Wednesday, September 14, 2011

On the Art of Palestinian Children: "Crayons of Mass Destruction"

I.   29 years ago, I was a strong supporter of Israel.  From 1967 through 1982, I argued with friend after friend who did not support Zionism in practice.  I voiced my positions from what I felt I knew from people who lived or had lived in Israel, from people I knew who believed in the Israeli experiment, and from a sense that there was strong justification for Jews who wanted a place of their own, to go there and have one, and that Israel's geographical position, where Judaism had come to life, made sense.

Although my comrades' arguments had an impact, they didn't sway me.  Then, one event changed everything.  I was subjected to art created by Palestinian kids.

When a tugboat I'd been working on for over two months docked in Seattle in November 1982, my closest buddy, the late James Acord, greeted me at the dock.  I wanted to go to a bar, as I'd had two beers in three months.  He wanted me to go to an art exhibit in Fremont, which then was the second most decrepit part of the older white sections of  Seattle, after Georgetown.

"What kind of art, Jim?"

"Drawings made by kids who were orphaned in the Shatila massacre in Beirut."

On the tugboats I'd worked on over the summer and fall, news had been limited to shortwave international broadcasts.  There had been the end of the Anglo-Argentine Falklands War, the John De Lorean cocaine bust, the tylenol murders, Yuri Andropov's elevation in the USSR, and the Israeli Invasion of Lebanon.  The BBC had covered Sabra and Shatila better than American media, from what I recall.  We had listened to the BBC (and Radio Moscow and Voice of America) a lot on the boat.

I said "OK."

The exhibit was in a large room in a building on Fremont Avenue that has since become a bar.  There were about 40 or so people there.  Jim introduced me to a couple of his Palestinian-American friends.  I was surprised at how warmly he described my  sympathy and concern about Palestinian rights, given the shouting episodes he and I had had about Israel over the past 12 years.  He wasn't being dishonest, I had merely forgotten how much I'd agreed with him in our bouts.  But Israeli interests, "secure and defensible borders," and "a viable refuge for Jews worldwide" had always trumped the Palestinians, and had been my bottom line.

A Palestinian-American man my age offered to take me around the room to explain the kids' drawings.  There were probably 25 of them.

By the third of fourth drawing, between my new friend's open warmth and the art's contrasting renderings of  cold closings, I was quietly weeping.  I turned to him and gave my first hug to another human since I'd left for the tug trip 70 days earlier.

As he explained the background of each drawing, one more bell, no - anvil - rang loudly, beginning to erase my support for Zionism, as one kid's horrific cry on cheap paper after another spoke to me.

II. Since that November 1982 day, I've had many opportunities to witness the power of art created by young people.  As an arts educator,  I've often been able to behold kids  - some very young kids - at the moment when they miraculously bloomed into a real artist, sometimes at a surprisingly young age.  I conducted a ten-year old trumpet prodigy in a flawless performance of Hummel's Trumpet Concerto, cried as dozens of young dancers blossomed on stage in professional productions of The Nutcracker, stood over the shoulder of  grade school kids creating posters, drawings, paintings and sculptures that went on to win their first of many prizes, thrilled in being part of grade school and middle school actresses and actors in plays like A Midsummer Night's Dream and Gypsy.

In the middle class ambience where I've gotten to see this, kids have problems:  from home life with parents or siblings, questions about God and religion, doubts about their talents or looks or impending sexuality, worries when their family's income takes a huge drop, and so on.  This is normal, even if the kids don't see it that way.

During the same period, I've been fortunate to observe Palestinian young people perform in dance troupes, play instruments, render plays, do videos of various kinds, and, beginning with that 1982 Seattle exhibit, describe their lives in their drawings and paintings.

Although these young artists also have the problems I've seen with kids in Alaska, they have much more to deal with than we do.  Especially in Gaza, where four times as many kids live as do in Alaska, and in an area one 4,770th the size of this place (139 square miles vs. 663,268 square miles).

Getting their art shown in Gaza or the West Bank is hard enough for Palestinian kids. Getting it shown in the United States can prove to be all but impossible.

III. Late last week the Berkeley California Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland (MOCHA) announced that it was canceling an upcoming exhibit of art by Palestinian kids who live in Gaza:
The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), which was partnering with MOCHA to present the exhibit, was informed of the decision by the Museum’s board president on Thursday, September 8, 2011. For several months, MECA and the museum had been working together on the exhibit, which is titled “A Child’s View of Gaza.”

MECA has learned that there was a concerted effort by pro-Israel organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area to pressure the museum to reverse its decision to display Palestinian children’s art.

Barbara Lubin, the Executive Director of MECA, expressed her dismay that the museum decided to censor this exhibit in contradiction of its mission “to ensure that the arts are a fundamental part of the lives of all children.”

“We understand all too well the enormous pressure that the museum came under. But who wins? The museum doesn’t win. MECA doesn’t win. The people of the Bay Area don’t win. Our basic constitutional freedom of speech loses. The children in Gaza lose,” she said.

“The only winners here are those who spend millions of dollars censoring any criticism of Israel and silencing the voices of children who live every day under military siege and occupation.”

Unfortunately, this disturbing incident is just one example of many across the nation in which certain groups have successfully silenced the Palestinian perspective, which includes artistic expression. In fact, some organizations have even earmarked funds for precisely these efforts. Last year, regrettably the Jewish Federation of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs launched a $6 million initiative to effectively silence Palestinian voices even in “cultural institutions.”

The free exhibit, co-sponsored by nearly twenty local organizations, was scheduled to open on September 24, and featured special activities for children and families, including a cartooning workshop and poetry readings.
The MOCHA web site links (PDF) on its front page to an "open letter," signed by Hilmon Sorey, Chair of the MOCHA Board of Directors.  It is important to quote the entire letter here:
The Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) was founded as a place where children from all backgrounds could come together to make and celebrate art. MOCHA provides a safe place for children to express themselves through art, and produces programs that are intended to foster insight and understanding.

Our gallery is a multiuse space. Every week, hundreds of children utilize the space for drop-in art, school field trips, birthday parties, camps, and other events. Most children that visit MOCHA are between the ages of 5 and 9, and many children enter our gallery without the supervision of their parents.

With the exhibit A Child’s View from Gaza it was our intent, as it is with all our exhibits, to foster insight and understanding. We understand that, sadly, violence is a part of many children’s lives, and we remain committed to showing artwork that depicts the diverse realties of childhood across the world.

However, as an organization that serves a large and diverse community, we tried to balance this with the concerns raised by parents, caregivers and educators who did not wish for their children to encounter graphically violent and sensitive works during their use of our facility. MOCHA is a facility that must be accessible for our entire community. Although we worked to develop a way to separate the most violent images in the exhibit from our main studio spaces, we ultimately came to the conclusion that MOCHA is not currently set up to effectively accomplish this.

Recognizing this, the MOCHA Board of Directors decided to cancel this exhibit. It is important to note this was not a judgment of the art itself or related to any political opinions. The Board determined that MOCHA simply did not have the space or staffing to accommodate the exhibit in a way that both respected the gravity of the material and our mission to serve all children.

We regret that we did not make this determination earlier. Our next step will be to thoroughly evaluate our exhibit policy so that we can ensure all exhibits—including those of a violent or sensitive nature—are handled in a way that promotes constructive dialogue and ensures that children and adults of all backgrounds feel comfortable visiting MOCHA. We will be developing this policy in the next month, and will then invite all of our partner organizations, including the sponsors of A Child’s View from Gaza the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) to participate in our exhibits in keeping with this policy.

This experience has reminded us, yet again, of the power of children’s voices and visions and of the unique role that art can play in our community. We remain committed to ensuring that art, in all its forms, remains a vibrant part of our lives. [emphases added]
The letter might seem sincere, but it is not.  It seems obvious that the Museum caved to Zionist pressure.  After all, local Bay area Zionist organizations took credit for the kill.  Here's a tweet from the Jewish Federation of East Bay:
Great news! The "Child's view from Gaza" exhibit at MOCHA has been canceled thanks to some great East Bay Jewish community organizing
Another group that organized in the Bay area was the Pro-Israel Bay Bloggers.  Their blog ran a post back on August 9th that showed art by kids who live in Sderot, the Israeli town that has been the main brunt of rocket attack from Gaza militants.  The post ended with this appeal to the MOCHA board:
To the Museum of Childrens Art, the staff, board and the individuals and foundations that support MOCHA:

This exhibit is without context and balance, and includes anti-Semitic and anti-American imagery. By allowing your facilities to be used in this manner, you are presenting an incomplete picture, creating heat without light and contributing to the vast pool of lies misinformation on the conflict in the Middle East. This is an inappropriate use of a treasured local resource.
Commenters to the post encouraged people to organize against the exhibit.  They did.  This is why the exhibit was cancelled.

As Rachel Corrie wrote about the terrible destruction Gaza kids live with, "this happens every day."
This is in the area where Sunday about 150 men were rounded up and contained outside the settlement with gunfire over their heads and around them, while tanks and bulldozers destroyed 25 greenhouses – the livelihoods for 300 people. The explosive was right in front of the greenhouses – right in the point of entry for tanks that might come back again. I was terrified to think that this man felt it was less of a risk to walk out in view of the tanks with his kids than to stay in his house. I was really scared that they were all going to be shot and I tried to stand between them and the tank. This happens every day....
Cancellations like that at MOCHA don't happen every day, but the occur frequently.  The play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, has undergone a number of U.S. cancellations.  I've given up trying to get my musical work about Corrie, The Skies Are Weeping, performed in the U.S.  In March 2006, Brandeis University pulled down an art exhibit about war by Palestinian young people soon after it went up:
Brandeis University officials have removed from a school exhibit artwork that depicts injured and bloodied Palestinian children, according to a media report.

The images were painted by Palestinian teenagers at the request of an Israeli Jewish student at at the Jewish-sponsored college who wanted to bring the Palestinian viewpoint to campus. But school officials said the paintings were too one-sided.

The paintings were removed Saturday, four days into a two-week exhibit at a school library, The Boston Globe reported on Wednesday.

Lior Halperin, the student who organized the exhibit, called the school's action "outrageous."

"This (is) an educational institution that is supposed to promote debate and dialogue," Halperin told The Globe. "Let's talk about what it is: 12-year-olds from a Palestinian refugee camp. Obviously it's not going to be about flowers and balloons."

The images include a bulldozer threatening a girl, and a boy with an amputated leg on a crutch. Halperin had contacted a friend who works in a Bethlehem refugee camp and asked teenagers to paint images of Palestinian life.

"It was completely from one side in the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and we can only go based on the complaints we received," Brandeis spokesman Dennis Nealon said, according to The Globe.

Nealon said the school would consider displaying the artwork again in the fall, if it is alongside pieces showing the Israeli point of view, The Globe reported.

Halperin, 27, is an Israel Defense Forces veteran. Her "Voices from Palestine" exhibit was a final project for a class called "The Arts of Building Peace."
So much for "the art of building peace."

No wonder the Israelis forbade bringing crayons into Gaza until after the Mavi Marmara incident forced them to loosen the rules.  Crayons of Mass Destruction.

Alice Walker, who was on 2011's thwarted Gaza flotilla, is in the Bay area this week, and wrote about the censorship at MOCHA:
There was no museum in the tiny, segregated, Georgia town closest to where we lived; though I could be wrong. I was fifty before I understood there was, somewhere hidden in the white part of town, a public library. I do remember that the art of Jimmy Lee Brundidge, a young black folk artist, was shown on the walls of the local shoe shop.

The decision by the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland not to show the work of Palestinian children from Gaza makes me sad.  But not discouraged.  The art will be shown.  The walls of a shoe shop will be found.  We will all – those of us who care about these children, whose pain our tax dollars assured – go to see it.  Furthermore, we will write to the children to let them know we’ve seen their work and what we think of it.  This is the least we can do.

Such banning as this usually backfires.

I don’t think I was born yet, but I “remember” that, in 1939, Marian Anderson, the great black contralto, was refused venue at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution because (gasp) the audience would be integrated!  Anderson supporters, including president Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, rallied to the cause and Anderson sang to a crowd in the tens of thousands while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

We will find a Lincoln Memorial.  We will eventually, on this issue of freeing the Palestinians, find a Lincoln.
Here's a link to A Child's View of Gaza's facebook page, where they have posted many of the banned images.

[hat tip to Taxi for the term "crayons of mass destruction."  Surely such nefarious tools are an existential threat]


Anonymous said...

How about drawings from the Israeli kids?

Oh, that's right. They were on the bus that was blown up.
Obviously both sides assume responsibility for their roles in this madness, but one thing I find telling is the soldier in uniform. Something you don't see Palestinians wearing. Why don't they take this fight away from homes and hospitals and into the battlefield where it belongs?

BearCountry said...

It wouldn't do for the world to see what the Palestinian kids see every day. That way the Israeli right wing supporters can maintain the fiction that they are fighting the "massive Hamas military machine" and the idf is a highly moral group that wouldn't shoot people down in cold blood.

To bad, but the internet has put an end to the complete censorship desired by the likudniks. Only those that don't want to see the truth, don't see it.