Found Art of the Yom Kippur War

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.

North Korean Murals, from Namibia to Syria

Espionart previously explored a string of patriotic sculptures built in Africa by Mansudae Overseas Projects, the international division of the North Korean state-run Mansudae Art Studio. This propaganda-for-hire is part of an alliance between North Korea and several African nations that dates from the 1960s, when the secretive Asian regime provided material assistance in their struggles for independence against European colonial powers. Mansudae’s projects have proved controversial, as shown by the riots that accompanied the inauguration in 2010 of the African Renaissance Monument, in Dakar, Senegal. Locals were infuriated by the extravagance of the statue – the tallest in Africa – as well as the sensual design and the Senegalese government’s gift to North Korea of a large portion of state land.

Heroes’ Acre sculpture, Windhoek, Namibia

Another controversial sculpture was erected in 2002 in the Namibian capital of Windhoek, as part of a commission for Mansudae Overseas Projects to construct the 732-acre Heroes’ Acre war memorial. The design of the monument and the outsourcing of a multi-million dollar project to North Korea once again enraged locals. Despite that, Mansudae has received further commissions from the Namibian government – including one of the latest of a number of international war memorials and museums built by North Korean artists.

The Namibian War of Independence – also known as the South African Border War – broke out in August 1966. With support from the Soviet Union, China and several sympathetic African nations, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia fought for independence from South Africa until the end of the Cold War. Namibia (formerly known as South West Africa) finally became a republic in 1990, and on its 24th anniversary, in 2014, the Independence Memorial Museum was opened in Windhoek.

Section of panoramic mural, Independence Memorial Museum, Windhoek, Namibia

At the centre of Namibia’s Independence Memorial Museum is a life-size panoramic mural, a visual strategy that tends to dominate Mansudae’s memorial designs. Rather than showing any evidence of a local artistic tradition, the mural is painted as an updated form of Socialist Realism, the artistic style developed in the USSR in the 1930s and that flourished in communist countries throughout the twentieth century. Despite the museum’s focus on independence, the ongoing appeal of Socialist Realism as a form of political propaganda is shown by the Namibian government’s decision to send state money to artists in another country, to produce work in a generic, Westernised style, rather than to give much-needed opportunities to local artists.

Similar designs have been seen more recently in the Angkor Panorama Museum, opened in Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2016. Entirely produced by Mansudae Overseas Projects, down to its staffing by North Korean nationals, the museum again contains at its centre a 360-degree mural, which purportedly took 63 artists in Pyongyang almost 2 years to complete. Thus, despite their unsubtle and anachronistic style, North Korea’s memorial murals and museum developments continue to prove lucrative – while demonstrating how Socialist Realist art remains alive and well, and much-loved as a form of propaganda for authoritarian regimes.

Section of panoramic mural, October War Panorama, Damascus, Syria

Mansudae’s museum projects date to the late 1980s, when North Korean architects were sent to Cairo to develop the 6th of October War Panorama, commemorating the Egyptian and Syrian alliance against Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. North Korea had also contributed militarily to the conflict, sending pilots and fighters jets to engage the Israeli Air Force.

Painting of Hafez al-Assad and Kim Il Sung, October War Panorama, Damascus, Syria

The Assad regime subsequently commissioned Mansudae Overseas Projects in the late 1990s, to build a second museum presenting an alternative version of the conflict to the usual narrative of an Israeli victory.  The October War Panorama in Damascus features a number of grandiose Socialist Realist paintings depicting the history of Syria, soldiers engaged in battle, and the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, glorified in the classic style of a dictator, flanked by jubilant citizens. The Syrian museum also displays a large painting of Hafez al-Assad alongside North Korean leader, Kim Il Sung – further evidence of the close relationship between the two regimes.

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Monument to Syria in a Divided Dresden

The row of three upended buses facing the Frauenkirche in central Dresden appears at odds with the elaborate stone building. What could these dirty, disused vehicles have in common with a marvel of 18th-century architecture? But nothing is quite as it seems and, in many ways, these objects hold a mirror to one another, across time and distance.

On the morning of 15 February 1945, seventy-two years ago today, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) collapsed into charred ruins, following two days of aggressive bombardment of Dresden by allied forces at the end of World War II. The devastation wrought on the German city is still the subject of controversy, and resonates through contemporary debates about the targeting of civilian infrastructure in current Middle Eastern conflicts. For over half a century, while Dresden was part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the beloved church was designated a war memorial and lay in ruins. Only after the reunification of Germany were plans unveiled for the reconstruction of the building, and between 1994 and 2005 the Frauenkirche was meticulously pieced back together according to its original design. Today it is considered a symbol of peace and forgiveness after war.

The three buses that now stand across the square from the church comprise an art installation by Manaf Halbouni, entitled Monument. Raised in Damascus by a German mother and Syrian father, Halbouni relocated to Dresden in 2009 to study sculpture at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. Two years later, he watched from afar as his former home descended into a vicious civil war. An image of the conflict that stands out in his mind is a street scene of 2015 in the ravaged northern Syrian city of Aleppo, showing a young boy walking past three upended buses. This makeshift barricade had been erected by rebel militiamen to shield Aleppo’s citizens from sniper fire.

In conversation with the Los Angeles Times, Halbouni recalled: “I was fascinated by the images and the energy that went behind the efforts to stand the buses upright like that. I was fascinated too by the ordinary street life taking place in the city behind the protection of the buses. Children playing on the streets and people riding bikes. It was surreal.” Halbouni reproduced the scene with three buses discarded by the Nuremberg transport network, each weighing 12 tonnes and standing 40 feet high. The artist intentionally used these ordinary public vehicles to symbolise the peace that exists in Germany, in contrast to contemporary life in Syria.

Funded by the city and installed as part of a cultural festival, Halbouni’s Monument has divided opinion in Germany. The installation has been warmly received by the Frauenkirche Dresden Foundation, which praises it for both memorialising the experiences of the city’s residents under bombardment, and highlighting the ongoing plight of people in war-torn locations around the world. The Kunsthaus Dresden, which sponsored the project, has hailed Monument for symbolising “a connection between the people of the Middle East and Europe and our shared destinies”.

Yet despite the work advocating peace and reconstruction, its inauguration on 7 February 2017 was disrupted by violent protests and clashes between the police and members of far-right activist groups. These groups have recently grown in strength, as high levels of immigration into Germany by people fleeing conflict have given rise to xenophobia and Islamophobia. They have since attempted to bring a lawsuit against Halbouni for “glorifying terrorism”. Dresden’s mayor, Dirk Hilbert, who has received death threats for allowing the installation to go ahead, has argued that these actions only prove the importance of Monument, since “the right-wing populists, not only in our city but also across Europe, are building themselves up by forgetting”. By bringing Dresden face-to-face with Aleppo, Manaf Halbouni’s work warns us against letting history be repeated and advises us to learn the lessons of the past.

Monument will remain in the Dresden Neumarkt until 3 April 2017. You can watch a short film about the planning and construction of the installation here:

Images: The Frauenkirche and Monument by Manaf Halbouni, February 2017. Photo © dpa/Sebastian Kahnert – Dresden;  Young boy walking past a barricade of buses in Aleppo on 14 March 2015. Photo Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty Images.