The space between | Looking at the Mideast through murals

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In a quiet room at the University of San Francisco, several undergraduates are studying a noisy conflict. In a new class simply called “Special Topics: Israeli and Palestinian Art,” professor Paula Birnbaum enables art history students to view the conflict through the lens of contemporary art.

“Some of the students have experience and knowledge about the conflict, but for the majority it is their first experience studying a region they have until now only read headlines about,” explained Birnbaum, who teaches art history and is director of the master’s program in museum studies. “The students have found it transformative,” in part because “it is a safe environment in which to discuss these difficult issues.”

Lia Nilson, a 20-year-old psychology major, agreed. “As a member of the Jewish community I’ve tried to contribute to the goal of peaceful resolution,” she said. While talking directly about the issues can be productive, sometimes people feel constrained by “being too politically correct, in which case resentment bottles up.” Instead, she said, studying art and listening to artists can provide a way for everyone “to be honest about their struggles, including how to engage in collaboration” with those with whom you might profoundly disagree.

The class is not a one-off for USF, whose Swig Program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice connects Jewish ideas with social responsibilities. The program already offers a course on the history of the current conflict through film and literature, as well as the Middle East travel-study program Beyond Bridges: Israel-Palestine, founded and directed by Jewish studies chair Aaron Hahn Tapper.

Birnbaum’s course began taking shape in 2012, when she met up with Beyond Bridges students during a research trip to Israel. She recalls standing in front of the politically charged security barrier, where artists from all over the world, including Israelis and Palestinians, have used the wall as a canvas.

The diversity of the images spoke to her. There was an iconic silhouette of Leila Khaled, with kaffiyeh and Kalashnikov rifle, who participated in 1969 and 1970 airline hijackings with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But the wall also shows photographs of faces by French artist JR, part of the larger Face 2 Face project showing Jews, Christians and Muslims making funny faces, emphasizing the commonalities that might transcend their differences.

Reframing the wall as art allows for a profound shift in perspective. In one class, noting the large number of female Middle Eastern artists creating protest-oriented street art, Birnbaum posed a question: What would happen if Palestinians’ political, graffiti-style murals were not directed solely toward Israelis on the other side of a concrete barrier, but were part of a larger conversation about women, empowerment and intra-Arab culture that most Americans might not even be aware of?

Paula Birnbaum

With that in mind, she introduced the art of women in such countries as Egypt, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia, whose work since the Arab Spring of 2011 has become increasingly bold. Among the more striking examples was a poster campaign in Saudi Arabia with the words “Art is Halal” (the Islamic version of kosher), an almost unprecedented campaign of public expression by Saudi women.

In that context, Birnbaum also presented work by Israeli women searching for ways to demonstrate power amid a country where the ultra-Orthodox have a lock on various institutions. This included the 2013 defacement/replacement of European Ashkenazi male names on Tel Aviv street signs with the names of Jewish women, especially those from Arab lands: HaCarmel Street became Ofra Haza Street, Allenby Street became Vicki Shiran Street.

During the class, artists of both Israeli and Palestinian descent, including Michal Gavish, Zeina Barakeh and Miriam Cabessa, made guest appearances or invited students to their studio to discuss the intersection of art and politics.

At a visit to her Hunters Point studio, Israeli-born sculptor and painter Dana Harel spoke passionately about how heavily the conflict weighs upon her, and how art allows her some relief and some perspective. Her experience of “not knowing where my art will go” is part of the freedom that making art provides.

But “not knowing” also involves an uneasy sense of impermanence, which characterizes the worldwide explosion of pop-up, graffiti-style artwork that inspires the paintings on the separation barrier. The popular, anonymous artist Banksy created a series of provocative 2005 murals, including one showing a  Palestinian girl floating on balloons into the sky, that likely accelerated this trend throughout the Middle East.

Birnbaum’s interest in the art of Middle Eastern women follows specialization in the art of French women between the world wars. “In researching these women I became interested in their cultural identities, specifically Jewish women artists from Eastern Europe who had moved to Paris,” she said.

Her newest project is a biography of Ukrainian-French-Israeli sculptor Chana Orloff (1888-1968), who created monuments in Israel as well as sculptural portraits of David Ben-Gurion, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

Birnbaum’s studies of 20th-century women exploring ideas of personal and communal diaspora through art offers a useful background for understanding the same issues for 21st-century women in the Middle East. And although it’s unlikely that street art in the Middle East will solve the region’s seemingly intractable problems, Birnbaum’s class, as she sees it, represents her “hope that the visual arts can serve as a possible bridge to dialogue and peace in the region.”

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.