WALTHAM — In mounting the first exhibition not drawn from the permanent collection since its near closure in 2008, the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University has made a commendably brave and thoughtful choice.
The show, “100 Steps to the Mediterranean,” is by Dor Guez, an Israeli artist, teacher, and curator who probes sensitive spots in Israel’s history. The Rose show, a kind of overview of the main strands of his oeuvre so far, is made up of photographs and documentary-style films. In them, Guez homes in on what Israel’s post-1948 history has meant for his own family, who live in Lod, a town between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Guez’s father is of Tunisian Jewish descent (Guez’s grandfather survived the Holocaust). His mother is a Palestinian Christian in the Greek Orthodox tradition. What this makes Guez and the younger members of his extended family is anyone’s guess.
Which presents, of course, a big problem. In politically fraught situations, being difficult to categorize makes you no one’s friend. It certainly doesn’t guarantee impunity.
In fact, it may just make you more vulnerable. Politics, after all, veers incessantly away from the particular and toward the general. It abhors exceptions, complications, and ambiguities, which get in the way of the real business of politics: asserting control.
And yet these exceptions and complications and ambiguities are the stuff of real life as it is lived by real people. They are also the province of art. And Guez has produced a show here that amounts to subtle, convincing, and quietly compelling art.
In some ways, what’s on view doesn’t look especially like art. The archival photos and video recordings of interviews with members of Guez’s family feel like the disassembled, constituent parts of a documentary film.
But Guez, working with Rose curators Dabney Hailey and Gannit Ankori, has infused each of those parts with a weight and complexity they would likely lose in the flow of a conventional documentary. The show as a whole has been carefully choreographed. Many of the photographs are enlarged and backlit. Two of the films — showing, respectively, the interior of a Greek Orthodox Church in Lod and a sunset over a Mediterranean beach — are displayed on large screens.
In 1948, during the Arab-Israeli War, the Israeli Army captured the Palestinian town of al-Lydd from Palestinian and Arab Legion forces. Most of the town’s population was subsequently forced to leave. This exodus took place at the height of summer, in harsh conditions.
After the war, the town was renamed Lod and resettled by Jewish immigrants. Jacob Monayer, the artist’s grandfather, testifies to these events in one of the short films shown on small monitors in the middle section of the exhibition. He testifies, too, to the predicament of the 1,000 inhabitants, mostly Christians, who stayed in al-
Lydd/Lod. These people took refuge in the Church of St. George, which, after the war, became the center of a fenced-in ghetto.
Unlike Jews confined to ghettos during the Holocaust, the Palestinian Christians in the Lod Ghetto were gradually allowed out, and given Israeli citizenship. But the events of 1948 were clearly traumatic for Guez’s family, and his video interviews explore their impact.
It turns out that his grandparents’ marriage was the first Palestinian wedding in Lod after 1948. The wedding photos have therefore become, as Guez notes in a catalog essay, “rare archival evidence of life in Lod Ghetto.” They are also reminders of a tremendous upheaval, which may explain why his grandmother kept her wedding photographs in a plastic bag under her bed.
“One doesn’t display the pictures of an insult in a family album,” writes Guez.
Things swept under the carpet or kept under the bed play a big role in this show. Guez’s interviewees are frequently interrupted by other family members, off camera, interjecting, correcting, or recommending silence.
“I will speak somewhat superficially,” says old Jacob Monayer at the beginning of his interview. “I don’t want to delve too deeply into these problems.”
Guez has to coax honest talk out of even young family members. His cousin Samira, in particular, struggles to articulate the reality of her predicament in what for me was the most moving of the interviews. A young woman studying first year psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Samira (named after her grandmother, Jacob’s wife) works in a restaurant. When her Jewish customers learn that she is Arab, they object. Her employers ask her to change her name to something less Arab-sounding when she writes it on the check. Reluctantly, she agrees.
Recounting all this in front of the camera, Samira affects bored indifference. But tears well up in her eyes, and eventually she has to step away to compose herself.
She tries a second take, but her story just seems more humiliating in the repetition.
It is no big deal, in one sense. Samira is doing fine. But the reality Samira is facing is the same reality her parents had to face. Although she is Christian and Palestinian and an Israeli citizen, she lives in a society that fails to account for this unlikely combination, and refuses, too, to let her be one thing or another. To the Jews of Israel, she counts as Palestinian, and to the Palestinians she might as well be Jewish.
Obviously, all this affects her work, her romantic life, her future. Watching this startling beautiful young person as she acknowledges her predicament — which could, as she knows, be so much worse — and struggles to come to terms with it is heartbreaking.
“What can possibly happen?” she asks with a brave shoulder shrug. Her answer is simple but ominous: “I don’t know.”
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.