Art Without Borders ‘for a Better World’

David Amichai says neighbors of the Museum on the Seam don't always appreciate the edgy works of art displayed there.

David Amichai says neighbors of the Museum on the Seam don’t always appreciate the edgy works of art displayed there.

An old army outpost still stands from a time when Jerusalem was divided down the middle – when the city’s east side belonged to Jordan and only its west side was Israel’s. The former outpost is now fashioned with a flashing neon sign that reads “Olive Trees Will Be Our Borders” in English, Arabic and Hebrew, and with “Flesh and Blood” boldly emblazoned on one side. From far enough away it’s the kind of place that furrows brows and ignites curiosity – but the closer you come, the more sense it makes.

Situated along the pre-1967 “seam” that once separated Israel from Jordan is the appropriately named Museum on the Seam. Its collections feature artists’ works from around the world with a specific emphasis on art from Middle Eastern countries. But extending the olive branch hasn’t been easy in the region.

“One of the artists in Saudi Arabia was facing trial for showing his artwork here in Israel,” says David Amichai, spokesman for the museum. “But he was very brave – he wanted his work to stay here at the museum.”

For the past eight years the Museum on the Seam has operated as a socio-political contemporary art museum; before that it was a museum that focused solely on the tenets of tolerance and coexistence. Because of this history the museum became the birthplace of the “Coexist” merchandise now seen worldwide today, its hopeful letters sporting sacred symbols from each of the Abrahamic faiths.

“[The ‘Coexist’ sign] became famous when Bono from U2 wore it for one of his concerts on a T-shirt,” Amichai says. The original artwork was entered in an international competition for coexistence art run by the museum in 2000. Made by Polish designer Piotr Mlodozeniec, the piece placed second in the competition and now tours in major metropolitan areas around the world with more than 30 other panels of artwork in the same thematic vein. The exhibit is set up in city centers, free of charge, and has even been seen outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Some of the first neighborhoods built outside the walls of the Old City surround the museum. Directly behind it is Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, and the second ever to be built outside of the walls. Its park is located beside the museum, a place where Haredi women can be seen corralling their kids all day long.

Every seven to eight months the museum changes exhibitions, each time with a new theme in mind. Some exhibits are received better than others.

“In the current exhibition, ‘Flesh and Blood,’ we have a piece made by Sam Messer, who’s an American sculptor and artist,” Amichai says. “It’s a big sculpture of an ape – half-human, half-ape – and the human half is naked.”

The sculpture’s penis turns out to be too much of an artistic liberty for some in Mea Shearim. Women from the neighborhood protested that Messer’s sculpture was indecent and urged the museum to conceal the crotch. In response the museum tinted the lower part of its all-glass front door from which the sculpture was completely visible.

“Sometimes I get questions from people here, (saying), ‘Do you worship this monkey? Do you give it food?’” Amichai says. “(Kids) don’t understand why we put a sculpture of an ape here.”

Amichai points to the Mea Shearim community’s restrictions on art as the reason why the kids don’t quite get it. But art isn’t wasted on all the young of Jerusalem.

A 24-year-old student from Bezalel, Israel’s national arts school located in Jerusalem, works with Amichai.  He recently presented her with a hypothetical question.

DesiderioMuseumPic3“(I asked her), ‘Would you agree to live for five years and then (afterwards) you die but then become a huge artist, a very famous artist?’” Amichai says. “And she said, ‘Yes.’ I asked her, ‘Why? You’re a young woman… I would better off live for another thirty, forty years.’ And she said, ‘No, but this is the way you live forever.’”

To Amichai, this student and others like her consider their art “more important than their souls or their bodies.” This is something that the museum itself hopes to emulate through its curated works.

“It’s not just ‘art for the sake of art,’” Amichai says. “But it’s art for the sake of a better world. I think we do believe that in our own corner, in our own little place, we can try to make it different through art.”

At the same time, however, Amichai sees art’s limitations.

“Somebody said once that art never prevented a war,” Amichai says. “But sometimes people even in the worst situation of their lives, they think about art – they don’t think about food or how they’re going to survive… It’s something amazing, that some people are willing to die for art.”


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