In a special 3-part series, Asylum alum Abraham Kritzman, an artist and Barbur Gallery’s curator, talks about the gallery’s work, the attacks against it, and the team’s plans for the future, as they await the results of their appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court, and prepare to resume their operations in a new location here in Jerusalem.
Part 3 – The Act of Discussion as Political Stand
Since the opening of Barbur in 2005, discussing politics and urgent contemporary issues has been an inseparable aspect of our programming. As we see it, Barbur’s mission is to support and promote unexpected and innovative encounters. It is a well-worn cliche that we live in an era defined by the isolating digital echo chambers resonating preconceived opinions. Barbur’s aim has always been to be a space where one can openly discuss current affairs – encompassing disparate and ‘not-strictly-art’ discussions of politics, religion, civic values, and education. We consider it self-evident that artists work within a larger soceity, and that cultural perspective forms an inherent part of their art.
There is, for us, an important distinction between the art we exhibit and the ‘outside’ programming we host. Yet it is in the very combination of these two strands where Barbur’s ‘raison d’être,’ as we see it, resides. It is worth noting that contrary to what was propagated by the right wing activists and politicians, lectures, screenings or readings about contemporary political issues, while always welcomed at the gallery, were never a central aspect of our programming. At any given day, visitors would be much more likely to encounter a session of the gallery-run painting class for senior citizens (run weekly for 15 years straight) or a show co-produced with social organizations for the disabled, than a ‘politically-minded’ outside programming.
This is not said apologetically – on the contrary. It is never the case that the exhibitions the gallery organizes have any kind of political agenda, the politics that one can extract from them is always subjective and depends on the artist’s point of view and the viewer’s interpretation. This might be a disappointment to those who think/believe that the gallery showcases only specific political views, or those who claim we are trying to persuade our viewers into a certain political viewpoint. We encourage artists to express their viewpoint in any way they see fit and our audience to disagree with it, react to it and also to express their distaste or even anger.
But spin has power. Since the Regev-Barkat storm began, any work of art shown in the gallery is considered by the public to be overtly political. We have found ourselves transformed – against our intention – from a place that strives to break away from the politics of the commercial art world and let artists quietly engage in their work, into a symbolic battlefield in the political struggle over freedom of expression. We never sought for art in the gallery to be viewed as ‘necessarily political,’ but the circumstances painted the gallery’s endeavors with a uniform shade of political color.
Thick, 2019, a group exhibition by the members of Barbur Gallery Michal Rappaport, Lars Sergal, Mina Reingold, Masha Zusman, Vasili Parshin David Raphael Lockard, Tama Ovadia, Reut Yeshayahu, Abraham Kritzman, Dennis Mashkevich and Hadas Amster, photo by Barbur Gallery
Over the past years, the solidarity and empathy demonstrated by the Israeli art world as a whole has been incredibly encouraging. From the managers and curators of major museums to leading artists and writers to the artists and art-lovers of Jerusalem. This has been the wind beneath our wings, as we needed to devote time and funds to our legal defense alongside maintaining our regular gallery operations. It was inspiring seeing how engaged everybody was, and we got to feel our audience react vividly and amptly to both the exhibitions and the struggle with city hall.
It is noteworthy that since 2008, the already-small Israeli art market has shrunk considerably, and artists found themselves working within a new void. As a result, artists began to increasingly discuss subjects with little commercial bearing; some engaging in inner-artistic discussions specific to their artistic medium and subjects of representation and display. Others found themselves more liberated to touch upon acute global and social issues. The process has been defined by a rising politicization of the conversations surrounding Israeli art as a whole. Questions relating to elitism have always been prevalent in how contemporary art is viewed in Israel, of course. What may be seen as novel is the increasingly popular idea, exemplified by Regev’s actions, that the very discussion of social issues is a political stance in and of itself.
This tendency, along with the use of Israel’s culture workers as a populist punching bags, has resulted in an even greater disconnect and alienation between wide swaths of the Israeli public and its artists. The popular perception of contemporary art as elitist or disengaged is nothing new – but the cultural climate promoted by Regev and her allies have caused the majority of the artistic disciplines to be increasingly seen as representing – and, crucially, serving – the straw-man of nationalistic politics – the ‘radical left’.
The notion that the very discussion of a political subject is a political stand in itself is becoming increasingly prevalent in Israeli society. The reasons for this are many and complex. The retreat of Israeli liberalism from parliamentary politics and into the realm of NGOs is one. The reluctance of the Jewish left Zionist parties to support the arts from fear of being regarded as leftist is another.
Regardless, what is the effect of the entirety of art being assigned to a specific political tendency? As a group of people who live and work in Jerusalem, we do not wish to find out. And thus, we joyfully continue to work to create a space that allows for open discussion, and open and respectful conversation.
In March of 2020, just as Jerusalem’s streets were shutting down to the Coronavirus, the appeals court tacitly accepted the municipality’s transparent claim that the eviction was motivated only by procedural zoning issues. We were forced to leave our home in Nachlaot.
On Sunday, August 16, 2020, the Israeli Supreme Court came together to hear arguments regarding the eviction. During the hearing, we were able to address issues of freedom of speech and show that they’re at the core of the eviction.
Thankfully, as we await a ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court, we have managed to secure a new, temporary location for the gallery. The new location was donated by Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem to ‘Bar-Kayma for Culture, Art, Music and Peace’ – a Jerusalem-based NGO that brings together different cultural and artistic initiatives in Jerusalem. This new compound will host not only Barbur Gallery, but also artist studios, the ‘Mazkeka’ – a home for interdisciplinary performances and a bar, and a small store that will showcase artists from Jerusalem. The renovation was made possible with the generous support of The Jerusalem Fund and Doris Arkin.
Asylum Artist Shay Arick was the first resident of this year’s Barbur B&B in their new location at 9 Shlomo Hamelech St, Jerusalem. Photo: Barbur Gallery
We opened the new space on August 2, with Barbur B&B, the gallery’s annual residency program taking place each August and hosting creatives from all disciplines for a 24 stay and culminating in an exhibition and public event. This year, we had to reimagine how it can happen while keeping the artist and visitors safe and following social distancing guidelines.
Due in part to the pandemic, we also plan to inaugurate a new website – and an artist book project made possible by an Asylum Art’s Digital Creativity Grant.
Through the Barbur Digital Artist Book Project we aim to showcase new art that is created with the digital space in mind. The idea is to create a digital gallery where the visitor can experience art directly, rather than a representation of it. Six artists have been paired up, (Drora Dumini and Eran Nave; Roi Carmeli and Elad Larom along with Masha Zusman and myself) in order to start a dialogue between them using images, drawings, sound and video that are passed between the two – with the intention of creating a collaborative artist book. We settled on a format where a page on our site will become the ‘bookspace,’ and additionally a downloadable, print-friendly PDF version of the book will be available for a limited period.
We look forward to welcoming you as soon as possible, in both our digital, and non-digital spaces.
Gallery operations are run collaboratively, by a team that currently consists of Michal Rapaport, Lars Sergel, Masha Zusman, Vasili Parshin, Denis Mashkevich, David Raphael Lockard, Reut Yeshayahu, Tama Haleli Bar and myself, the gallery’s chief curator. We have received funding through Asylum Art’s Digital Creativity Grant for a digital artist book project.
Barbur Gallery members together with their lawyers – Yosi Havilio and Batyah Kaufman at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on August 16, 2020. Photo: Noam Kuzar