A new pair of photography exhibitions at The Israel Museum focus on migration movements: one now, and one from the 1970s. Both highlight what happens when global migration meets and mixes with national identity in Israel. Almost as soon as the exhibition was revealed, the project began to draw a mix of enthused and confused attention.
At first glance, Doing Time in Holot appears to be clusters of nature with manmade fixtures. But a closer look reveals the truth: they’re actually minimalist homes. Ron Amir’s 40 colored photographs and five videos follow more than 3,500 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, currently held in Israel’s Holot Detention Center.
Since the refugees in Holot are not technically allowed to live or work there, they’re required to check in and out each morning and evening. Only moving freely beyond the center in the daytime, the refugees develop a culture amongst themselves, recreating homelike places in the Negev Desert. Amir’s photographs are simply titled after the spaces used as his subject. But every kitchen, tea room, and makeshift gym recreates a piece of Sudanese and Eritrean community — on (and with) Israeli soil. What they could not bring with them, they built.
In a video segment of Amir’s work, we get a glimpse of the humans behind the homes. His piece titled Don’t Move shows Amir trying to photograph refugees sitting before him, except they can’t keep still. As they continue to grow restless, the subjects pull out their own mobile phones and start to photograph the photographer, capturing a unique moment between the subject and artist. They return to the center at dusk for the film’s conclusion.
In a startling stylistic contrast, Yaakov Shofar displays photographs of members of the Israeli Black Panthers, a group of second-generation Jewish immigrants from Arab countries living in Jerusalem in the 70s and 80s. Taken between 1978 and 1982, the black and white portraits have only been exhibited once before in 1983 at the Haifa Museum of Art. Shortly after, Shofar abandoned his photography career.
The 30 intimate and somewhat unnerving pictures display men who saw themselves as activists. Inspired by the Black Panther Party in the US, they protested what they saw as ethnic tension and political discrimination against Middle Eastern immigrants.
The dual exhibition of both projects hasn’t slipped by without some controversy. “Responses are already coming from all directions, conveying very different opinions and messages,” curator Noam Gal tells The Creators Project. ”A few days ago, one of the leaders of the Israeli Black Panthers from the 1970’s was invited by a TV news channel to talk about the Shofar show (He wasn’t one of the photographed people in Shofar's series, but knew some of them well). He is furious at the fact that there are no names of the photographed subjects on the walls, despite the fact that this was Shofar's request. In response, the interviewer tried to convince him to consider the late inclusion of Mizrahi portraits in the halls of another leading art institution in Israel — and this dialogue drew a very intense Facebook discussion later.”
Gal continues to tell us about the ongoing debate in documentary photography called into play by the exhibition. “The right of the artist versus the right of the photographed person: this has really been the core of an ethical dilemma for the last 50 years. We can see now, again, how these complexities haven't died with the current generation of digital media and globalized communication systems, but are amplified with the role of museums in the midst of the relation between cameras and the public.”
“I hoped that such public discourse would arise, and I hope this is only the beginning,” Gal continued. “I do hope that visitors to these exhibitions would reflect not only on the common denominators of both historical episodes — contemporary refugee waves from Africa and the immigration to the young state of Israel from Arab countries half a century ago — but even more on the meaning of socially engaged photography.”
Both exhibitions are on view from December 20, 2016, through April, 2017. The Israel Museum will host two more events addressing the curatorial move, including guest speakers from The Black Panthers and the Holot Detention Center of African asylum seekers. See more here.