Arafat Tsvi Sadan

Not About Art: Minister of Culture’s Fistfight with Israeli Artists

“I have never come across art created beyond the Green Line [occupied territories] that justifies being displayed in the museum. Though the settlers have big houses and money, excellent conditions for creativity, they are busy killing and oppressing the Arab population.” (Ellen Ginaton, former Tel Aviv Museum of Art curator for Israeli art)


I was curious about all the fuss over a portrait of Yasser Arafat currently being exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Was it merely another jab at Culture Minister Miri Regev for proposing a law denying state funds to artists who defame Israel and glorify terror, or was it something more?

The Arafat portrait is part of an exhibition of the work of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. In it, the Nobel Prize-winning terrorist is portrayed as a thoughtful visionary. It is being displayed alongside similar portraits of Vladimir Lenin and Pope John Paul II. None of the portraits are actually of real people. Instead, Sugimoto photographed the mannequins made in the likeness of these men and displayed at the Madame Tussauds wax museums. Speaking with the exhibition’s curator, Raz Samira, I asked her point-blank whether choosing a portrait of Arafat was an act of protest, to which she responded with a resolute “no.”

Samira went on to explain that, if anything, the portraits are Sugimoto’s critique of Madame Tussauds’ particular brand of historical narrative, which not only…