by Liora Belford

In her multi-channel video installation, WarCraft (2014), Nevet Yitzhak makes a poignant statement against war and aggression. Comprising three large-scale projections of digitally constructed rugs ornate with three-dimensional patterns of army helicopters, tanks and bomber airplanes, the installation pays tribute to Afghan war rugs while referencing a Mediterranean war zone. As the flying helicopters invade from one rug into the others, spreading warning pamphlets before they attack, they surround the viewer with a disturbing yet mesmerizing display of aggression and destruction, emphasized through resonant sound effects.
As with all of her work to date, WarCraft addresses conflicts that the artist considers central to her identity. Yitzhak is an Arab Jew – part of a repressed segment of Israeli citizenry, less familiar to North Americans. Her family came to Israel from Kurdistan, Syria and Yemen before and after the establishment of the state in 1948, when Jews from all over the world relocated in what became known as the Ingathering of the Exiles (Kibbutz Galoyot in Hebrew). Different motivations drove the migration of Jewish people to Israel – some escaping persecution, some following ideological beliefs. Symbolically, the Ingathering of Exiles aimed to manifest the Biblical promise made by Moses to the people of Israel in the Book of Deuteronomy, but practically, it was a way in which the young country created a Jewish majority in a land populated mostly by Palestinians. Therefore, while Kibbutz Galoyot was intended as a means to heal the tear between Jewish people and their promised land – restoring them to their historical narrative – it also effectively reframed Zionism as Jewish nationalism. The understanding of Jewish historical continuity as dependent on the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel failed to recognize that the territory was not empty and waiting to be reclaimed. This misconception led to the 1948 Palestinian exodus, also known as the Nakba, meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic.
The Ingathering of Exiles also meant that Jews from diaspora had to leave their lives, culture and language behind, especially those who came from Middle Eastern and North African Arab countries. Their cultural references did not align with those of the ideologists who conceived the model for the new Israeli Jew – also known as the Zabra – based on Central and Eastern European frameworks. As cultural studies professor Ella Habiba Shohat argues, in developing Jewish nationalism, ideologists sought not only to transfer the Palestinians out of Palestine but also to remove the Arab-ness from the Jews coming from Arab countries into the newly-formed state.1 Arab Jews had to relinquish who they were and in exchange adopt a completely new cultural heritage, assuming a new identity. As tensions grew in the region, this reconfiguration of identity aimed to distinguish Israel from its surrounding Arab neighbours. Arab Jews received a new designation as “Oriental” Jews (or Mizrahi in Hebrew), while the Palestinians who remained inside the borders of Israel became Israeli Arabs. Though incomparable in their significance and impact, the Nakba and the uprooting of the Arab Jews entwined the histories of the two groups, leading to moments of solidarity.
In her artistic practice, Yitzhak consistently reclaims the Arab-ness of her identity. She creates elaborate video and sound installations, working mostly with found materials, researching traditional music and objects from the Arab world and contemplating them in the context of her own life. One such work is A Great Joy Tonight (2009),2 which features the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Arabic Orchestra that was established in 1948 and operated until 1993, as part of Arabic Kol Yisrael. The musicians in the orchestra were Arab Jews from Iraq and Egypt who arrived in Israel in the early 1950s, after successful careers in their countries of origin, and acquired devoted listeners from across the Middle East. In this sound and video installation, Yitzhak deconstructs the original IBA archival footage, selecting only the melodic moments between the sung lyrics. Editing these fragments into a new musical and visual composition, A Great Joy Tonight articulates a lament for lost tradition.
In a conversation with Yitzhak, she explained that music is an essential part of one’s identity that cannot be given up. As illustration, she shared the story of her maternal grandparents’ meeting. Originally from Syria and living in Jerusalem in the 1950s, her grandmother was the only one in her neighbourhood who owned a radio. Her grandfather, originally from Yemen, was drawn to her balcony by the music he heard coming from her apartment, such as the broadcasts of performances by Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum, or the songs of Egyptian-Syrian composer Farid al-Atrash. This music later became the soundtrack of Yitzhak’s childhood and, therefore, a significant part of herself, compelling her to create a series of works focusing on these two musical icons. In Alashan Maleish Gherak3 (2011), a two-channel video installation, one channel projects an oval portrait of Farid al-Atrash singing, while the other conveys a digital version of Yitzhak’s grandmother’s rug, with its traditional patterns animated to move according to the music’s rhythm. In Star Quality (2012) Yitzhak selected a brief moment of an Umm Kulthum stage performance in which she holds a white handkerchief – her trademark – in front of her face, in what seems to be an introspective moment. This short scene is looped and projected on a wall, with the sound muted. For Yitzhak this work symbolizes the Arab-Jewish duality of her own identity. These series of works also mark the beginning of Yitzhak’s extensive exploration of traditional textiles.
Nevet Yitzhak, WarCraft, (installation detail, Koffler Gallery), 2014.
Nevet Yitzhak, WarCraft, (installation detail, Koffler Gallery), 2014.Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
WarCraft continues the artist’s process of defining her identity. She began weaving its digital patterns after encountering the Afghan war rug, a unique product of the region’s traumatic history of conflict and foreign military presence. The emergence of the war rugs can be traced back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979, when weavers began to infuse traditional patterns with imagery of war. At first, the new designs were mostly hidden within a stylized iconography, and were possibly intended, as some would argue, only for fellow Afghanis, communicating an act of resistance to the invasion and documenting the weavers’ experiences and interpretations of the regional politics. With the increasing popularity of the rugs – first among the Soviet soldiers who bought them as souvenirs, and later among international collectors – this act of resistance was commercialized. The war imagery became more conspicuous and detailed, often including English phrases. The term “war rug” was then coined by dealers, commercial galleries, collectors and critics who drove the formation of this prominent tourist souvenir industry.
Positioning this artifact as an object of resistance, Yitzhak’s war rugs address her local reality of armed and territorial struggle. One can imagine the Tel Aviv-based artist witnessing helicopters crossing the clear blue sky, flying back and forth between army bases and conflict areas in the summer of 2014, when Israel conducted a military operation in Gaza. Recreating a disturbingly familiar traffic of aggression in WarCraft, where choppers, tanks and rockets move across three screens invading unseen territories, Yitzhak acknowledges another side of her identity, as an Israeli belonging to the side of the oppressor. She holds up a mirror that confronts herself as well as her fellow citizens, reflecting a society locked in a seemingly unending cycle of violence. No injured people or ruined buildings are represented in the work – there are no signs of life at all. Weapons and bombs regenerate endlessly, perpetuating the industry of war.
One thing that the helicopters and tanks in Yitzhak’s WarCraft destroy is the digital fabric of the rug itself. Shooting at each other, the military machines obliterate each other’s patterns, leaving behind flames and dark gaps that get refilled by new equipment. For Yitzhak, these holes represent the impact of war on tradition and allude to the responsibility of artists when working in such areas of conflict. Belonging to a generation that, according to Yitzhak, is increasingly losing hope, the artist doesn’t believe that art can directly influence politics and change the world, but rather that it can contribute to much needed dialogue between people on both sides. Furthermore, her practice strives to act as a bridge to what was shattered and lost as a result of war – heritage, languages, traditions. Drawing inspiration from the work of Lebanese artists Walid Raad, Akram Zaatari and Jalal Toufic, Yitzhak finds affinity with their creative strategies as models of artistic response to years of armed conflict in their country. Toufic’s concept of the withdrawal of tradition as a consequence of traumatic catastrophe is particularly resonant: “With regard to the surpassing disaster, art acts like the mirror in vampire films: it reveals the withdrawal of what we think is still there.[...] Does this entail that one should not record? No. One should record this ‘nothing,’ which only after the resurrection can be available.”5
In WarCraft, black holes briefly reveal this “nothing,” only to be further erased by the advance of a new attack weapon, in a continuous renewal of the war machine. However, these recurrent gaps allow viewers to glimpse the imprints of a poignant absence, the markers of retreat where regeneration has been stalled and regrowth stunted. Subtly yet persistently, the black wounds of Yitzhak’s digital rugs convey a call for the retraction of power and aggression, summoning the possibility of hope for a better future.
Furthermore, by translating rug weaving into a digital medium and using patterns and sounds that evoke video game aesthetics, Yitzhak directs the mirror toward us as global consumers of war imagery. As media theorist and philosopher Boris Groys notes, we almost never believe the media, except when it comes to covering traumatic stories and catastrophes. Groys argues that people expect the media to deliver these reports, and when it does, it actually reinforces their trust in themselves.6 This confirmation of viewer expectations can make individuals feel that they understand the world, that “they saw it coming,” giving them a sense of control over their lives. Paradoxically, this sense of control becomes addictive, as it helps people feel safer, turning them into consumers of violence. However, as with any addiction, the cumulative effect is one of diminished impact. The visual flood of aggression can make us numb to its real significance. We can enjoy extremely violent video games and allow our children to play at killing each other. In its elaborate aesthetic, Yitzhak’s WarCraft is eerily mesmerizing and seductive. Even the gun fire and explosion blasts are orchestrated into somewhat rhythmic harmony. But it is not enjoyable, it is disturbing. It draws us in and doesn’t let go, shaking us from our indifference.

1 Ella Habiba Shohat, “Shvira v’Shiva: Itzuv shel Epistemologiya Mizrachit” (Belford’s translation from Hebrew is “Breakage and Return: Design of Oriental Epistemology”), Eastern Appearance / Mother Tongue: A Present that Stirs in the Thickets of its Arab Past, ed. Yigal Nizri (Israel: Bavel Press, 2004).
2 This work was presented at Koffler Gallery in 2015 as part of the exhibition Pardes. The title of the work is taken from Inbal Perlson’s book by the same name, which follows the political and historical context and circumstances that led the IBA orchestra musicians, decades after they immigrated to Israel, to hold on to the traditional music and language of their countries of origin.
3 Yitzhak’s translation of the title to English is, “I have no one but you.”
4 Such as Raad’s The Atlas Group (1989–2004), Zaatari’s Letter to a Refusing Pilot (2013), and Toufic’s Over-Sensitivity (1996), to name a few examples.
5 Jalal Toufic, The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster (2009), www.jalaltoufic.com/downloads/Jalal_Toufic,_The_Withdrawal_of_Tradition_Past_a_Surpassing_Disaster.pdf: 57.
6 Boris Groys, “The Fate of Art in the Age of Terror,” in Concerning War: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art, eds. Maria Hlavajova and Jill Winder. (Rotterdam: BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht and post editions, 2006).
Nevet Yitzhak (b. 1975, Israel; lives and works in Tel Aviv) is a graduate of the Naggar School of Photography, Media and New Music (2003); and the Bezalel Program for Advanced Studies in Art (2007). Her multidisciplinary work has been shown at the 6th Asian Biennial, Taiwan; Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Virginia Beach; Tel Aviv Museum of Art; Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin; SMBA, Amsterdam; Kuandu Museum, Taipei; the Museum for Islamic Art, Jerusalem; Herzlyia Museum of Contemporary Art; Petach Tikva Museum of Art; Koffler Gallery, Toronto; Circle 1, Berlin; 68 Square Meters, Copenhagen; Jeanine Hofland Gallery, Amsterdam; Edel Assanti Gallery, London; TSR, Miami; the 5th Mediations Biennale, Poznan; Nimac Art Center, Nicosia; SIP Institute for Photography, Tel Aviv; Mana Contemporary, Jersey City; Huashan Culture Park, Taipei; and CCA, Tel Aviv. Yitzhak has won numerous awards and her work is in the collections of the Israel Museum, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, the Petach Tikva Museum of Art, the Shpilman Institute for Photography, and several others. She is represented by Yossi Milo Gallery, NYC.
Liora Belford is an Israeli-Canadian sound artist, curator and scholar. She is currently a PhD ABD candidate at the department of Art History, University of Toronto, where her research focuses on the curation of sound within the context of modern and contemporary art. She is the recipient of the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS) Doctoral Award (2016-2019); the Scace fellowship (2013-2018); the Faculty of Arts and Science Top (FAST) Doctoral Fellowship (2015-2018); and DIALOG – Scholarship In Honour of Michael Evamy (2014). She is half of the artistic duo Duprass (together with Ido Govrin) and co-owner of the experimental record label Interval Recordings. Her recent curated exhibitions include Image Coming Soon#1 (2015) at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery (for which she received an Honorary Mention from the OAAG), Pardes (2015) at Koffler Gallery, and A Piece for Two Floors and a Corridor (2015) at the Israeli Center for Digital Art. She is currently preparing Listening to Snow for the Art Museum (Toronto), a major exhibition on the sound works of artist Michael Snow.
Nevet Yitzhak: WarCraft is a Primary Exhibition, Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. Presented in partnership with Images Festival.
Essay: Liora Belford | Design: Tony Hewer | Editing: Shannon Anderson, Mona Filip
Koffler Gallery installation photos: Toni Hafkenscheid
Digital publication to the exhibition Nevet Yitzhak: WarCraft
Presented by the Koffler Gallery | April 4 – May 26, 2019 | Curator: Mona Filip
© Koffler Centre of the Arts, 2019, in collaboration with the individual contributors. All rights reserved. ISBN 978-1-928175-19-3.
Koffler family FoundationCIBC Wood GundyOntario Arts Council | Conseil Des Arts De L'OntarioToronto Arts Council | Funded by the City of TorontoCanada Council