Palestinian protesters run during clashes with Israeli troops at Israel-Gaza border
The A4 Arts Foundation in Cape Town has been welcomed as an alternative in an arts scene so thoroughly dominated by commercial galleries, but its funders have links that expose Israel’s use of the international cultural scene to present itself as a modern democracy write, Asher Gamedze and Mitchel Hunter
Black art in Cape Town exists in a hostile context. From racist untransformed galleries competing for relevance by making money out of the hippest artists, to the stubborn colonial architecture of the settlement – the step-mother city has never really been about black cultural life thriving. Following the closure of community-oriented art centres in the 1980s and 1990s (as per democratic transition) and the deepening neoliberalist policies implemented in the past twenty years, there are fewer spaces and increasingly less funding for artists outside of commercial galleries. It is within this barren artscape that the relatively new A4 Arts Foundation is located, very strategically so we might add.
The Foundation aspires to be an arts space that contributes more broadly to public cultural life in Cape Town, South Africa, and the broader region. To date they have hosted a number of exhibitions, musical performances (e.g. Shabaka and the Ancestors), and educational workshops (e.g. Gladiolus) most of which have been run by local black artists. This is important work. With its education focus, a library which is open to the public, and its apparent openness to various forms of collaboration, A4 emerges as somewhat of an oasis: a welcome alternative within a scene so thoroughly dominated by commercial galleries.
But alas, it is a mirage.
The Foundation’s “About” page on their website reveals that “A4 is seed funded by director Wendy Fisher through the Kirsh Family Foundation”. A short search about where this money comes from uncovers some worrying information and raises some important questions about A4.
Nathan Kirsh, Fisher’s father, is a big shot capitalist with a questionable history. “Many of Nathan Kirsh’s companies in Swaziland, particularly in the textile industry, were heavily involved in undermining the efforts of the United Nations imposed sanctions against Apartheid South Africa.” Apart from being one of the businesspeople to break the apartheid sanctions in the 1980s, Kirsh is the largest shareholder and ex-director of Magal Security Systems. Magal was founded by the Israeli government in 1970 and since 2016 has been the primary supplier for electrical fences to Israeli prisons and responsible for the perimeter control systems of the Apartheid wall in the West Bank and parts of the border surrounding Gaza.
Beyond the money through Magal, the Kirsh family influence seems ideologically aligned to, and invested in, the Zionist state project. Why do we say this? Fisher, an artist and “philanthropist” who also sits on the board of the Guggenheim and is a donor to Zeitz MOCCA, is on the board of the Israel Museum and she co-chairs the British Friends of the Art Museums of Israel (BFAMI) organisation.
The Kirsh family has been honoured by KKL-JNF (Karen Kayemeth LeIsrael Jewish National Fund), an infamous Israeli ideological and forestry initiative which plays the central role in the land dispossession of Palestine. Further, Nathan and Frances Kirsh are esteemed partners and members of The Jewish People Policy Institute (Established by the Jewish Agency for Israel), of which Fisher is also a board member. A 2015 publication by the Institute, “Jewish values and Israel’s use of force in armed conflict: Perspectives from world Jewry” is an ideological document justifying the use of asymmetrical warfare on Palestinian peoples by the Israeli state. This is part of a much broader, deeply co-ordinated international propaganda programme.
In the 1980s, as a result of its attack on Lebanon, Israel faced an increase in media criticism. In response, a conference of Israeli officials and media experts from around the world was held to design their formal public relations strategy, known as Hasbara. A central technique of Hasbara is pre-emptively defining all Palestinians as terrorists and all Palestinian resistance to settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation as terrorism so that Israeli acts of terror appear to be just and legitimate. A recent example is the dreadful massacre of peaceful marchers in Gaza this past Easter and Pesach weekend. The strategy is to talk about “terror, not territory” which does the ideological groundwork which justifies the murder of civilians.
In 2005, Israel’s media strategy developed further. Realising that it was not enough to cast Palestinians in a negative light, the foreign minister of Israel officially adopted “Brand Israel” – a media strategy to cast Israel in a positive light. This strategy was granted four million dollars in addition to the three million dollars already budgeted to Hasbara. Brand Israel works by depoliticising the narratives around Israel and focussing only sharing stories of good neighbourliness, technology, art and progressive values thus diverting attention away from systematic abuses of Palestinian rights.
This is where strategies of pinkwashing, greenwashing and bluewashing are implemented. Pinkwashing presents Israel as a haven for queer communities, obfuscating how it blackmails queer Palestinians into becoming informants by threatening to release their sexual orientation. Greenwashing presents Israel as a centre for environmental rights, “making the desert bloom”, obfuscating that the forests it has planted are covering up destroyed Palestinian villages such as Lubya, a village destroyed in 1948, which has been planted over by a forest called the “South African forest”.
Bluewashing presents Israel as a centre for water management technologies which they have attempted to sell to the City of Cape Town as a solution for our water crisis. It is because of bluewashing that this “offer” has been taken seriously, despite the fact, as reported in this newspaper, that all Israel knows about water is how to steal it from Palestinians. Israelis receive 300l a day, while Palestinians received only 70l and some as few as 30l a day in non-drought conditions.
Most relevant to the A4 Arts Foundation is Israel’s use of the international cultural scene to present itself as a modern democracy. As early as 2008, one year after the strategy officially commenced, Israel formed the “Spotlight Tel Aviv” programme at the Toronto International Film Festival in which the Israeli state paid all expenses for Israeli films to be shown at the festival. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) got a hold of a sample contract which stated that “the service provider is aware that the purpose of ordering services from him is to promote the policy interests of the state of Israel via culture and art” and yet “the service provider will not present himself as an agent, emissary and/or representative of the Ministry”. This is a general strategy that has been used time and time again by arts and cultural institutions around the world and is visible in the international role of Wendy Fisher.
This strategy has been met by PACBI, the call of the vast majority of Palestinian artists and cultural workers. As a part of the broader boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, PACBI calls for a full boycott of Israeli arts and cultural institutions and international institutions that are complicit in the oppression of Palestine. Hence Nathan Kirsh, the Kirsh Foundation and Wendy Fisher are being called out, not because they are Israeli (they aren’t), or even Jewish (it’s not about that) but because they are complicit in the destruction of Palestinian lives and the “rebranding” of Israel.
So it is within this Cape colonial Zionist cocktail that black artists are ambivalently positioned. In a neoliberal context short on funds for black cultural work, it is spaces like A4 that are recruiting, and paying. Are Black artists, through A4, getting co-opted into the propaganda project of, if not Israel itself, then the artwashing of occupation profits and Zionist families? If so, the effect is the obscuring of the horrors of military occupation and apartheid in Palestine which positions A4 as a progressive player in the Cape Town art scene by providing much-needed resources and space to black artists. Does this not allow the Fisher/Kirsch/Israel complex to swallow and appropriate the creative production of artists for their own ends, leaving the political question of Palestinian solidarity sorely unanswered?
These and other questions around the theme of “Decolonising art institutions’” will be discussed in a public forum at A4 Arts Foundation, 23 Buitenkant Street, District Six, Cape Town, on Saturday 14 April from 2pm-5pm. All are welcome.