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Last Updated: Friday, 10 March 2006, 16:24 GMT
Israeli Arab gallery breaks taboos
By Martin Patience
BBC News website, in Umm al-Fahm

Abu Shakra Said
Abu Shakra Said has built strong relations with his neighbours
Set on bare steep hills, the Israeli Arab town of Umm al-Fahm is known for its religious conservatism.

White stone minarets dominate the skyline and few women venture out onto the town's potholed streets without wearing the Muslim veil.

At prayer-times, the men can be seen gathering at the mosques.

A former town mayor spent two years in jail after being accused of providing funding to the militant group Hamas.

The biggest Arab town located in Israel, Umm al-Fahm is somewhere that Islam takes precedence.

But in recent years, this town of 40,000 has gradually become known for something else - the Umm al-Fahm art gallery, an exhibition space dedicated to showing modern art.

Passion for art

While the town may seem an unlikely venue for avant-garde art, the gallery has set about confounding all expectations.

Established 10 years ago, the gallery shot to public attention in 1999, when Yoko Ono held an exhibition in the town trying to "balance" a show of her work in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Many Israelis think it's dangerous to go inside an Arab village. But I want to have contact with the Arabs
Mirit Shapira
The creative driving force behind the gallery's unlikely success is former police officer, Abu Shakra Said.

"Why shouldn't there be an art gallery here?" says the exuberant 49-year-old, bounding through the exhibition space to shake the hands of some locals who had come to see the latest show.

After 25 years in the police service, Mr Said decided to pursue his passion for art and open up an art gallery in his hometown.

From the start, Mr Said was aware he would have to balance freedom of expression with the concerns of the imams.

Meeting place

While Islamic art is traditionally non-figurative - strict interpretations of Islam ban the depiction of human forms - Mr Said has had to tread a careful line.

Yoko Ono talks to journalists at the Israel Museum
Visitors found Yoko Ono's exhibition something of a challenge
None of the exhibitions show nudity, as Mr Said does not want to rupture many of the relationships he is nurtured over the years.

"I have no problems with anyone here," says Mr Said. "I know that I have to be able to look everyone in the eye - both the religious and non-religious people."

Instead, Mr Said has welcomed the town's religious conservatives with open arms.

He invites the Umm al-Fahm mayor to the opening of any exhibition along with the town's religious leaders.

And it's not just Islamic conservatives that Mr Said is inviting to the gallery.

While Mr Said was determined to open the eyes of the people from his hometown, he also wanted the art gallery to be a meeting place between Israelis and Arabs, Jews and Muslims.

Israeli reluctance

The current exhibition "Fasatin - Slamot" is a good example of this.

Meaning dresses in Arabic and Hebrew, respectively, the exhibition brings together artwork from both Jewish and Muslim female artists.

Israeli artist Mirjam Bruck-Cohen who is exhibiting at the art gallery
Mirjam Bruck-Cohen's work is on display in Fasatin-Slamot
Visitors to the exhibition can see handicrafts and dresses exploring the theme of self-identity.

In one room, a 10-minute video shows black dresses flapping in the breeze in a deserted Palestinian village, a reference, perhaps, to mourning Palestinian women who left their homes following the establishment of Israel in 1948.

While some Israeli artists, curators and art-lovers visit the art gallery, many are reluctant to set foot in an Arab town.

"Many Israelis feel scared about coming here," says Mirit Shapira, a 60-year-old Israeli visiting the gallery with her husband.

"They think it's dangerous to go inside an Arab village. But I want to have contact with the Arabs as there is no difference between us."

Mr Said hopes that in some small way, art can provide a bridge between the two communities.

But he admits that the art on show on the museum can sometimes be a stumbling block.

"When Yoko Ono exhibited here the locals understood nothing," he says.


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