ALPHA: Exploring the Concept of Masculinity in Jerusalem’s Museum On the Seam

So I’m in Palestine and Israel this week for the 13th anniversary of the Kairos Palestine document as well as meetings of the Global Kairos for Justice Coalition. But I first laid over in Jerusalem on Tuesday for meetings with Jeff Halper and Awad Abdelfattah, two of the leaders (Israeli Jewish and Palestinian) of the One Democratic State Campaign.

I arrived in Beit Sahour, adjacent to Bethlehem, yesterday (Wednesday, November 16), where I caught up with Elaine Zoughbi, Zoughbi Zoughbi’s wife (herself a South Bend, IN native, and their four kids, all graduates of Indiana schools – Goshen College, Manchester University, and Purdue), and had dinner with dear friends, George, Najwa, and Marianne Sa’adeh. You might have met George and Najwa on one of my solidarity trips or when they spoke in Fort Wayne for the Bereaved Parents Circle (their daughter, Christine, was shot and killed by the Israeli military in March 2003; George, Najwa, and Marianne were also wounded). Marianne will be finishing med school in about a year and a half, specializing in mental health. And on Wednesday, a few of the Kairos participants, like myself, began arriving  The Global Kairos for Justice Coalition is indeed that – global. This morning, Thursday (November 17), I had breakfast with eight of the folks who arrived early; these were their countries of origin – India, Philippines, Japan, South Africa, the UK, and the US. More on the conference and meetings to come.

But what I want to write about today is my visit to Jerusalem’s Museum on the Seam. I’ve known of the museum for a number of years now but this was my first visit. It is located a 15 minute walk from the Old City’s Damascus Gate, about a 5-minute walk from Nablus Road’s East Jerusalem YMCA and the Balian Palestinian Pottery Shop.

The museum is housed in the former home of Christian Arab architect, Andoni Baramki, who built it in 1932. They were forced to flee as refugees in 1948 after a stray bullet almost killed his wife as she sat in their living room during the Israeli military conquest of Palestine. The Baramki family sought to reclaim their stolen house through Israeli courts, who denied their efforts claiming it was required for military security. Gabi Baramki, former long-time president of Bir Zeit University and son of Andoni Baramki, was only allowed to visit once. The Baramki family regards it as stolen property.  

It subsequently became an Israeli military outpost, a military museum; then in 1999, a “Museum of Tolerance,” dedicated to dialogue and co-existence, then in 2005, a museum of contemporary art focusing on social, political issues, such as environmental, economic, refugee, and gender justice, animal rights, the consequences of capitalism, and the individual's solitude in the technological age.

I came to see the present exhibit, “Alpha,” described at the exhibit entrance this way:

It appears that ‘Man’, renowned and acclaimed, is a category within itself, consisting of natural timeless characteristics. Perceiving Man as ‘The First Sex’ determines the norms and standards by which humanity is defined. In recent years, there is an increasing preoccupation with the concept of masculinity and the ongoing changes influenced by social processes, evolutions in feminist field, and the struggle for gender equality. This places the dominant male ethos into a process of dismantlement and reassembling, thus affecting the ideals and stereotypes structuring its hegemonic position in society and culture today.
The exhibition seeks to observe contemporary representations of masculinity as it intersects with other aspects – ethnic,
socioeconomic, religious, sexual – of personal and collective identity, while tracing different rituals, models, and patterns of masculinity, especially in its local contexts. Through the unique works of artists from the last two decades, simultaneously touching on masculine myths as well as everyday reality, the exhibition spans a range of intriguing views – parodic, melancholic,  intimate, critical – presenting masculinity in its multitude of manifestations, full of contradictions and complexity.

While the exhibit and accompanying brief five-part film series (definitions and masculinities in the different stages of life, including the education system, the military, the family and the job market – had a couple of major omissions, i.e. it didn’t deal at all with the impact of non-binary understandings on men’s self-identities, and while it dealt with various degrees and understandings of manhood within Israeli society, except when it dealt with the military, it omitted any consideration of how Israeli manhood is played out vis-à-vis the Palestinian population both within Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Nevertheless, the exhibit raises important questions about how “manhood” is understood in Israel (and in the West) and its deleterious impact on society and in the world. The artists give graphic representation of toxic masculinity.  

Four examples.

Caterpillar, by Daniella Meroz (2021)

After you pay your 35 shekels, as you enter the museum, in the first room on the right all by itself is a large fuscia headless hybrid caterpillar made of a hard rubber material. Meroz explains that a caterpillar is a “transitional stage, a developmental milestone of transformation into adulthood, within a butterfly’s life cycle,” and “a chain of wide steel links that are used to propel tanks, able to climb and trample over high obstacles enabling them to cross almost any terrain.” In the accompanying 3 ½ minute video, her half-man, half-machine, half-biological, half-militarized hybrid caterpillar crawls across a desert. The question it raises, “Into what will we evolve if this male model is paradigmatic?”

Untitled, by Yael Yudkovik (2005)

One of a series of photographs of men gathered by the artist from local gyms invited to her studio, like Delilah with Samson, she shaved their heads, anointed them with oil, and photographed them from behind. This is how she describes her series:
Animalistic and erotic, on the border of figurative and abstract, aesthetic and pornographic. The feminine usage of “generic” man for the sake of creating a phallic representation that is castrated and potent at the same time…. Quite a few men are troubled by their appearance and its incompatibility to the ruling beauty ideals of today’s society. This is especially true regarding baldness, which although it oppresses many, is nevertheless considered a taboo in male discourse, a source of shame and embarrassment. Hair thinning is seen as a loss of vitality and linked to a fading attraction and sexual potency. However, due to the inevitability of baldness it has been reappropriated, becoming an expression of “hyper-masculinity,” a conscious choice of shaved head.

Dad, Vered Aharonovitch (2006)

Here’s the very interesting description of the painting by the artist:
A portly older man wearing a shabby undershirt dozing off in his living room with a dropped head. On his knees a serviette and a plate of half-eaten fruit, to his head a cheaply painted plastic gold crown with colorful look-a-like gems. Allegedly, there is nothing refined or authoritative about him – exhausted, his body limp, the homely TV recliner is his alternate throne. In many monotheistic religions, the title “Father” is given to God for being the creator, the lawgiver, the patriarch, and the protector. This is a sober and intimate portrait of the father as just “Dad”; and yet for his children  he will always remain King of the world.

Kiss, by Jossef Krispel (2011)

Of course, the first panel questions the premise of virtually all the early Disney movies, the archetypal brave, handsome, male hero saving the passive “damsel in distress,” awakening her to her own mature womanhood with a kiss. Both knowing and understanding their proper roles enables them to live “happily ever after.”

These are societally-conditioned and societally-assigned roles – she is dependent upon the prince to save her, but also the burden of rescuing is imposed upon the male. Both are prisoners of roles they did not originally choose (although most do unconsciously through socialization processes).

In the second panel, the lingering pause before the kiss, the artist questions this underlying assumption, that neither is free. At least for the male in this scene, there is a moment when his social expectations can be questioned.

LMS comments: This scene is taken directly from Snow White, but this is still envisioned from the male perspective. I’m wondering what it might look like if she would awaken all of a sudden, and kiss him, thus freeing him of his societally-imposed role? Or if it could somehow be pictured as their becoming liberated together, either sexually (as here with a kiss) or non-sexually?

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