To behold them all at once is arresting. One-hundred thirty-five ceramic bowls set side by side in a display of beauty and solidarity. They are nearly identical in size -- measuring about 27 inches around -- yet completely different in color, texture and feeling. A slick-red droplet of a bowl evokes thoughts of blood and feelings of shock and awe, while its cartoon-faced neighbor elicits an easy giggle.
To understand their significance is humbling. Each bowl was made by a prominent sculptor, graphic designer, painter, photographer or poet. Many of the artists are Israeli, but one-third are Palestinian. All of them have in some way been affected by the raging, long-running conflict in the Middle East.
After a six-city international tour, the bowls will hold their finale this week here at Navy Pier, as part of SOFA Chicago, the 14th annual International Exposition of Sculpture Objects & Functional Art. They come under the collective banner "Offering Reconciliation." The idea of Palestinians and Israelis coming together for anything, let alone a project of peace, has been intriguing enough to garner worldwide attention. The idea of their tapping Chicago as the project's final resting place -- as well as the only place where the bowls will be offered for sale -- takes the attention to a local crescendo.
Looking back on her visit to Chicago four years ago, Robi Damelin finds it fitting that she is here again, this time with significantly more mojo behind her mission. Back then, it was Israeli-and-Palestinian-crafted candles she was selling (which we profiled in "Light of hope, light of peace," Nov. 28, 2004), hoping to raise enough money to sustain her beloved Parents Circle-Families Forum, a non-profit organization that works to create a long-term framework for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. This time, she's here with the bowls, with her partner-in-peace, Ali Abu Awwad, and with the hope of raising much-needed finances for the thousands of Parents Circle education programs on the horizon.
Damelin and Awwad are not artists ("We would be in big trouble if it were my bowls we were selling," Damelin says). But their stories stand as the prototype for the 135 artists represented in the exhibit.
Raised Jewish in South Africa, Damelin moved to Tel Aviv in 1967, in part to contribute to efforts of coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. Awwad was born and raised on the West Bank and, like so many of his fellow Palestinians, took part in the violent uprising known as the first intifada. "I was throwing stones by age 16," Awwad says.
But the lives of Awwad and Damelin eventually would be consumed by a mission of peace, though not before each experienced first-hand the region's tradition of violence and death. In 2000, Awwad was shot by an Israeli settler. One month later, as he lay in the hospital recuperating, he learned that his older brother Yusef had been shot and killed. In 2002, Damelin's 28-year-old son David was murdered by a Palestinian sniper.
Listening to Damelin and Awwad share their stories is a difficult experience. Even more overwhelming is the realization that their stories are merely two of thousands. To them, Offering Reconciliation is not just an opportunity to raise money for their cause, it's also an opportunity for Palestinians and Israelis to understand each other in a way they never have to date.
"We believe that the personal narrative creates empathy," Damelin says. "And empathy leads to understanding. Each of these bowls represents a different personal and historical narrative."
Indeed, the richness of Offering Reconciliation is the experience of absorbing those personal narratives. While some of the bowls come off harsh, even disturbing, others are undeniably warm and whimsical. With the exception of the artists' names, the curators of the exhibit purposely omit all background information on the pieces, leaving viewers to develop their own conclusions and interpretations.
"The point is not to compare suffering, but to understand what makes us tick," Damelin says. "The message we bring is hope. The message we bring is to try and change the image of what people conceive of the other side. It does not mean that we agree with each other. It does not mean that it is acceptable what one side or the other has done. It does not mean we forget -- I will never forget what happened to my son David. But it does allow us to look at each other with a deeper sense of empathy."
It is almost impossible to miss the handful of ironies in Damelin and Awwad's relationship. Aside from the fact that one is Israeli and one Palestinian, at 35, Awwad is about the age Damelin's son would be today were he still alive. They have both suffered inconceivable tragedies that permanently altered their life's vocation, and yet they have an easy, often humorous way about them that tends to disarm the humbled people in their presence.
Case in point: As Awwad discussed the pending Chicago exhibit via telephone recently, Damelin accidentally locked herself in their office's restroom. Returning to the phone after opening the door for her, Awwad said, "See, there is hope. A Palestinian has just released an Israeli from prison."
Even their reactions to the exhibit are rich with irony. Asked to cite their favorite bowls in Offering Reconciliation, they name two of the most muted, earthy pieces in the entire exhibit. Damelin's favorite piece is by Palestinian artist Farid Abu-Shakra. Awwad's favorite piece is by Israeli artist Micha Ullman -- a fact they did not even realize until the question was posed. The two bowls happen to be featured side-by-side in the center of the exhibit's catalog.
"This bowl is my favorite because it is broken into pieces but still together," Awwad says. "This is the situation, and this is the people. The situation is divided on the ground, and there is much distance between people personally. They are broken, but they are still alive. That is why we cannot miss this chance for peace. Otherwise we may come to a point where we cannot put the pieces back together."
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