Letter to Curators / On Boycott of Deconstructing India show in Tel Aviv Museum / August 2011
Dear Tami Katz-Freiman and Rotem Ruff,
I should have answered your joint reply to the Boycott call some time ago, but I have been unwell.
I understand your anxiety as you feel that you and Israel artists and people are being personally attacked. This is not a boycott of you. This is a misconception. Let me emphasize again that the call for Cultural boycott is only against mainstream institutions supporting state policy and not an all encompassing one. The International call for Cultural boycott is not forever, but will be called off when Israel complies with UN norms and recognises the rights of the Palestinian people. The onus is on Israel to change the system.
Several Israeli artists have been coming to India for workshops and residencies and we have all taken part with them, and welcome it. In fact in November this year there will be a major Performance art festival organized in Bangalore by artists here, where an Israeli performance artist will be coming. I am also one of the invitees.
It is true that dissident Israelis have been trying to work for a “change from within”, as you said. Photographer Ram Rahman sent me the attached news report from Yale Daily News, which writes of more than 50 prominent Israeli actors, directors and playwrights recently issuing a petition declaring their refusal to perform in the state-financed theatres in Ariel in Israel, because they say the settlement violates international law and hinders the Israel-Palestine peace process. (see attachment).
When Israeli officials condemn these protests, the argument they use is that “culture should be separated from politics”.
However, the show Deconstructing India is not organized by artist groups or in dissident spaces. The curatorial note is written on the Tel Aviv Museum letterhead! What the Tel Aviv Museum says about itself on the website confirms that it is a central part of the art establishment in Israel. It is no dissident institution. While it may be a “centre for learning” it is also an important part of the political establishment.
Its history is interesting. Founded in 1932, the Tel Aviv Museum was chosen in 1948 by David Ben-Gurion, the architect of Israel and its first Prime minister, to formally proclaim the Establishment of the State of Israel in a ceremony in the “Independence Hall”. This is the famous Israeli Declaration of Independence of May 14, 1948.
David Ben-Gurion declaring independence beneath a large portrait of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism in Tel Aviv Museum, 1948
It is a major institution, which is on the tourist sites of the country, part of the “central hub of modern Hebrew culture” which by definition, leaves out Palestinian culture! In fact Palestinians will find it very difficult to see the Indian show because of the various blockades and security checks that they have to pass through: the show is not for them.
Is Israel a democracy as described in the curatorial synopsis, or is it a military state practicing the system of discrimination, apartheid, or ethnic cleansing as it is variously called, that has compulsory two- year military service for all Israelis, the main purpose of which is to repress and control the Palestinians.
Tens of thousands of soldiers visit the Tel Aviv Museum of Art each year. These young men and women give the most precious years of their lives in defense of the State of Israel. Entrance is free, the Museum’s way of thanking them for their service.
- which means that a large part of the museum audience are soldiers, who will then go back to man the barricades and security checks!
Elaine W Ng, publisher of Art Asia Pacific magazine sent me this article by their editor at large HG Masters, about Palestinian artists:
Your letter says "this upcoming project at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art reflects a profound interest in the political and critical function of art across societies". While the curators' intentions may be good, it is difficult to believe that a change will come from within this extremely conservative institutional framework. I am not sure what sort of open and critical dialogue can take place in this context.
I think instead, that the show will be hijacked and our presence will be used to vindicate the state. 2012 is the Year of Art in Tel Aviv and also the opening of the New Museum Wing. It will be a highly publicised event. Recently after the condemned raids on Gaza and the attack on the peace activists on the Freedom Fleet, Israel has been busy creating Brand Israel to promote the country as happy and happening and uses cultural events and figures in its promotional material. Singers Paul McCartney and Madonna who performed there have been used in this way earlier.
Nalini Malani sent me this website:
The question is whether Deconstructing India will deconstruct Israel? It will only remain a critique of India by Indian artists in Tel Aviv cheerfully seen by all. The show focuses on the problems of India rather than of Israel. If you say we are in similar post-colonial situations, I do not see the factor of a critique of Israel in this show. I think the whole purpose of this show is to gloss over Israel’s problems by pointing at India’s problems.
In fact the situation will be exactly the opposite of what you say. Instead of the Cultural Boycott playing into the hands of people who do not want critical voices, by participating in this show in the museum our critical voices will be completely lost and we will play into the hands of the establishment.
While one of the arguments is that Indian artists can make a statement through their work instead of boycotting, I wonder how an artist can make a critique of the Israeli situation in a show addressing Indian problems? The entire media around this show will be about covering Indian problems!
I truly believe that by boycotting the show we are more likely to create change, rather than by participating.
Just as the art world and wider society is hotly discussing the issue here, maybe an Indian boycott will give Israelis more to reflect about than an Indian show! I think the debate going on here now, is in fact, to use your quote, "poignant, critical and irrepressible".