“Appeals for Friendship between Peoples” form the fundamental motif of the Palestinian-Israeli artist Abed Abdi. His works are on display in Dresden.
09.11.2023 | Berliner Zeitung
Actually, he didn’t want to leave at all, not Haifa, and he didn’t want to feel like a refugee again. Like in 1948 when, as a six-year-old, he had to flee his birthplace with his family and seek refuge in refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria.
The feeling of uprootedness still lingers in the bones of the now 81-year-old Abed Abdi. Even though he is allowed to return to Haifa shortly thereafter through the intervention of the UN, he manages to establish a name for himself in the new state of Israel as an artistic voice for the Palestinian minority. In more liberal times, he even receives awards from the Israeli Ministry of Culture for his contributions.
However, after October 7th, uncertainty prevails once again for an Arab Israeli like Abdi. As a precaution, he leaves his home and studio towards Hungary.
Surprise Guest: East Art Exhibition with a Visit from the Middle East
However, this involuntary journey has one positive outcome. Suddenly, the small, elegant man with a tie and leather hat becomes a surprise guest at the opening of the Dresden exhibition on art in the socialist world community, unintentionally adding tension to an already daring venture.
Under the title “Revolutionary Romances?,” the aim is to scrutinize the Foreign Art and Cultural Policy of the former GDR. Abed Abdi confronts the audience with highly relevant questions about international friendship.
The Palestinian Israeli was one of 50 guest students from the socialist brother states at the HfBK Dresden, as a research team from TU Dresden found out in 2022. This means that between 1964 and 1972, Abdi actively contributed to the canvas of what was perceived as a provincial and self-referential art history. However, he chooses not to speak about this or his participation in the monumental mural for the Dresden Kulturpalast in 1968, one day after Habeck’s viral State Reason speech.
“Resurrection” is the work in which Abdi manages to infuse strength into a crowd, seemingly without faces and hope, through its undulating form, allowing a glimmer of hope to emerge. “Here is the son, as if he were the new Palestinian Christ,” says Abdi. “But, of course, I wanted to express that our people, after the dispersion caused by the Nakba in 1948, should gather again and raise their voices for their freedom and against the occupation from 1967 onwards.”
With tactful gratitude, the diplomatic man thanks for his speaking time. In a personal conversation, Abdi becomes even clearer: “I call for a return to reason, to the basics. That is the recognition of Palestine as a second state, not within but alongside Israel!”
Lea Grundig: The Jewish Professor of the Palestinian Guest Student
That Abdi’s demands, as well as his art, do not remain in a vacuum, and that they undergo their necessary contextualization in Dresden, is ensured by General Director Marion Ackermann. As a member of the expert council for the reappraisal of the last Documenta, she knows how to preempt the slightest suspicion of antisemitism.
Swiftly, she directs the attention of the press representatives to the works of that Jewish artist who was crucial for Abed Abdi: Lea Grundig. The anti-fascist persecuted by the Nazis, who returned from Israeli exile to Germany in 1948 and became the first graphics professor in the GDR, ensures in the mid-sixties that the young communist Abed Abdi comes to Dresden, that he, like all other art students, sees the Buchenwald concentration camp. And that he knows the unflinching depictions of war and the Holocaust, including those from her own hand.
This means that on the banks of the Elbe, 50 years ago, two representatives of seemingly opposing Middle East conflict camps processed their respective traumas through art. In the same realistic and socially critical language as their artistic role model, Käthe Kollwitz.
Yes, people can meet beyond red lines; humans are capable of tolerating contradictions and acknowledging historically inconvenient facts. Even back then, on the grounds of the GDR. The new ethics of relationships that Marion Ackermann hopes to discover after a critical review of global East art histories – perhaps they were already there in parts. In any case, Abed Abdi seems to be one of their tireless practitioners. It’s just that he has been simply forgotten until his rediscovery by the research project “Art in Networks – The GDR and its Global Relations.”
60 years of artistic mediation In the Middle East, this small man with a hat is a significant figure. Perhaps that’s why he is constantly filmed during his brief visit to Saxony. From 1972 onward, Abdi creates works in his homeland that uplift his own people.
His first sculpture in public space commemorates the victims of the initial land expropriation by Israel. However, the stone block erected in 1977, with rough human structures carved into it, is not a petrified insistence on one’s own position. It is a joint effort with the Jewish artist friend Gershon Knispel.
To deepen mutual understanding between the two peoples, as the inscription says. To prevent another tragedy. During the obligatory tea, Abdi proudly recounts a symbolic peace agreement he signs ten years later with twelve artist colleagues from Israel and Palestine, respectively. He also mentions joint exhibitions that tour the USA in 1989.
“It’s possible,” as the title suggests. Why has all this not borne fruit? Why are they now experiencing a war that is more brutal than all previous ones? And where are the international mediators who advanced the Oslo process? The artist has many questions and, as often is the case, no answers.
Learning from the brother: Can walls also be overcome in Israel?
But one thing Abed Abdi knows: The earnest hope, the perhaps naive insistence on the impossible is never in vain. For the committed internationalist, the formula of global solidarity, which stands at the entrance of the exhibition on a poster of his teacher Lea Grundig, still holds true: “Man is my brother.” Fifty years ago, his Dresden art colleagues asked him whether he was for or against the 3.20-meter-high wall that divided Germany. Even if the Israeli barriers today are three times higher, even if more water has flowed down the Jordan than the Elbe, the hope of creating a new world in the Middle East persists. Also because his Dresden colleagues now showcase his perhaps most truthful works.
The exhibition “Revolutionary Romances? Global Art Histories in the GDR” is running at the Albertinum in Dresden until June 2, 2024.