Sunday, August 24, 2003
Tel Aviv, Israel An odd photograph hangs in a small Israeli gallery: Yasser Arafat's head, with its trademark checkered headdress, spliced atop the figure of slain American rapper Tupac Shakur, fingers spread in gang signs.
The picture is part of a new exhibit at the Dvir Gallery of seven Israeli artists focusing on Arafat and highlighting Israelis' obsession with the Palestinian leader, who is hero to some, villain to others.
The exhibit includes such works as a charcoal portrait of Arafat, a news photo of Palestinian police fetching a framed picture of Arafat from the rubble of a destroyed police post, an oil painting of a blood-smeared car and other more abstract works.
Though Israel's government has declared him "irrelevant" and bans officials from meeting him, Arafat seems to appear everywhere in Israel, from newspaper photos and cartoons to satirical impressions by late night talk show hosts and street posters bearing political messages.
Many Israelis see the 73-year-old Arafat as a perplexing character. His face remains one of the most recognizable and enigmatic in the world. His survival of dozens of assassination attempts, battles and even a desert plane crash makes him even more mysterious.
Most recently, Israeli tanks and bulldozers pulverized almost all of his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, and for a year and a half, he has not left his office building there.
But the attempt to isolate him may have made his image loom even larger.
Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat sought to explain Israel's preoccupation with Arafat, and the new art exhibit, by saying Israelis know their security and peace is tied to him, even while some Israeli leaders advocate his exile or assassination.
"Irrespective of the demonizing campaign against Arafat, he is the leader, and at the end of the day you find peace with those who can deliver," Erekat said.
'Something biblical, eternal'
At the gallery, close to Tel Aviv's Mediterranean shore, exhibit curator Ory Dessau, 24, explains in another way how Arafat became a cultural icon: Israelis themselves made him into one by attaching so much importance to him, by fearing him, by marking him as a demon, only to later call him a peace partner and then to isolate him and batter his headquarters.
"In the Israeli consciousness, Arafat is made into something biblical, eternal," Dessau said.
A visitor to the gallery, Revital Gal, 43, found that Arafat's image only evoked her frustration with the nearly three-year conflict.
"I'm sick and tired of the whole situation," she said. Reflecting on Arafat's ever-present image, she added, that it's become like that of Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary hero -- and perhaps also a little like actor Robert De Niro in "Cape Fear."
"Arafat always reminds me of De Niro in that film; he's let out of jail, and all the time people are trying to kill him and he survives, like Arafat," Gal said. "Arafat survives forever, and nothing changes."
Dessau said he organized the show to explore the importance attached to Arafat and to his death, and the view of some that while thousands have died in generations of conflict here, perhaps only one death -- Arafat's -- might bring change.
Artist Adam Rabinowitz, 30, said his photomontage of Arafat as rapper Shakur is an attempt to diffuse a serious subject with humor. Rabinowitz used a photo of Arafat from an old postcard. Still visible is a printed autograph, "With my best wishes," over part of his face.
The second image is a photo of Shakur standing with bodyguards and the head of Death Row Records, Marion "Suge" Knight, taken before Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1996 in Los Angeles.
Rabinowitz said Shakur and Arafat are both regarded as heroes and at the same time thugs and lived similarly glamorous and violent lives.
As for his thoughts on the staying power of Arafat's image, he said, "He's a superstar."
The exhibit continues through Sept. 6. There are no plans for it to travel.