The Sweet Water Catalogue
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During the Yom Kippur War, an Israeli soldier who served in the forces that crossed the Suez Channel, wandered along the banks of the Sweet Water Canal. The houses in the Canal’s area have been standing empty for a while, possibly abandoned already in the War of Attrition. The soldier entered one of the houses, where he found several objects on a desk: two drawings, a small donkey doll, and a Turkish coffee cup. He coveted the small objects and drawings and felt a need to save them from destruction. And so, against IDF orders that forbid plunder of civilian property, he took them with him back to Israel, as mementos from the war.
Little surprise then, that he, who was driven by appreciation and curiosity for the paintings and objects he found, became a famous painter and lecturer in an Israeli art academy. Several years ago, Hili Greenfeld was a student of that painter. When he saw her works, he recalled the things that he had taken, and showed her the paintings and mementos. Hili’s style reminded him of the Egyptian painter’s style, and he was surprised that an Israeli artist painted in a style reminiscent of an anonymous Egyptian painter from the 1970s. This was the first time that she was given a reference to an artist from a neighboring country, which stressed to her the lack of cultural ties between Israel and its neighbors.
The exhibition The Sweet Water Canal was born from the reference suggested to Greenfeld by her teacher, and in response to his assumption that a connection between her and an Egyptian painter is surprising. The reference was unusual, mostly because art studies in Israel are based on Western theories, and seldom reference and examine artists from the neighboring Arab countries. The Israeli gaze, which looks to the West, engenders blindness to the wealth in Arab cultures, and a false self-perception of a Western island in the Middle East. The interest in Arab and Islamic cultures is largely reduced to Oriental studies and counter-terrorism studies, and they are not a part of the dominant cultural narrative. This, despite the fact that many Israelis hail from Arab countries, Arabs constitute 20% of the population in Israel, and Israel is located the East and not in the West.
In contrast with the disconnect characteristic of the relation to today’s art and culture in the neighboring countries, the art of ancient Egypt appears already in the first chapters of Western art history books, and is studied as one of the ancient and rich cultures in human history. The appropriation of ancient Egyptian culture to Western history is one of a myriad political, Orientalist, and Eurocentric actions that started in the 16th century and expanded with Napoleon’s conquests in Africa. The French, and later British occupation was the heyday of Egyptology – the study of ancient Egypt, which included archeological excavations, discovery of treasures, and finally – their transportation into European museums, in the belief in Europe’s natural right to keep these treasures.2 In addition to the prominence they give to the ancient, monumental culture, in their construction of a linear narrative to the evolution of Western art, art history books also appropriate the cultural wealth and grandeur of ancient Egypt to Western art as its origin.
The soldier/lecturer, who recounted that he was driven by his fascination with the drawings and objects and a desire to save them from destruction, resonated the assumptions and arguments used to justify plunder in the colonial period.
In response to his controversial action and the unusual reference she was given, Greenfeld turns the link between her and the Egyptian painter into a fantasy about an artistic dialogue with him, motivated by curiosity and a yearning for a human connection with an artist from the Fertile Crescent region.
The Display Case
Two drawings, a donkey doll, and a Turkish coffee cup and saucer — the objects taken by the soldier from the house along the Canal compose an eclectic collection that outlines the mysterious and exotic figure of the Egyptian painter. The objects are kept in
a display case, as if they were exhibits in an ethnographic museum of modern Egypt. The museal display confers an aura of authenticity and significance on the objects attributed to the Egyptian painter, establishing hierarchy between them and the objects created by Greenfield, which are placed “naturally” in the exhibition on “domestic display means.” The use of museal display practices not only underscores the significance of these objects as authentic originals, but also serves as a figurative means for placing them alongside objects plundered from ancient Egypt, presented in display cases in Europe.3 Museums use means of display as a method of arranging knowledge and illustrating stories, constructing a collective meaning. The manner in which the public learns about the artifacts is through the eyes of the museum, which is a closed system with its own rules and hierarchies. Due to the use of collecting, sorting, cataloging, and editing methods, the body of knowledge that the museum represents reflects perceptions that do not necessarily coincide with the original intentions of the makers of these artifacts. One of the narratives that is not represented in the display of antique treasures concerns the question of how these artifacts came to the possession of the museum. The provenance of these treasures is not a part of the official narrative, although even a brief investigation will uncover the problematic and controversial historical information about the origin of the treasures and their ownership.4
The British Museum – a recurring motif in Greenfeld’s work5 – is the ultimate example for an institution that boasts an enormous collection of ancient treasures from all over the world, the advanced conservation technologies it acquired, and making the information in it accessible to people from all around the world. The British Museum is a source of pride for the kingdom to this day, although the majority of its collection came to Britain during the colonial period. A museum of this sort, which stands for high standards of order and organization, in fact carries out a disruption of order from a different perspective; by shifting the discourse and presenting historical facts about the artifacts – where they came from geographically,
what was their age, and what was their original function – the museum mitigates the violence inherent to cultural appropriation. While the colonialist period has ended, the hegemony of the West is maintained, and museums like the British Museum refuse to return the plundered treasures, due to the dangers posed to these treasures in their countries of origin.6
Beyond a mere physical act, the plunder of artifacts and treasures is also the subordination of a certain culture to the dominant culture. At the same time, and while plunder is a matter of power relations, it can also represent a private action of imbuing an object with a memory. In that sense, the act of plunder conducted by the soldier who wandered along the banks of the Sweet Water Canal is distinguished from an organized treasure hunt. The action of the soldier does echo the same views shaped by the Orientalist perception of the West’s right and responsibility to take objects from other counties, but his motivation for plundering came from an instinct of aesthetic appreciation of the paintings and a desire to protect them. His action was the creation of an authentic memento from the war, a minor action that takes place within a historical context. Susan Stewart wrote that the creation of souvenirs stems from the need to preserve memory beyond its present iteration, and serve as a bridge from the future to the past, to the place where the exotic, pastoral, and the other resides. Over the years, as the living memory fades, the souvenir replaces the memory of the body with the memory of an object that acts as a residue of the experience, imbued with private meanings that will never be fully uncovered.7 And so, just as artifacts in museums gain universal recognition in their significance for civilization, objects collected privately also serve as traces of the past, carrying both the collective and private meaning.
A Desk with Coveted Objects for Plunder
The objects presented in the display case serve as a visual code for the exhibition. The drawings of the Egyptian painter reveal diverse influences: the local architecture, European drawing traditions, and even influences of ancient Egyptian paintings. The landscape in the drawing conveys information on the area surrounding the Sweet Water Canal: a decorated fence, small fishing boat, palm and mango trees, houses, a mosque, and a military tent. The leather and textile donkey doll and a decorated coffee cup and saucer set are displayed next to the paintings.
The objects and sculptures in the exhibition are based on the visual information embodied in the objects that belong to the Egyptian painter. In addition to these, Greenfeld uses iconography associated with ancient Egypt, which is in fact based on souvenirs and consumer goods bought at the British Museum gift shop. For each such element, like the donkey doll or the figurine of Anubis on a hieroglyph-covered plinth, she produces a mold that allows her to create replicas. The replicas are made of plastic, plaster, epoxy, felt, pigments, artificial moss, and acrylic and oil paint. Connecting the replicas, she hybridizes them, and in effect turns them into singular replicas – the “coveted objects for plunder.” The objects are placed on the reconstructed furniture associated with the Egyptian painter: the desk, shelves, arch
and mashrabiyas, and appear as a part of a small setting – a decorated and demarcated area where several coveted objects for plunder were assembled into an impossible, alluring scene.
One of the coveted objects for plunder –
a plastic palm tree that grows from a broken replica of the coffee cup – adopts the guise of an antique figurine or a fanciful miniature model of an Orientalist fantasy. Small and delicate, it can be surreptitiously pocketed without anyone noticing. The coveted objects for plunder, placed casually around the gallery, are meant to trigger in the visitors the impulse to plunder – to take something that belongs to a different place, remove it from its original surroundings, and appropriate it to one’s private inventory
of objects. The plunderer, who appropriates these objects, is also the one who can dictate the new narrative and given context of
The Egyptian painter’s desk stands at the heart of the installation. Inspired by the paintings, the reconstructed desk is an example of a piece of furniture that incorporates British and French influences. The design of the desk is based on the drawings and combines decorations typical of the Sweet Water Canal area, the chair draws decorative elements from the windows of mosques in the drawings.
Desks reconstruction, a display practice typical of national and history museums, is usually attributed to famous figures who left their mark on history. Reconstructed desks delineate the narrative of that figure, divulging intimate details from its life and work. These means simultaneously transform the historical figure into an ordinary everyman, but also into an unattainable figure, surrounded by an aura. In contrast, the personality and work of the Egyptian painter remain unknown, and his desk does not represent a famous historical figure, but rather shapes the painter’s mysterious figure, while acting as an object of desire in its own right. Greenfeld, who views desks as territories of creation, provides the anonymous painter a place where his art can exist, but absurdly, his desk becomes a stand for coveted objects for plunder.
Conflating storytelling practices and museal, artistic, and ritualistic means, Greenfeld creates a tribute to the Egyptian painter, weaving a myth around his nameless figure. Through the private story she raises issues that concern Israel-Egypt relations and the yearning for cultural and reginal contacts. She turns the spotlight towards historical issues that touch on wars and cultural appropriation and the power of museums to reflect history and shape narratives.
In the shadow of her tribute, the identity of both painters remains shrouded in mystery – the one whose paintings were taken and the one who took the paintings. With that, she assumes control and formulates a new story from her own perspective. Greenfeld not only introduces the yearning for a cultural-regional connection and criticism on the colonialist reality maintained in Israel and in Europe, but also points to the duality in which plunder and looting coexist alongside preservation and salvage – the very same actions she carries out herself.
1. The Sweet Water Canal, also known as
Ismaïlia Canal, carries fresh water to the settlements near the Suez Canal.
2. Edward Said, Orientalism, 1995, Am Oved
Publishing, pp. 44-45 (in Hebrew).
3. The design of the display case in the exhibition
is based on a display case from the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum (room 64, Early Egypt Gallery, The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery).
4. “Enlightenment did not question the legitimacy
of archeologists and antique dealers to displace papyruses, tombstones, or mummies. In what was essentially Eurocentric thought, this act was never perceived as robbery; on the contrary. The claim was that these people do not know and do not understand the value of the treasures they hold.” (Ella Shohat, quoted in: Amit Gish, Ex-Libris: Chronicles of Theft, Preservation, and Appropriating at the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem, 2014, The Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, p. 19 [in Hebrew]).
5. In 2016 Greenfeld held a solo exhibition titled
The British Museum at Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art. The exhibition centered on the display of singular replicas based on
a pencil case in the shape of a sarcophagus, purchased at the British Museum gift shop
in the 1980s.
6. Gish, p. 17.
7. Susan Steward, On Longing: Narratives of
the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, 1993, Duke University Press, pp. 132-133.
*The exhibition was made possible thanks to the generous support of Asylum Arts, Via Sabra, and Yehoshua Rabinovich Foundation for the Arts, Tel Aviv