by Sami Shalom

Musrara is a focus of attention for me, just as East Oakland in Northern California, the birthplace of the Black Panthers that started the radical phase of Black consciousness, is for Black people in America. The name Musrara cannot be uttered without also adding the words “Black Panthers”. Musrara was the driving force behind the rising social consciousness of the Mizrahim, Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origins in Israel, and continues to be an inspiration for many Mizrahim and for other movements that have come about as a result of its breakthrough. But Musrara is not Oakland. In Oakland, there is a Blank Panther school with a museum and an archive. In Oakland there is a Black Panther community center. There is a children’s curriculum called “Panther Cubs”. There is a legacy. There is a newspaper. There is a memorial to those who died in the struggle and others still in prison. There is recognition. There is respect. For us, it has been almost two generations of public denial of the Black Panthers whose “bad kids” label has been deeply ingrained in the hegemonic consciousness. But we do not forget them or their legacy. It takes time to get over the difficult images, but still, for over two decades, and owing to the Musrara School of Photography and Avi Sabag who stands at its head, we return again and again to Musrura to be strengthened and to strengthen others. 

© Avshalom Levi from the series ‘Black Panthers’

This is what the artist and photographer Avshalom Levi, a native of Musrara, does when he returns to the cradle of his childhood, to the heroes of his youth, to provide them with a wall of fame in a series of exceptionally moving photographic portraits. Photos featuring dramatic and expressive poses like these are fitting for the heroes of history, great leaders and heads of nations and states. So much power and inspiration is imparted from careful study of the faces and poses, the stance, the positioning of the hands of these heroes of the Panthers, such as the tough and uncompromising face of Charlie Biton, the intelligent eyes of Kochavi Shemesh, the defiant mustache of Revuen Aberjil, the deep grooves in the face of Avi Bardugo, the ready pose of Coco Der’i, among many others. They are all geared up, as if about to set off at any moment to lead crowds towards Zion Square. The choice of black and white, while requisite here, is not the conventional black and white, but rather light and shade that are representative of the power of the Panthers: assertive and determined black (as Golda Meir conceded), from which light, strength and hope seem to break through. There is one unusual image in the series, the force of which is equal to the entire series combined: Michael, a grandson of the Aberjil family who is sick with cancer, the cure for which exists but is not part of the government healthcare basket of drugs and services.  Michael stands bare-chested and determined, but his weak and sick body is a living reminder to all of us that we must not descend into the nostalgia of conferences and exhibitions. No-man’s land is still here. Thus, the title ‘No-Man’s Land’ is a fitting one for this exhibition and for the images that derive from it.

© Avshalom Levi ‘The house where Koko Deri grew up’ from the series ‘Musrara by Night’

Another fascinating series in the exhibition is ‘Night-Time Wanderings in Musrara’. The photographs in this series were manipulated during the editing phase, but the play of light and shadow in the original is still evident, and sometimes opens up and replicates the houses, stairwells and stone walls, and other times closes in and elevates them. Perhaps this is the neighborhood that dreams about itself at night, and maybe it is a document of the decisive changes that the neighborhood has undergone from the time it was settled with Moroccan Jews, including those who were the first to reach Israel back in 1949. The houses, alleys, and spaces that were photographed are empty of people, but overflow with yearning for those same children who once filled them with the energy of innocence and passion for life. Avshalom Levi himself grew up in the alleyways he photographed, in a downtrodden home, in a suffocating reality into which he was thrown along with his parents and siblings like the rest of this extraordinary community.  The light that he projects from his camera onto these darkened recesses is one of enormous gratitude but also a show of independence and control over his fate and his memories, which he is now able to dissolve and reconstruct like a kaleidoscope. 

Installation view from the exhibition ‘No Man’s Land’ in Jerusalem

There is not enough space here to discuss each and every photograph in each series, such as ‘Backyard’. Once again, with sharp eye and artist’s hand Avshalom Levi provides a fascinating mirror image of Israel’s backyards that can be a neglected building entrance with the remnants of the tile floors from better days, the bars of a small window on the other side of which may be an ancient treasure, or a network of drainage pipes reminiscent of the movie ‘Brazil’ (directed by Terry Gilliam in 1985). The word “backyard” in English evokes images of a green yard with a see-saw, lawn chairs, a small flower garden and children playing ball. Anyone studying the photographs of Levi’s backyard with that image in mind is in for some surprising artistic dissonance. 

The next two series in the exhibition, ‘The 31′ and ‘Transparent’, relate closely to the earlier series and in my view represent the unbearable ease with which most of us, preoccupied with work and children, are able to forget about the most dejected among us, and perhaps even worse, repress our thoughts about them in order not to see our own reflection in the sad lives and faces of those who society keeps hidden away in its back alleys, like it did in Musrara back  in the nineteen-fifties and sixties.  The ‘Transparent’ series is especially difficult and demands a brave and straightforward intense looking without blinking. 

© Avshalom Levi from the series ‘Transparent’

Levi’s artistic ability is revealed here in its full force. This is a series of portraits of women who society prefers to forget. Their gaze is hardened but at the same time gentle and helpless. Their faces and bodies tell stories that no one wants to hear. Silent screams project from their mouths. Had Levi left the photographs in black and white, as he originally shot them, he too would have been party to the syndrome of forgetting. But he took up the artist’s brush and added color to their clothes, faces and bodies, and in so doing breathed life into them, and now they are almost like the rest of us, not transparent, but colorful, like girls eager to celebrate life, the fundamental passion of every living creature, human being, and child.  Meanwhile, I was reminded of the chilling images in the series showing Levi’s search after the fate of his younger sister, which was worse than the fates of those women, as she did not even get to see the end of her teenage years. This is a difficult and brave testimony as the artist approaches this task from the depths of life experience, and not as an outside observer. This is both a curse and a gift for any artist who deals with the materials of their own life, but either way, this way of looking through the lens or the brush can only be achieved through lifeblood itself.

© Avshalom Levi from the series ‘Transparent’

Even I, a boy from a neighborhood of immigrants and laborers in Ashdod in the sixties, after looking closely at some of the faces of these women, began to love them, not out of compassion, God forbid, but slowly I recognized in them the familiar faces of women and girls from my childhood and surroundings. The more I looked, the harder it became for me to view them as objects for a work of art, as in their own lives many related to them—as objects, without a personal history of their own, without a personality, rights, wishes and dreams. I wanted to talk to them, to get to know them, to ask them things and maybe just to listen to those intense stares, if not to the words. 

The series ‘The 31′ also addresses the grace within humankind. This is a series of thirty-one portraits of Holocaust survivors who find themselves among the dwindling number of living witnesses to the Jewish atrocity that took place in Europe. The portraits are in black and white as if they were already part of a forgotten archive. In addition to the portraits there are a number of color photographs of empty living rooms that belong to some of the sitters. This is a sophisticated and complex view of the reality of remembrance and forgetting. The colorful testimony of life is void of their presence. I appreciate this series in the context of Musrara and the Black Panthers, because grace is universal. So too is the basis of any struggle for social reform. The Black Panthers spoke in the universal language of justice and equality.  

© Avshalom Levi from the series ‘Survivors’

Levi’s own artistic efforts in this series are a measure of grace. A child of Musrara, his young country’s leaders, some whom were themselves Holocaust survivors, preferred to forget the existence of the little boy whose dreams were almost squashed. This child of Musrara carries within himself that memory, but not as trauma, or obsession, but as a daily life lesson: to not forget those who it is easiest to forget, to not abandon in the field those left behind. No doubt, the act of resistance to forgetting, to erasing, is an act of change; it is a political act and it is universal. This is, in my opinion, the central theme of this entire exhibition that joins the chain of action that has been continuing from inside Musrara for over half a century. A chain whose links are sometimes made of iron, sometimes of gold, sometime a punch from a fist, sometimes a hand extended in friendship and peace. The hand on the camera of the artist Avshalom Levi is a hand of grace. 

* Prof. Sammy Shalom Chetrit is the author of The Mizrahi Struggle in Israel (Am Oved 2004, in Hebrew), and the director, along with the late Eli Hamu, of the 2003 film Black Panthers Speak. 

‘No Man’s Land’
curated by Avi Sabag and Eyal Ben Dov.
Musrara Gallery, Jerusalem
26.03.15 - 21.05.15

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Avshalom Levi