Monday, May 9, 2005


On being an art restorer-Palestine solidarity activist

To earn my living, I am an art restorer. I think that in a lot of ways, being in this field has effected the way I think about a lot of things and that there are some analogies to be made between art restoration and Palestinian Solidarity activities such as awareness work and projects leading towards a solution.

In both of them, I feel myself faced with a “disaster situation” that must be resolved. One can never turn back time, so making a 500 year old painting look like it just came out of the maestro’s bottega isn’t even an option. One can’t recreate the conditions prior to the Zionist settlement of Palestine either. We are forced to take off from where we now are. In restoring old masters’ paintings, one has to in some way work on two fronts: one has to salvage the salvageable, preventing that new or further damage can occur if the object is left in its present condition; and one has to present a final aesthetic unity of the surface, so that anyone who looks at it can appreciate the “readability” of the painting (the form), and if they are sensitive, can also capture the meaning (the content). With Israel-Palestine the focus has to be on bringing about events that can make the desperate conditions cease, so that the proper mechanisms can begin to act that will work on amending the situation of injustice and violence. Acts such as boycotts, demonstrations against the Apartheid Wall, support of prisoners and IDF refusniks, health and education emergency aid and many other things can help stop the damage, while at the same time, rendering the public more aware of the severe injustice which is happening against the Palestinians. This is vital in order to influence the public to pressure their governments into withdrawing economic, military or moral support to the nation which is aggressively threatening the very existence of the Palestinians through transfer (deportation), harassment, land appropriation, economic strangulation, imprisonment and torture.

In my field, there are a lot of rules to follow in order to do a job which is know as being “a regola d’arte”, in other words, following stringent criteria of reversibility, compatibility and visibility, with the retouching visible under certain conditions of luminosity. The non-professional, untrained eye of persons looking at this painting isn’t supposed to sense that it was restored, but if one gets really close, is instructed on the telltale clues of restoration, if they have access to chemical analysis or if they are armed with an ultraviolet light, they can see all of the parts that were not original. Most of the work of a restorer is done “behind the scenes”.

A painting is not only cleaned and retouched, often it is consolidated, given a new lining, a new stretcher is built. At times, its dimensions must be modified, and there are always surprises that come to the fore once it enters into the laboratory. Sometimes it is disinfested if there are damages from insects, and most of the time one is working more often with a scalpel and syringe in hand than with palette and brushes. At least 75% of the work involves things that aren’t visible to the eye, because they aren’t located on the painted surface.

The same can be said for activist work. The writing campaigns at all levels, from letters to representatives and editors, letters of solidarity to prisoners and academics under pressure, to writing articles, books, opinion pieces and research projects such as the beautiful Palestine Atlas by Salman Abu Sitta are all useful and important. Translating, diffusing and publicising information is time consuming, but necessary so as to involve as many people as possible, not just those who read English. Standing at the Checkpoints and witnessing the acts of the soldiers, organising, participating in, or publicising conferences, demonstrations, and round tables are other tasks which entail a lot of work that is done behind the scenes. Most people don’t really want to know all the information. They want it on a plate, and with the multiplicity of resources shouting out for attention, they can hardly be blamed. Unfortunately, the Zionists have the antennas and satellite dishes. We’ve only got megaphones. But there are many of us, and all of us doing our part can make the difference, create the landslide. We have to dedicate a great amounts of time to activism on an individual basis, communicating and working. It’s fatiguing sometimes, but we have to join our voices so that they become one that drowns out the static coming from the Zionists.

In art restoration, one has to bear in mind the final location of the artwork. If it got damaged because of its position, one has to create new conditions, or restore the old ones. One has to determine the lighting exposition if at all possible, because the type of final varnish used is dependent upon adapting to spaces such as churches which are usually poorly illuminated. If you don’t foresee in some way the position of view, you risk throwing away months of work with a glossy varnish where a matte one would be more appropriate.

One of the most difficult aspects of restoration is that one has to see with the eyes of the future, but think with the mind simultaneously in the present and the past. The former is purely technical, in that the paints applied are of two sorts, temperas and guaches which are opaque and change colour completely once they dry and then change again, once they are varnished; and varnish colours, which are transparent and must be applied in brushstrokes which gradually reproduce the colour and the opacity of the painting. Sometimes, to reproduce a colour to fill in the gaps, one applies up to 20 brushstrokes in a single centimetre. So, while one is working, one NEVER sees the final colour as it will be, one never gets the big picture, one works in fragments. It involves a lot of guesswork due to precedent experience of trial and error and a good dose of faith. Once the painting is varnished, if the retouches were done well, you see that, and if they weren’t done well, you see that as well, and must correct them. At times, one can work for months on a painting, hoping that it was going well, but not going to get verification until much later. If one is lucky, the corrections are minimal, if one is unlucky, usually due to lighting conditions while one is working, which are variable, even seasonal, depending on how the clouds cover the sky, affecting the lighting conditions of the laboratory and how much one must depend upon artificial lighting. Natural lighting is the best to capture the sfumatures of antique paintings, but that is hardly possible most of the time.

In the same way, in Palestinian solidarity work, one has to think with the mind open to the future, to foresee the possible situations which will come to pass. That means attempting to have a very clear vision of the current situation, and how things got where they are. Sometimes the acts that one supports “seem” to be “wrong”, only because they can’t be verified in the present, but only imagined for the future. But, these acts are actually the appropriate ones, that in the final stage will prove their correctness. There is a necessity to think creatively, proactively and with the mind poised towards the future, and not be blinded by the “now”, which might look wrong, but in essence, may not be. An act like an academic boycott of Israeli universities may be incomprehensible to many, but patiently, we have to have faith and explain that it is the correct strategy, given the precedent of South Africa and the collapse of the Apartheid system due to pressure of this sort.

If one reasons with a criterion such as “the goal is ending the occupation” and another with “only two States can guarantee autonomy for both peoples” and yet another, “the Single State alone is the solution given the facts on the ground”, each will direct their focus on achieving that which they are convinced will guarantee the best “final” status, and more than that, one operates based on the analysis made of the accumulated facts. This leads to the inevitable situation that everyone reasons with their own brain, and not collectively. One may be influenced by others, by personal situations and parental or ideological affiliations, but at the end of the day, one follows the principals that one is convinced is reflecting reality and their sense of justice the most. That means, each person works independently.

The down side, is that at times means that well-intentioned activists are working against one another. It is sad, but it is simply the way it is. There is almost no way to accommodate the various positions for the final status issue. So, many settle for projects that do not take the final status into account. This is fine, as long as it does not impede a fair and just final resolution. Telling Palestinians to lower their demands has been the time honoured system of the Right, but now it has been adopted by the Left. While it might work in the (very) short term, in the long term, it will bring about only disaster. For if Rights are indeed Rights, they aren’t arbitrary. They can’t be exchanged, renounced or considered to be of marginal importance. They are rather of CENTRAL importance, and if this is not the commitment of activists, perhaps they might reflect upon if they are really doing favours to Palestinians in asking them to request less than they would ask for themselves and their families.

There is a speedy way to retouch oil paintings, and that is to use oil colours. They are neither transparent nor opaque. They usually have the same consistency of the original painting, and the wet colour is the same as the dry and varnished colours. They are also more workable than the other two types, because their drying rate is compatible with a day’s work. It would seem to be the perfect solution to the problem. But, unfortunately, it isn’t. Within 50 years, once the processes of oxidation and polymerisation begin, which range from 30 to 70 years, those colours will stand out like a coffee stain on a white tablecloth. They will jump out as being evident retouches, because they do not remain light and air stable as the other colours do. The short cut would immediately look perfect, even better than new in a way, while I, as a restorer may receive great kudos (knowing that I fudged), it inevitably causes a future serious aesthetic damage to the painting, and while I may never have to answer for it, it will eventually demand a new restoration. Any serious restorer has ethics and refuses to work that way.

So, shortcuts which only take into account temporary, immediate needs, such as, remodelling the Apartheid Wall so that it cuts a little less into Palestinian territory, rather than to work upon the implementation of the ruling of the International Court, that this Wall is to be brought down, are temporary solutions that resolve nothing at all, if not sometime in the future actually exacerbating the situation. Summits which are all about the support of a conditioned truce or hudna without effectively guaranteeing that they be respected bilaterally is not a solution either. Guaranteeing funding for the Palestinian Authority to develop is important, but without insisting that they become truly democratic and foresee and implement universal voting for ALL Palestinians, citizens of the PA, refugees, exiles or students or workers living abroad, and a COMMITMENT of all foreign nations to collaborate in the process, will be a temporary remedy, and by no means a cure. We as activists should see the long term as much as we can, and not settle for temporary situations which do nothing more than complicate an already bad situation.

Every restoration is a “trauma” for the painting. It must undergo heat, pressure, humidity, movement, application of glues, varnishes, stuccos and resins, stripping of old linings, mounting onto new stretchers and other things which put it in a high risk condition. So, the avoidance of frequent restoration is one of the goals of a good job. I HAVE to care about what will happen to the painting after it leaves my hands, even if I may never see it again. I have a moral obligation to do so. I freely chose this line of work, and know that it carries a heavy responsibility, both in the present and in the future. It is a very stressful line of work, even if one must remain steady, calm and controlled for hours on end, the opposite of how one may be feeling within. If you make a serious mistake, given the delicacy of the work, the amount of chemicals and the difficulty of the procedures, there is no way to correct it, and that is a personal responsibility that you alone must make. The necessary operations must be done though, and you can’t delegate them to anyone else.

I could say the same for activist work. Once you KNOW, you are morally obligated to take a stand. Once you take a stand, a sense of ethics forces you to act. Even if that entails trauma, stress, mental hardship. You will be open to insult from all sides of the spectrum. Your personal life will be greatly affected by all of this, there is a personal cost to it, as it makes demands of you in a new way each day, and there is always the frustration of never knowing if all that work, time, effort, pain will have any effect at all.

All change is trauma. The Chinese ideogram for Chaos is also the same one for Growth. We can’t help but grow and change, and that brings chaos. There is no escaping this simple fact. There will be trauma for all the persons living in Israel and Palestine with the changes that we prospect. Some of them will welcome the temporary trauma as necessary, just as the art restorer who loves his painting and respects it must make it undergo trauma that puts it at risk of survival. Others will dedicate their life’s blood to preventing these changes, because they too believe in what they are fighting for. One has to have faith, nerves of steel and a lot of love. And most of all, you can’t delegate it to anyone else. Once you know you can do something, you feel obligated to do something.


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