French artist hangs peace portraits in Israel

9th March 2007, Comments 0 comments

Reaching for peace, a French artist hung huge portraits of Israelis and Palestinians making silly faces across the cities of the two warring peoples.

BETHLEHEM, West Bank, March 9, 2007 (AFP) - The artist known, simply as JR, hoped his oversized portraits, hung in public squares and on both sides of Israel's controversial West Bank separation barrier, would send a message of coexistence, understanding and humanity.

But the message received, like much else in the intractable conflict, depends on whom you ask.

"We don't want to see Israelis' faces. We don't want to remember them," said Sabrine al-Ayan, 27, a Bethlehem resident, looking at the portraits hung on the barrier, which in her hometown comes in the shape of a huge concrete wall.

On the Israeli side of the wall, retired Israeli mechanic Abraham Tishler, 68, likes the message.

"When you have Israeli and Palestinian faces like that the spirit is about peace, not war. And they're funny to look at," he said.

JR says he is "around 25" and refuses to give his last name because he tries to "stay as mysterious as possible." He shot the photographs over 15 days in December after deciding that ordinary Israelis and Palestinians were being lost in the media's blinkered coverage of militants and soldiers.

"We realized these two peoples look the same, they eat the same, they drive crazy the same, but both sides think something about the other that is basically wrong," he told AFP.

"So we decided to put them face to face."

Intent on humanising the warring parties, he asked Israelis and Palestinians to make silly faces just inches away from his 28mm lens.

He blew the prints into seven by four metre (23 by 13 feet) posters and hung them with 20 kilogrammes (44 pounds) of wallpaper glue this week.

The same portaits have been hung on both sides of the divided.

Among them are a rabbi crossing his eyes and a turbaned sheikh grinning.

There is also a balding and monkish man named Brother Jack; Lital, an Israeli gas station attendant wagging her pierced tongue at the camera; and Ishtar, who works for an NGO in Ramallah, holding two clenched fists to her furrowed brow like the horns of an angry ram.

Shot at uncomfortably close range, the subjects' playfully contorted faces appear swollen, bulging, and distorted -- the conflict as seen through the mirrors of a carnival funhouse.

But for Palestinians, who have seen their lives upended by the separation barrier that smashes through their neighbourhoods and olive groves, the message of peace rings hollow.

In their silly expressions and exaggerated smiles, Yussuf Ghattas, 45, a Bethlehem jeweller, sees only Israeli scorn and derision.

"I feel like the Jews are laughing at us. The Jews are always laughing at us," he said.

Reut Bulbul, an Israeli reservist standing watch a few hundred metres from where JR hung his photos on the Israeli side of the separation barrier, sees something different.

"The photos are very beautiful," said the 24-year-old physical fitness instructor who is doing her biennial week of reserve soldiering.

"They let people see that all of these kinds of people can live together," she said, as she guarded a wall built to ensure as little mixing as possible between the two peoples.

Israel is still building the 700 kilometre (435 mile) long barrier, made up of concrete walls and razor wire fences, which it says is necessary to protect the country from suicide bombers.

For the Palestinians, the wall is a land-grab, jutting into the territory they see as their future state.

JR, who said he has funded the project out of his own pocket, hoped his pictures will calm, rather than stoke tensions here.

The boyish-faced artist made a career of turning public places into art galleries. In 2005, he hung silly-faced portraits of Muslims living in Paris's suburbs in the city centre after a series of riots.

He set about his latest project after deciding that ordinary Israelis and Palestinians were being lost in media coverage focused on militants and soldiers.

"All we ever see is terrorist attacks and army incursions," he said, wearing a black fedora and munching apple strudel along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City.

"We came here and we found normal people. We could touch them."

"People start laughing at the faces and then stop seeing the other people as monsters," he said.

The intention struck a chord of understanding in Tishler, the retired Israeli mechanic.

"When you have Israeli and Palestinian faces together like that, the spirit is about peace, not war. And they're funny to look at," he said.

But Ilias Sayid, 51, a Palestinian dentist whose office looks out at the wall and the recently hung portraits, isn't laughing or reconsidering his view of Israelis.

"With these pictures the wall has gone from ugly to uglier," he said.

"Instead of Israelis with crooked teeth, why didn't they put pictures of Haifa Wahbi" he asked, referring to the pretty Lebanese pop-music starlet.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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