המשפחה - חיים מאור וחאדר ושאח בדיאלוג בין תרבויות
The Family: Haim Ma'or and Khader Oshah
Counterpoint or the Art of Reconciliation
Osvaldo Romberg - Senior Curator, Slought Foundation, Philadelphia, USA
Peace emerges far more organically through the productive work of artists than through the operations of politicians and armies. While visiting the Israeli artist Haim Maor, I was made privy to a series of experiences culminating in a revelation of personal trauma and cultural reconciliation. Maor drove me first to the Bedouin city of Rahat where I met Khader Oshah, a Palestinian painter (born in Gaza in 1966), who lives there with his local Bedouin wife and their 11 children. Oshah showed me two or three projects on which he was working simultaneously. His paintings, portraits done alla prima on irregular, found pieces of wood, aroused my curiosity. I was also drawn to another body of portraiture done on photographic paper with chemicals manipulated to produce lines and values. The paintings’ ferocious intensity brings to mind portraits by Soutine or some of Lucien Freud’s wild early work. Although marginal from an academic point of view, they are definitely very intense, soulful, moving.
After having coffee, we traveled a few miles to Haim Maor’s house in the Jewish village Meitar near BeerSheba, where I spent some time with Maor, his wife and their five children. Hailing from a Polish family of Holocaust survivors, Maor (born in Jaffa in 1951) is obsessed with memories and concentration camps; his life and art were shaped by his family’s wartime experiences. I was familiar with his previous largely conceptual and modernist work, and was somewhat surprised to see his new works, small portraits on wood. These wood panels are often made of planks forming solid rectilinear surfaces stained with paint of various consistencies that, here and there, leaves the grainy wood texture visible. In their emblematic, almost heraldic quality they relate, stylistically and iconographically, to Egyptian Fayum portraits. This body of work at times includes found objects and appears to be influenced by Byzantine iconography. Moreover, in its two-dimensionality, his work recalls post-Pop figuration in the manner of Alex Katz, yet resonates with more meaning due to its politicized subject matter and cultural context implied by the bilingual (Hebrew/Arabic) inscriptions that are included in some of the works.
Thus far, I had seen the work of two artists transcending the specificity of their diverse origins and cultural orientations. Later, I was told something that lent another level of meaning to the work of both artists. For two years now, Oshah and Maor have been involved in a joint project with each artist creating a series of individual portraits of the other's family. I found this project to be of enormous artistic as well as social and political value. The portrait, a traditional means of representing human beings, is approached here in two very different ways. The coexistence of these approaches forms an intimate counterpoint: in his symbolically oriented work, Maor focuses on the representation of his Other, in this case, a member of the dominated national group in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; whereas Khader, with his different religious and cultural background, works in an expressionist mood to fashion a representation of the dominant other. The two bodies of work represent a contrapuntal relationship between symbolism and expressionism. Rarely do we see in art history cases of both styles converging within the person of one artist, here, however, we deal with a joint project of two artists that represents an extraordinarily unique case of stylistic reconciliation. Is this reconciliation a metaphor for a possible reconciliation between the two national groups now in conflict? When an artist makes a portrait, he or she analyzes the other completely – formally, psychologically, and spiritually. To the sitter, the portrait offers a sense of reconstructed and renewed self through the eyes of the other. This mutual portraiture of each other's family, is it not a way of reframing both families within a domain of reconciliation?
In contemporary modernism, groups of two or more artists working together generally subscribe to only one style or mode of expression. This is the case with artists such as Gilbert and George, or Patrick and Anne Poirier. However, in the case of Oshah and Maor, the different styles form a unified whole replete with political implications, subliminally underlined by the Israeli and Palestinian war context. Yet on a human level, the act of each rendering the other's family in his respective style may very well contribute to assuaging the memories of past suffering. I suspect that two years ago the project was conceived as a matter of intention rather than a meeting of souls, but now through reciprocity the paintings have united the families in a shared spiritual commitment extending beyond religious, educational and national differences. Each complements the other as counterpoint and syncopation do in music, re-fashioning the joint project into a new whole. Together they form a centaur-like hybrid of culture as well as politics, with both merging and transcending their individual identities. Where is the Palestinian here, and where is the Israeli? Where is the Muslim here, and where is the Jew? These are portraits of human beings, of two friends, or rather, two families that have become "The family."