to remove their names from the catalog and replace them by the inscriptions, "Anonymous artist from Syria" and "Anonymous artist from Oman."
And what about the Iranian artist?
"Ironically, she has no problem that her picture will be displayed. She tells us all the time that there should be no connection between art and religion."
Toval still believes that things will work out. He plans on opening the exhibition as planned, with a small protest. "The spaces in which the Syrian and Oman works were to be hung will be left blank. Instead we will hang a sign saying, 'This spot had been designated for a work of art by an artist who cancelled her participation.' Furthermore we will hold a press conference and discuss the subject, 'Does art have borders?'
"As an artist, do I dedicate my artwork without distinction of religion and nationality or am I, first and foremost, a political animal and only afterward an artist? In general, it is interesting that the artists from Syria and Oman did not integrate political themes in their works while the Palestinian artist, who is very political and deals intensively with the situation in Gaza and the conflict with Israel, did not withdraw. She even tried to convince the others to remain."
So how will the story end?
There is always the hope that art will triumph over the surrounding reality. Will the photographs eventually be exhibited in Israel? That is uncertain. But Toval is still proud of his work. And he has the catalog that commemorates a rare Middle Eastern cooperative project, even if it lasted for only a short time.
"Through the influence of real art, aided by science, guided by religion ... peaceful co-operation of man is now obtained by external means." –Leo Tolstoy