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Trailblazing Israeli-Druze photo artist fights against tradition

Through her photos, Ameera Ziyan showcases the changes the Druze community is undergoing in its attitude toward art and gender equality.

“The conflicts expressed in art, regardless of whether they are resolved or suppressed, can be found beneath the surface of any particular social order,” wrote Herbert Marcuse, the Jewish-born German-American theorist affiliated with the Frankfurt School. When it comes to photographer Ameera Ziyan, the social order in which she was raised continues to inspire her work, serving as a broad canvas for her artistic expression.

This is how Ziyan describes herself: “I’m a photographer, and I live in Yarka, a Druze village in the western Galilee. A lot of my work focuses on issues relating to social and cultural identity, and women in my society. My photographs are staged. Some of them contain very clear symbolisms through which I express my very clear statements.”

Virtually all of Ziyan’s photographs focus on her experiences as a woman in a conservative Druze society. But Ziyan is not an “ordinary” Druze woman. She is trying to instigate change, particularly in the attitude of Druze society toward art in general and photography in particular. In its broadest sense, the change constantly hovering in the background involves the status of Druze women and their ability to use their passions and skills in order to express themselves.

As her family’s eldest daughter, Ziyan has been under constant supervision ever since she was a child to ensure that she would not overstep the norms and expectations of a young Druze woman. Then she rebelled. A visit to a friend attending college in the Galilee convinced her that she should also pursue a higher education, so she registered to study chemical engineering without her parents knowing. “It was practical,” she told Al-Monitor. “Practicality and the ability to earn a living play an important role in our community in what people choose to study.”

She first informed her parents that she had registered for college one day before classes began. Then she told them that she would not be able to get the tuition back if she failed to attend. Upon completing her studies in 1999, she felt that something was still missing and she was far from feeling satisfied.

Ever since she was a little girl, Ziyan had photographed family events and trips. When she completed her studies, her brother offered her a job at the family photo shop. That was where she first encountered pictures of “foreigners,” as she calls Israeli Jews. They had brought their film to the shop in order to have it developed. She looked at the photos and was immediately struck by what she saw. Ziyan signed up for a photography course, but soon realized that this was just the tip of the iceberg, so she applied to the Department of Fine Arts at Haifa University. Her family was fiercely opposed to this, but Ziyan refused to give up her dream. Then there was another problem. The department chair, professor Sharon Poliakin, was reluctant to accept her at all. The photos that Ziyan submitted with her application seemed “more like decorations than art,” said Ziyan, but in the end, Poliakin decided to give her a chance.

Ziyan felt an affinity for staged photographs from the moment she was first exposed to the work of American photographer Sally Mann. She was especially intrigued by works shot in very private personal and familial settings. “This is my art. I immediately realized that,” she said. “It is the kind of art in which I can express myself in the most genuine way possible.”

Her first series of photographs revolved around children from her own family. Ziyan dressed them up as beggars and photographed them begging for alms in their neighborhood. Her lecturer, Shai Ignatz, himself a noted photographer, was so excited by her work that he decided to display the photos in the corridors of the university. It was Ziyan’s first exhibition.

In 2009, her second year at the university, she received the Szpilman Award for Photography for a series of photos depicting Druze women. She said the prize gave her a significant push forward. She realized that her photos had deep artistic meaning; they were telling a story.

She received the title of “outstanding student” for her final project, perhaps because it was so introspective. It featured photographs depicting engagement and wedding ceremonies taken after her own engagement to a Druze man was called off. With the success of this work, she decided to dedicate herself to her art instead of following the more traditional pursuit of marriage and family.

Ziyan first delved into the world of color while working on her Master of Fine Arts degree; until then, she only shot in black and white. “Black represented fear, formality and strength. White represented purity, spirituality and renewal,” she said. Color added a new dimension and depth to her work; it expanded the scope of the meanings of her photos.

Her ensuing photos were based on interviews and conversations with young Druze women with various professions from other towns and villages. “These conversations shaped my work and gave me direction. The words and their meaning turned into pictures,” she explained. This was the origin of the “Crystal Palace” exhibition, which is showing in a gallery in Umm al-Fahm throughout April. “Most of the people who come to see it are Jews. That’s disappointing,” she said.

Her photo of a floating red dress, which serves Ziyan as a calling card, was taken while she was still in school. By highlighting the contrast between the somewhat blurry red dress blowing in the wind and the traditional gown in the background, it gives voice to the famous quote by French photographer Pierre Poulain that describes the role of an artist as someone whose work makes the invisible visible.

Another exhibition is the painfully personal “On Exposed Concrete.” It features photos taken after the death of her father. Ziyan admired her father and spent much of her life trying to convince him how important and necessary it was for her to be an artist. Her father owned a cement factory, so Ziyan photographed herself on the exposed concrete, as well as in her father’s clothes, in his room, and with his things. In 2017, she received the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport's encouragement award.

Ziyan’s work has featured in exhibitions in New Jersey, Berlin and Vienna, as well as in numerous galleries throughout Israel. The one thing absent from all of her shows is the very people who she photographs and whose world she interprets for her audience through her camera and her unique perspective. “Almost no Druze come to the exhibitions, and it hurts,” she said. “There is a change in attitudes toward art, however. It is slow, but it is happening.”

From her comments, it is apparent that she would like to see far-reaching change, particularly when it comes to the experiences of Druze women. She is a trailblazer for those women, but very few of them actually follow her trail. On the other hand, Ziyan herself still lives at home and follows her mother’s instructions not to come home too late, so that she doesn’t need to spend a night away from home.

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