A walk on the pavements of Tel Aviv-Yafo today reveals that the city is continually under construction. The city’s expansion, it seems, is connected to its history with war and destruction, and spans between modern and local Mediterranean aesthetics. The art historian, Ruth Freimann, takes a look at four artists, for whom this pearl of modernism is not only home but also a subject of their work.

Ronen Eidelman’s project (here: Al Zubeir Street) was made in the framework of the “Autobiography of a City” in Tel Aviv / Foto: Elad Sarig
Ronen Eidelman’s project (here: Al Zubeir Street) was made in the framework of the “Autobiography of a City” in Tel Aviv / Foto: Elad Sarig

In 2003, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed Tel Aviv’s “White City” a World Cultural Heritage site. The widest collection in the world of over 4,000 buildings in a typical form of the Bauhaus or International Style were built in Tel Aviv since the 1930s by German Jewish architects, who after Nazi seizure of power immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine. The idea was to build a new city on the white shores outside the Jaffa district, which was largely inhabited by Arab communities. The vision was for a modern metropolis, influenced by the Garden city movement. It would be named Tel Aviv, meaning “Spring Hill” in Hebrew, although the hill it referred to were the sand dunes.

The name of the city, which was built and cast in modern white of “sea foam and clouds”, as a poet once wrote, was later adopted by the establishment when it was officially declared in 1909. It was previously called “Ahuzat Bayit”, meaning the “Homestead”. This official year of establishment doesn’t take into consideration that the actual modern city’s first neighborhood “Neve Tzedek” (meaning “Abode of Justice” in Hebrew) had already been established in 1886, by two major Jewish families: The Rokah family, a wealthy “Yeshuv-yashan” (“Ancient settlers” in Hebrew) family originally from Jerusalem, dating back to the Ottoman period. And The Shlush family, immigrants from Algeria and other Mizrahi-Sephardic Jewish families seeking to build their homes outside old Jaffa’s crowded streets.

The residents of “Neve Tzedek” preferred to construct the new quarter with lowrise buildings along narrow picturesque streets. These homes frequently incorporated design elements from the Jugendstil/Art Nouveau and integrated eclectic design, also influenced by The Templers Society with typical red shingle roof tops. The somewhat more modest neighborhood of “Kerem Hateymanim” (meaning “Yemenites Vineyard” in Hebrew) was established in 1903–1906 by Yemenite Jews and initially included single-story homes built with cheap materials, such as wooden beams and tin roofing.

Two Cities, one Culture Following UNESCO’s declaration, a wide arrangement of preservation, documentation, and exhibitions have brought attention to Tel Aviv’s collection of 1930s architecture as “an outstanding example of new town planning and architecture in the early 20th century.” The citation recognized the “unique adaptation of modern international architectural trends to the cultural, climatic, and local traditions of the city”. The book “White City, Black City” (published in 2005) by Israeli architect Sharon Rotbard offers to tell the story of two intertwining narratives through an architectural perspective. Tel Aviv-Yafo in his view “was born in Jaffa and shaped according to its relation to Jaffa.” His account is not only about architecture but also about cultural heritage, war, destruction, Zionist agendas, erasure, and the erasure of the erasure.

The boundaries of Tel Aviv and Jaffa became a matter of contention between the Tel Aviv municipality and the Israeli government in the 1948 war. The issue also had international sensitivity, since the main part of Jaffa was in the Arab portion of the United Nations Partition Plan, where-as Tel Aviv was not, and no armistice agreements had yet been signed. On the 10 December 1948, the government announced the annexation of Jaffa’s Jewish suburbs to Tel Aviv, but the decision was not implemented until 1950 — the name of the unified city since then is Tel Aviv-Yafo in order to preserve the historical Arab name Jaffa.

The white glittering city of Tel Aviv and its Bauhaus-inspired architecture as described in Rotbard’s book, disregards and overlooks what came before it: the Arab city of Jaffa. Rotbard writes how Tel Aviv has seen Jaffa as “an inverted reflection of itself — not shining and white but nocturnal, criminal and dirty: a ‘Black City’. Jaffa lost its language, its history, and its architecture; Tel Aviv constructed its creation myth.” The following pages take us on a wider path with an invitation to take a glance at Israeli contemporary art through the prism of four Israeli artists: Mahmood Kais, Esther Cohen, Fatma Shanan and Ronen Eidelman. Each one of them brings their own personal view of the complexed land they live in, and deals in their own original way with issues of identity, space, aesthetics and territory.

Fatma Shanan: Balcony #1

Through her body of works Fatma Shanan explores the image and function of rugs, which are an essential part of her autobiography and her cultural background as a Druse. Culturally, the rug is related to nomadism: it goes alongside the traveler, its four defined edges create a specific territory — a space that can be placed anywhere, anytime. It can create order and a sense of location, and facilitate a heterotopic zone.

This zone is established through a subversive act, which deprives the rug from its traditional, symbolic status: as she takes the rug out of its original social context and places it in new surroundings, it creates a personal space, through which she examines the ideas of borders, limits, territory, and colonization.

As a defined, restrained area, the rug raises questions concerning control, rules breaking and border crossing, which she relates to from a feminist perspective: her works create a symbolic role switch, as the rug carries the restrictions which were once applied on the female body itself. Once the rug is placed outdoors, its importance is annulled, making room for the presence of the female body. Thus, the rug becomes an object of identity.

Curator: Dr Doron Lurie

Esther Cohen: The Atlas for Student Project #2

Esther Cohen’s work explores the relationship between nature and man by means of rituals, narratives and cultural heritage. Her drawings portray a deep—rooted contemporary debate on cultural legacy and tradition. Her pictorial motifs are at once symbolic and poetic, drawn from personal as well as collective memories. Her work, via the act of mapping in a detailed and refined drawing with a simple ballpoint pen on paper, deals with defining physical and symbolic boundaries while investigating the disciplining domestication of the wild. By documenting the process of growth and withering, Cohen corresponds with the old masters’ paintings and botanist drawings that were once part of colonialist processes, and currently viewing it in a criticizing and contemporary point of view.

In her latest series “Atlas for Student” she brings together old atlas paper sheets in Hebrew, and Arabic versions, sharing various floral motifs, plants that are considered cursed and sacred to Islam, Judaism and Christianity, talismans made of natural motifs, medicinal and poisonous plants and other folkloristic man-made rituals drawn from nature. Cohen’s drawing enables the viewer to trace and contemplate the territorial entanglements of the land of Israel/ Palestine, and the ways in which the borders have rapidly changed over the years. By painting and drawing on maps, she erases and overrides the map’s original function, transforming it from a structured consensus of symbols, to a personal narrative.

The act of painting redefines the map, creating a new code to decipher, one that traces the fields of blossoming wildflowers stubbornly surviving, season after season, demanding their ability to reappear. The drawing distorts the map’s scale, as the flowers are life-size, and therefore suggests a new method of representing reality, allegorical of Jorge Luis Borges’s map; the flowers cover the map, creating an absurd dynamic between the signified and the signifier.

Through her body of work Cohen invites the audience to observe closely and consider questions regarding identity, evolution and pertinence and bring to mind the dialectics between local and global, the planted and the uprooted, east and west, indoors and outdoors, nature and culture. Entangling past and present, charted pathways and unrestrained nature.

Curator: Rafaat Hattab 

Ronen Eidelman: The Ghost of Manshia Awakes #3

With the help of soccer field marking equipment, Ronen Eidelman marks out the grid of streets and houses of the Manshia Quarter. The marking is done near the sea, on the border between present-day Tel Aviv and Jaffa, on the grassy lawns of the Charles Clore Park, while families from Jaffa, laboring immigrants from Neve Sha’anan, students from Florentine and yuppies from Neve Tzedek sit around, play soccer and barbeque. A group of people dressed in white are practicing yoga while brides and grooms are being photographed with the setting sun in the background.

The Manshia Quarter is buried deep beneath the grassy lawns of Charles Clore Park. It was established in the seventies of the 19th century as a Muslim suburban neighborhood of Jaffa. After 1948, Jewish immigrants, most of whom were Holocaust survivors, came to the quarter which had been destroyed during its occupation by Etzel. In the middle of the sixties, the quarter was totally demolished and instead the Charles Clore Park was built. Eidelman brings the streets and houses of Manshia up to the surface. The white lines delineate the quarter that lies under the grassy lawns of Charles Clore Park—the streets and buildings—the ghost of Manshia. The markings, made with white lines, are reminiscent of police markings at a murder scene, in this case, the murder of the houses, the architectural murder, the cultural murder of Jaffa.

Eidelman redefines the boundaries of the Manshia Quarter without constituting an obstacle or hindering the present-day life that continues to carry on in Charles Clore Park; he only makes a mark that must be taken into consideration. 


[RF 2017]

Mahmood Kaiss: Arabesque #4

The arabesque—a decorative motif that forms stunning, intertwining designs on architectural structures and is associated with the tradition of Islamic art—is at the center of this installation of Mahmood Kaiss. This motif, which emerged in the 10th century, is shaped by a repetitive, two-dimensional pattern, density, symmetry, a bold palette, and a potential for endless expansion. Kaiss’ installation preserves some of the arabesque’s characteristics while entirely foregoing others or subjecting them to a far-reaching abstraction. In doing so, it creates a hybrid form that integrates principles of Western abstraction, readymade art, and site-specific installations. Traditionally, the basic unit of the arabesque is replicated to create vegetal or geometric patterns; in this installation, it takes on the form of a cube and becomes the building block underlying a laboriously composed, three-dimensional structure, which extends throughout the entire space. Kaiss thus examines the possibility and meaning of detaching the arabesque from its familiar, traditional context, and displacing it into another stylistic material, spatial, and conceptual sphere.

The arabesque’s comparison with Western modernism, and more specifically with abstract art, has a long history. For over a century, this comparative discourse vacillated between adoption and rejection, attraction and denunciation. On the one hand, the arabesque, like other ornamental forms, was perceived as an early expression of abstraction. At the same time, the difference between the arabesque and Western abstraction was structured in hierarchical terms: non-Western ornament has always been perceived as related to an external religious or symbolic context, while Western abstraction is viewed as an expression of the principles of formalism and artistic autonomy underlying modernism.

These structured tensions between ornament and abstraction, and between Islamic and Western culture, are the theoretical background for the transformation and hybridization of contrasting (or seemingly contrasting) elements at the core of Kaiss’ installation. At the same time, the installation also raises questions concerning Israeli reality and the existence of 03 these tensions within it. Kaiss makes use of the language of building and construction as a metaphor for examining concrete and metaphysical questions concerning place and home, which are charged with a sense of urgency in the context of Israeli- Palestinian identity. The engagement with the arabesque as a system of building blocks is, for Kaiss, a means of using order to speak of disorder, harmony to speak of disharmony, and perfection to speak of a deep fracture. The arabesque cubes, which are piled one on top of another in a modular fashion, create multi-story scaffolding, a temporary structure with no foundations that can be rapidly assembled and disassembled. This orphaned structure-scaffolding, at once stable and teetering on the verge of collapse, is stripped of any identifiable function, reaching nowhere and supporting nothing.

Beyond the question of its physical existence or nonexistence, the concept of home is thus presented in this work as embodying a constant conflict between stability and ephemerality, sustainability and mobility, while relating t to murder of the houses, the architectural murder, the cultural murder of Jaffa. At the same time, he speaks in the language of soccer and the lawns of the park and the current use of it nowadays. The lines in the soccer field are quite clear; however, they do not interfere with the traffic. Similar to the borders of the soccer field. Eidelman redefines the boundaries of the Manshia Quarter without constituting an obstacle or hindering the present-day life that continues to carry on in Charles Clore Park; he only makes a mark that must be taken into consideration.

Curator and writer: Efrat Livn


[EL 2017]