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“here, without” Explores Israel-Palestine Relations Through Art

“There was something there that I fundamentally couldn’t understand,” Ethan R. Pierce ’15 says of his first trip to Israel and Palestine last spring. “I felt a need to further explore Israel-Palestine for myself. I went to the region and found this multiplicity of narratives that were often conflicting but were very real for the people who were experiencing them and living them.” For Pierce, a Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator, these unresolved tensions led to “here, without,” a year-long collaborative artistic exploration of the region’s culture, history, and contemporary life. The project, part of which Pierce submitted as his senior thesis, will culminate in a final exhibition of works by participating artists, opening at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts on May 4.

“here, without” has brought a creative discussion of Israel-Palestine relations to Harvard’s campus in a variety of ways over the past year. During Wintersession 2015, Pierce organized a week-long conference featuring lectures and workshops led by contemporary artists, curators, and scholars from both the Israel-Palestine region and the United States. The conference coincided with an exhibition of works in progress from “here, without” in the Arthur M. Sackler Museum. The Carpenter Center opening in May will also serve as the launch for two books related to the project—one a collection of participants’ poetry, another a catalogue of their visual art and critical essays—the publication of which Pierce funded with help from both a Kickstarter campaign and the VES department.

Pierce, who grew up on a farm in Maine, had little experience traveling before coming to Harvard. He participated in the Harvard College Israel Trek over spring break last year, an experience which provided the inspiration for his project. “The trip was supposed to be this very neutral look at the region, but we spent 10 days in Israel and an afternoon in the West Bank,” he says. “I came away feeling a need to continue working with this material, to continue exploring it not just academically but within an artistic context, within a framework of other individuals who were interested in the topic.”

His idea for a collective exploration of Israel-Palestine relations developed over the course of his senior year into a program of biweekly seminars and workshops for 35 participating Harvard- and MIT-affiliated “artist-residents.” Pierce also returned to Israel and Palestine last fall to contact artists and curators working in the region, who became mentors to the participants.

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The artists, who ranged from 19-year-old students to alumni in their mid-forties, produced a variety of creative works examining life in the Middle East today. English concentrator Josh L. Ascherman ’17 created a mixed-media work entitled “Palimpsest,” a layered collage of newspaper clippings partially obscured by black acrylic paint. “I've been able to do a lot of exploration of my personal history and my relationship to art, and I've had a chance to do some thinking about ethics as well,” Ascherman says in an email.

Professional dancer Rossi Lamont Walter, Jr. ’14, who has been living in Tel Aviv for the past year, contributed a poetic essay entitled “Questions for a Foreigner” based on inquiries he often receives as an American in Israel. Walter says that the “here, without” project had both personal meaning for him and a broader significance for the university. “For me, ‘here, without’ was important because I was part of a group of colleagues who were actively interested in learning about what ‘Israel-Palestine’ means—about history, about contemporary circumstances, and about art,” he says.

Pierce says that he faced a variety of challenges as he developed the project. For instance, the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, initiated in Palestine in 2005 as a means to pressure the Israeli government to grant broader rights to Palestinians, calls for the boycott of Israeli cultural institutions. “So it gets really complicated,” Pierce says. “If you have a curator who works at an Israeli institution or has curated in Israel come to speak at Harvard as part of this project, have you broken the cultural boycott? With breaking the cultural boycott, you could very quickly lose the support of any Palestinian artist or be cut off from that community.”

Exploring and representing a deeply divisive political issue presented many challenges to Pierce. “How do you deal with this really complicated area ethically and responsibly, and also just knowing that no matter what you do, you’re going to offend a lot of people because this is a contentious issue on which people have very set and very strong views?” he says. Despite these difficulties, Pierce says that the project was transformative, both for himself and, he hopes, for Harvard. “It was personal exploration and personal growth, and also creating an alternative discursive space at Harvard...to explore these really complicated issues.”

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