Brilliance on the periphery

Brilliance on the periphery
Haaretz - July 27, 2005
By Dana Gilerman

Just three of the 15 art people invited to the exhibition of final projects by students at Sapirtech, the multidisciplinary center for art studies at Sapir College of the Negev, attended the event. It was held last Thursday in Sderot. It is hard to believe that the reason was a fear of Qassam rockets. More likely it's that the art world lacks interest in the graduates of far-flung colleges. The exhibitions at Midrasha' School of Art at Ramat Hasharon's Beit Berl College and at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem are well-attended. But almost no one makes the effort to visit outlying areas.

These places, troubled by a harsh economic and social reality, often produce fascinating creativity, different from that in the center of the country. This difference has been evident in recent years at the film festival in Sderot, which is another initiative of Sapir College.

Sapirtech has 270 students, who study sculpture, painting, ceramics, jewelry making, photography, music and design. Most students graduate after three years with a diploma in teaching art. Dudu Shlomo, Sapirtech's director, proudly relates that the Sderot Municipality has approached him, asking for 240 art teachers for the next school year, following the municipality's will to implement the Dovrat Commission recommendations for educational reform.

Shlomo neglected to note that those teachers will actually be working as cheap babysitters and will be replacing hundreds of professional educators who either have been fired or will be fired.

Bloody footprints

One of the first things that caught visitors' attention at the exhibition was the high quality of the ceramics pieces. In the warm garden that surrounds the building viewers were astounded by several groupings of sculptures: amusing figures of women (by Naomi Rosenzweig) in various poses along the low wall, some fat, others thin, some lying sunbathing, others holding their heads in their hands. Opposite them were a series of large dark females (by Netta Geva), with long bodies adorned with jewelry resembling a strange and impressive blend of the Ethiopian and Bedouin. Next came a grouping of lumps of clay in various curved forms (by Shulamit Siboni), reminiscent of female figures, with hand prints and evidence of kneading motions in the clay.

There are also some brilliant pieces in the exhibition space itself: sculptures of pitchers (by Sigal Shani) that border on the functional/ornamental/artistic, standing on perfectly designed metal stands; and a strange and fascinating work by Oshrat Amar, "Red Dawn" (the code name for the Qassam warning system). It is a kind of framed mobile of a yellow sun from which red shells seem to be dripping. It is hard to place this objet d'art in any language or genre. It seems to be a combination of a traditional ornament and modern influences. Sharka Pirhiya, the ceramics teacher from the farming community of Netiv Ha'asara, says that similar mobiles can be found in many homes in Netivot.

Scattered outside, beside one of the trees, were large stones made of clay, with bloody footprints between them (by Hanna Or-Chen). On the road, next to the sidewalk, were humanoid objects in various positions, covered in white fabric (by Orit). These were reminiscent of Eran Shakin's sculptures of the homeless that were displayed about two years ago at the Herzliya Museum, the twisted figures by Sigalit Landau and even the colorful sculpture by Dina Shenhav, of a supine covered figure.

Not a copy or a quote

Despite some resemblance, nothing here looks like a copy of the "real" thing or even a "quote" - knowingly harking to a similar work. It would probably be safe to say that most of the artists in this distant place never saw works by Shakin, Landaw or Shenhav. Pirhiya says the most of the students in her department are not involved in the artistic discourse. Many of them come from the moshavim and kibbutzim surrounding Sderot. These students have been creating ceramic art for years and come to the college mainly to use the workshops and the kiln. They have a heavy daily schedule and very little time for touring exhibitions in the center of the country.

Even so, and perhaps because of this, their works offer something refreshing, thanks to the authentic mixing of cultures at the college itself between secularism and deeply rooted religious Middle Eastern tradition, and between native Israelis and the waves of immigration that have settled and continue to settle in the Negev. The oft-heard complaint against the big city artists who take no interest in the periphery raises the question as to how much this small college tried to entice its big sisters.

Even Sderot's successful film festival started out at the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv. Only after city folk became convinced that southern towns were producing interesting films, in both content and technique, did the festival move to Sderot.

Art and the Negev

Art, too, has avenues for connecting with the metropolitan areas. An exhibition of the college's graduates could be held in one of Tel Aviv's galleries, which are becoming more open to hosting such exhibitions to liven up the languid summer months. It is also worth employing more familiar artists who teach in many places each semester. This would also create a link between the students and other colleges.

Prof. Ze'ev Tsahor, president of Sapir College, who hosted the visitors after their tour of the exhibition, was enthused with these ideas and others offered last week. He raised another fundamental question, however, concerning how to arouse interest in art among the residents of the Negev themselves. Tsahor noted that Be'er Sheva's Kay College of Visual Arts, which competes with Sapir, is also having difficulty attracting students and flourishing.

"Art is not managing to develop in the Negev," said Tsahor in a comment that surprised his guests, "because of the image of the people who live here. The collective profile of the local inhabitants is of "trailblazers in the practical world - the engineer and his wife, who is a teacher. For them to understand the importance of the Sapir Center, the importance of art to this place, we have to blaze a trail into their very consciousness, and the most important question is how to do that?"