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Jerusalem Biennale: Art, war and peace

There’s history in every nook and corner of the world, but seldom more than the city of Jerusalem that stands tall as the holy city of three major religions of the world – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. When you think of Jerusalem, the first impressions that form are largely to do with religion and a sense of the ancient traditions that come along with it. But if you look beyond in the modern context, your perspectives shift to a politically charged city, thriving with culture and contemporary art.

Slowly but surely, Israel is tending towards building a strong movement in art and making a mark on a global platform with its 3rd Jerusalem Biennale that was held across the city from the 1st of October till the 16th of November this year. Growing from a participation of around 60 artists in 2013, the 2017 edition showcases close to 200 artists from all over the world.

One of the more iconic additions this year is an exhibit by nine Indian artists – Hemavathy Guha, Dattatraya Apte, Arpana Caur, Sushanta Guha, Sangeeta Gupta, Durga Kainthola, Uma Ray, Rabindra Patra and Nitasha Jaini. A first in participation for Indian artists at the platform, the exhibition curated by Hemavathy Guha follows her curatorial proposal “Conflict between War and Peace”, which was one of the 90 entries from over 32 countries that were received by the Biennale for their theme of “Watershed”.

“The end of the Second World War saw the liberation of many erstwhile colonies of the British, French and Dutch empires and birth of new countries including Israel and India,” says Guha of the connection between the two as well as what she considers a watershed moment in the history of not just a few countries, but that of the world.

Prisoners cell in the museum.

The exhibition setting is the Hamachtarot Museum or the Museum of Underground Prisoners that commemorates the activity of the Jewish underground during the period leading to the establishment of the State of Israel. In essence itself, the venue speaks volumes of war and peace without saying a word, a perfect location for the setting of this exhibition.

Each working on different sensibilities, the artists give the display a balance between peace and war. If on the one hand, it is Hemavathy Guha’s “Umbrella of Peace” that bring together printed flags of the world stitched onto an umbrella, on the other hand we witness Rabindra Patra’s brilliantly moving work “Cuts in Line” that illustrates barbed wires, watercolour splashes that remind you of blood and bullet-like structures made of electronic parts that create a setting for war.

The tussle between the two continues. For example, artist Durga Kainthola’s installation titled “Absence of War” brings together a canvas scroll, barbed wire, a bronze/aluminium cast pistol and a camouflage cotton shirt together to invoke the image of a soldier. “It doesn’t matter which country or religion the soldier belongs to. My land or your land is a baseless issue when it involves the death of near and dear ones,” she comments on the activity of war. “Not much has changed from Pre-Historic times when it comes to political power as it feeds the ego,” says Kainthola, “We tend to forget all the differences that pit us against each other, only one colour runs in our veins and it is red. What should prevail is the absence of war, not peace.”

Some paintings from the exhibition.

“Peace is illusive if you run after it through the means of war,” says artist Dattaraya Apte. Echoing the same sentiments, he focuses closer to home on Jallianwala Bagh that witnessed the massacre of thousands of Indians on the day of “Baisakhi” (also the title of the work) where people faced bullets in an enclosed face and instead of celebrations with flowers, they lay in pools of blood.

The work is a reaction to his recent trip to Amritsar, something that left an impression on him. Here, he takes bricks and lays them down in the form of a wall with bullet marks and casts it on paper pulp, a medium he believes tells the story of a surface. “We never learn from history. The weapons have changed over time but the mentality has not we keep repeating the same things,” says Apte of the significance of the past. The mentality he talks about is that of conquering bodies to feed the ego, but not minds bringing about peace.

It’s amazing how much India is connected to the history of Israel and vice versa, much of which we miss out on noticing till it’s presented to you on a platter, or in this case between the walls that contain an art exhibition. At the Jerusalem Biennale starts another journey, carefully undertaken by Guha, a journey juxtaposing war and peace, and sparking off a debate between the two. If you chance about the streets of Jerusalem, be sure to give this one a visit!

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