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A gaze at the watchman's post: A selection of prints by Walid Abu Shakra at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art
The title of the exhibition refers to a guard's post (Mintara).

By: Irith Hadar

TEL AVIV.- Mintarat Al-Batten is the name of a place in Umm el-Fahem, denoting the watchman's post at Al-Batten (Arabic for the belly)—the potbelly-like summit whose slopes are now covered with the city's new residential neighborhoods. These quarters, which surround the city's old center in gradually expanding concentric circles, replace the age-old olive trees and sabra hedges, the landscapes of Walid Abu Shakra's childhood and youth, which he repeatedly revisits in his prints.

In its metaphorical use in the title of the exhibition, the name "Mintarat Al-Batten" deviates from its function of indicating a specific place, reflecting a process in Abu Shakra's life and art. While returning to the views of the place and retracing them—a repetition which is bound up with the memory of the time in which the watchman's post was hidden within the thicket of trees and sabra hedges—the artist himself seems to transform into a watchman on alert at the gate.

Abu Shakra guards things from afar. He began documenting the area in photographs before he ever left for studies in London (in 1974). Since then he has been continually photographing his childhood realms during his visits to Umm el-Fahem. The printing plates are prepared after these photographs in his London home. The photographic sights are processed into new images which are charged with earlier memories, with yearnings for the home and time of his early life, as well as with baggage loaded on them by the immediate reality. Between one visit and another, however, these places are affected by the power of life and routine needs, and the landscapes he has just observed are transformed beyond recognition. Abu Shakra, who clings to the views of the age-old olive trees, grants them eternity in print. His watchful gaze is well aware that the reality of the views engraved in the copper plates is an unreachable destination.

The tension between the native (the sense of home) and the inevitably metaphorical (the watchman's post) has been encapsulated in the title, "Mintarat Al-Batten," which turned out to be non-translatable. The corresponding Hebrew words (noter or shomer) dragged into the title all the watchmen and guards of the Zionist ethos, and even an inkling of hostility and grudge (as denoted by the expression noter tina). The transition to Hebrew not only eliminated the poetical unity of sound, meaning, name, and place; the newly-gained air of defiance distorted the relationship between object and meaning, conjuring up a reality where everything leads to the political.

The early prints attest to the young Abu Shakra's fascination with the medium of print, and the expertise he gained and honed in a wide range of etching and aquatint techniques during his studies in London, whereas from the early 1980s he has concentrated on dryprint. After isolating the objects of print from the photograph as a study in pencil on paper, Abu Shakra renders the image on the plate like a draftsman, etching directly on the metal. The printed images, with their wealth of hues, are, in fact, linear drawings spanning a broad range of lines. The drawing gestures charge every detail in the printed image with Abu Shakra's presence, like an embodiment of his hold onto/clinging to things in the material. In the act of drawing-engraving he revives the memory of the photographed view, bringing the distant closer. That which in the early prints was experienced as a romantic representation of nature with its threatening forces, is modeled in the 1980s prints as a type of naturalism in relatively tranquil scenes, in which the planted and the wild are represented in fine detail in a coexistence devoid of threat. The subordination of naturalism to the expressive-linear language of drypoint bespeaks the watchman's involved-radicalized and emotional position.

The oscillation typical of Abu Shakra's prints between distant and close views exposes their photographic origin. Similarly, the sense of things frozen in mid-movement—such as the swift movement of leaves in the wind—originates in the photographic gaze. The affinity with photography is essential and fundamental: thereby Abu Shakra attests: I was there, and such were the things when I observed them. While guided by the awareness of the looming threat to the continued existence of things, the lines carved in the plate reinforce the details, infusing the mundane views with drama.

The continuity of Abu Shakra's oeuvre was interrupted for many years when, from the mid-1980s until approximately three years ago, he devoted himself to Sufism. For 25 years, religious studies filled his world, pushing art aside, and only in the seventh decade of his life did he resume working with print, and returned to the landscape patterns and work modes typical of the beginning of his career. In his current works, however, the printed photograph, or the one which is lab- or digitally manipulated, is not only a documentation which functions as an origin for outlining the print objects as in the past, but has become, in itself, the object of formalization, charging it with symbolism. The prints created in the past two years are bathed with a type of airy-ethereal light softness and with expanses of white which assimilate contour-breached forms therein. By the same token, the tangle of scratches which generated the deep black in the 1980s prints, seems to have been unraveled, gaping light slits onto the omnipresent white, onto the light. Remaining in the watchman's post, Abu Shakra now observes the flickers of light and the landscapes, introducing the visible as a path towards belonging.

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