Finding Jaffa dream house cements artists close bond

Palestinian Zeina Barakeh and Israeli Michal Gavish have what some might call an unlikely bond: They dream about the same house in Jaffa.

Michal Gavish

The two artists met serendipitously at the San Francisco Art Institute’s thesis exhibition in 2008 when their final projects were placed, unbeknown to either of them, across from each other.

“People wondered about the relationship between our works,” Barakeh recalled. Though at the time there was no connection between the women or their projects, the year-end show established their association, both as friends and colleagues.

Describing the beginning of their work together as “very sensitive and layered,” they quickly learned that not only did they share a connection to Israel, but their families also shared similar narratives, plagued by war and conflict. Gavish’s Hungarian family fled Europe after the Holocaust in 1949, settling outside of Tel Aviv. Barakeh’s father’s family fled Jaffa for Lebanon during Israel’s War of Independence.

To connect that history to their art, the San Francisco–based artists, who have lived in the United States for many years, are showing their work at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Chasm Arena in San Francisco.

Zeina Barakeh

The gallery’s theme is conflict and the division it creates in people both geographically and psychologically. Their installation, called “Jaffa Mangoes,” is one of several multimedia works on display.

“Jaffa Mangoes” is split into three sections: a wall of phones, each telling a story of someone from a wartime conflict; footage from the Jaffa house that connects the women; and an interactive piece that asks viewers to answer questions about conflict.

“The story of our partnership is so much more important than the actual work itself,” the Lebanese-born Barakeh said. “There’s this whole process that uncovered and triggered so many different things.”

About a year into their friendship, the two decided they would work together on an installation, but were unsure of the form or their message. Then, in the fall of 2009, they had an idea: “Zeina was telling me about her family’s house in Jaffa,” Gavish said, “so we decided to look for the place.”

The house was a mythical place for Barakeh — one she grew up hearing about, but never was able see or visit. She’s a Lebanese citizen and cannot legally enter Israel.

A gallery visitor listens to a story of wartime conflict in the exhibit “Jaffa Mangoes.” photo/mahshid modares

“This is where Michal came in. She traveled to Israel and searched for the house while I provided details about it and was in communication with my uncle in Beirut.” 

From her octogenarian uncle’s memories, Barakeh gave Gavish detailed information about the interior design of the Ottoman-style home, such as wall paintings on the second floor and a well in the middle of the living room.

Like a detective, Gavish navigated the winding streets of Jaffa, talking to local people and looking at old maps until she found the house.  

“When Michal located the house, I was kind of jealous,” Barakeh admitted. “My uncle told me to tell Michal that there were flowers [in the paintings] on the wall. Then Michal called me and said, ‘Zeina, I found the flowers!’ It was crazy.”

Armed with a camera, Gavish has made several trips back to the house, which is now Mango, a clothing store in central Jaffa. Video footage and photos of the house are part of the installation at Yerba Buena.

Finding the house, the artists said, was a moving experience and one that has brought them even closer. “She’s family,” Barakeh said, looking at Gavish. “This was the most interesting part — to find the house. We didn’t go searching for any solutions. Instead, we just wanted to see where the dream house is.” ­­

“Jaffa Mangoes” is on exhibit through April 6 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F. Free. www.ybca.org/chasm-arena

Abra Cohen