Culture

‘Stolen Arab Art’: Theft, PR stunt or a bad prank?

BEIRUT: Arts journalism can leave you jaded. So when you encounter hoaxes camouflaged as art or gaseous exhibitor PR, the first instinct is to ignore it.

So it is with “Stolen Arab Art,” a particularly gassy expulsion of exhibitor hubris with a strong whiff of frat-boy prank about it.

“Stolen Arab Art” is the debut show of a gallery that opened in Tel Aviv a few days ago.

The show comprises works by Arab artists and, as the gallery gleefully trumpets, none of them gave consent for their work to be shown in the settler-colonial state.

Controversy was immediate.

The daily Haaretz reported Saturday that a screaming match erupted at the opening. It has since been disclosed to The Daily Star that (perhaps the lone) Palestinian attending the show was reduced to shouting.

“You are thieves,” she’s reported to have screamed.

“You were and you still are.”

Statements by the offending gallery, 1:1 Centre for Art and Politics, target a hipster-humanist sort of audience.

“Through this exhibition we wish to promote a shared reality marked by open dialogue and exchange throughout the Middle East, without wars, occupation, or any borders,” a gallery press release declaims.

“We chose not to publish the artists’ names, on the assumption they would not want for their work to be shown in Israel, as part of the Arab and international cultural boycott of Israel ... so as to shield them from criticism and accusations of treason in their countries of origin.”

In his remarks to Haaretz, gallery curator Omer Krieger framed his unsanctioned exhibition as one of those brainy, self-aware gestures that can make contemporary art stimulating. “This exhibition is an art project, a type of performance,” he claimed.

“It asks questions about what can be done through art and through art institutions, and how you can work with the law, with reality, with political conventions, with campaigns like [the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement] and with the Israeli government,” he added.

The details of this business remain muddled. Early English-language reports on the show differ on the number of works being shown.

Given the gallery’s location, it’s difficult for a paper in this country to confirm what works by which artists have been pilfered.

Sfeir-Semler Gallery, which represents three of the artists whose work has been appropriated, has confirmed that at least two of them are Lebanese – Walid Raad and Akram Zaatari. Neither of them responded to the paper’s invitation to remark on the matter.

The most outspoken response to emerge from the aggrieved artists is that of Wael Shawky.

“I have no idea who [the gallery management] are or what [work] has been shown,” Shawky wrote in an email to the paper.

“I think ... a pathetic gallery decided to get some attention through this theft. I am clearly against showing in Israel while such a mediocre act made my political position even more evident!”

“What is the point of being a thief and so proud of your act!” Shawky told Middle East Eye earlier this week. “This will never change anything – all these artists, including myself, are against showing in Israel. They [the gallery] made the point even clearer.”

Andree Sfeir-Semler, who represents Shawky, Zaatari and Raad, spoke to the paper from her Hamburg gallery.

She said she resented giving the Israeli gallery the publicity this show was obviously meant to provoke and was at a loss as to what to do about it. While Shawky asked her to sue the gallery, she was hesitant to do so because of jurisdiction matters.

“Whatever we do, it would somehow be wrong,” she said. “As we say in German, the best way to deal with this is to kill it with silence.”

International copyright law, she continued, was very complicated.

“If an artist copies another artist, which happens all the time ... the slightest change makes it useless [to claim infringement] in court.”

“When it comes to international law, The Hague, the [recourse in such matters] is zero.”

“Stolen Arab Art” isn’t the first instance of an Israeli art platform showing the work of Arab artists without permission.

The two curators running last year’s “Third Mediterranean Biennale” in Sakhnin had also done so.

Sfeir-Semler confirmed that she was among the gallerists asked to contribute to the event, an email she says she ignored.

Ultimately the curators staged a work by Akram Zaatari anyway.

“Yes it was awful,” she recalled. “Akram went crazy and wanted to stop things. We can do nothing.”

Controlling the legitimate sale of contemporary art, Sfeir-Semler said, is as legally fraught as outright copyright infringement.

“When a collector comes to my booth at an art fair, and I learn he’s from [Israel], I say, ‘Sorry, I can’t sell to you,’” she said. “The one time that a buyer with dual nationality came to us, I put in the contract that this work that I’m selling cannot go to that country. It should stay in London.”

When it comes to the redistribution of an artist’s work on the secondary market, via auction or resale, the artist’s say in the matter is, she said, zero.

The editors of the independent online art magazine Tohu released a statement Saturday condemning the exhibitors of “Stolen Arab Art” as irresponsible, dishonest, aggressive and exploitative, calling the organizers “ersatz philosophers, pseudo-theoreticians, media and publicity people lacking a moral backbone.”

It’s hard to disagree.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 19, 2018, on page 16.

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