For three weeks in October 1973, Egypt and Syria spearheaded military action against Israel, aimed at reoccupying territory lost during the Six-Day War of 1967. The Yom Kippur War soon escalated from a regional squabble to a potentially catastrophic moment in the Cold War, as the United States’ support of Israel brought it into a confrontation with the USSR, which was supplying arms to the united Arab states. After initial Arab gains were repelled by a successful Israeli counter-attack, a ceasefire was brought into effect. The Yom Kippur War paved the way for improved diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt from the late 1970s, which in turn increased tension with Arab neighbours and damaged Egypt’s relationship with the Soviet Union. At a victory parade in Cairo, marking the 8th anniversary of the war, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by jihadis who resented his peace treaty with Israel, a sign of the country’s growing struggles between secularism and Islamism that continue to this day.
In the thick of the battle, as the Israeli forces pushed further into Egypt, a young soldier found himself wandering among deserted houses along the banks of the Sweet Water Canal. In one home he discovered an abandoned desk, proudly displaying poignant reminders of the person who once lived there: two small pencil drawings with scenes of the local area; a little toy donkey; and a small coffee cup and saucer. Despite the strict rules against looting by Israeli military personnel, the soldier was so captivated by the objects that he put them in his pocket, as souvenirs of his experience and to protect them from destruction.
Years later, the soldier had become a painter and professor at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, Israel’s national art school. During a tutorial with an MFA student, Hili Greenfeld, he was reminded of his Yom Kippur War trophies. The story he told Greenfeld and the objects he showed her would spark in her the idea for the installation project The Sweet Water Canal, which was first exhibited in 2017.
Within the gallery space, Greenfeld created the world she imagined to be inhabited by the mystery Egyptian artist, based on their drawings and her research of the architecture and decorative traditions of the area around the Sweet Water Canal. The visitor first encounters the four objects taken by the soldier, in a display case modelled on those used by the British Museum to present the largest collection of Egyptian objects outside Egypt. Upon hearing the story of the objects’ journey to Israel, Greenfeld recognised a parallel between the soldier’s professed desire to save them from destruction, and the justification frequently given for both colonial-era looting and the present-day refusal of Western museums to return antiquities. In The Sweet Water Canal, the modest keepsakes are presented as if they are priceless artefacts, plundered from a distant land and displayed securely in one of these museums. Within a glass case, the objects are instantly imbued with special significance and therefore appear desirable.
The distinctive window frame and other architectural details within the drawings are recreated in two wooden doors, which lead onto a small room. In the middle of the room stands a desk with a chair pulled out at an angle – as though recently vacated and awaiting the return of the artist. But the desk stands on a plinth – once more an indicator of significance within a museum setting, and transforming the anonymous artist into a person of great importance. On the desk, and on shelves and a shrine that adorn the room, Greenfeld has placed objects she created, inspired by motifs within the found objects and based on Ancient Egypt souvenir items on sale in the British Museum shop. Unlike the original looted objects, Greenfeld’s items are displayed unprotected on the shelves, indicating a lower value even while they entice and tempt the visitor to pick them up and perhaps to carry them away as a souvenir. By maintaining the anonymity of both the Egyptian artist and the Israeli soldier, Greenfeld allows the visitor to take on the guise of either individual, to protect or to plunder.
While challenging the visitor to question their response to the objects, The Sweet Water Canal installation also memorialises Greenfeld’s personal reaction to the story. Upon seeing the objects for the first time, she was struck by the lack of cultural links between Israel and Egypt, despite their proximity. As a student, Greenfeld was being encouraged to look to Europe and America, even while Western art history claims Ancient Egyptian art as its starting point. In the excellent introductory essay, the exhibition’s curator, Hadas Glazer, explained: “The Israeli gaze, which looks to the West, engenders blindness to the wealth in Arab cultures, and a false self-perception of a Western island in the Middle East.” By creating a dialogue with the anonymous Egyptian artist, Greenfeld shows her yearning for closer ties with her neighbours in the region – a personal response that mirrors the eventual outcome of the Yom Kippur War.
You can find out more about The Sweet Water Canal and see additional photographs of the installation on Hili Greenfeld’s website.
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All images courtesy Hili Greenfeld.