“Brand Israel” is on its way to Brussels.
On Thursday (8 September), an exhibition showcasing Israeli designers will open in the Belgian capital. The colorful “happy material” chairs and funky vases on display will try to present a cuddly image of Israel, concealing how the state is wedded to apartheid and colonial expansion.
A catalogue for PromiseDesign, as the touring exhibition is called, emphasizes this point. “Happily, it [Israeli design] does not mirror aspects of the political drama in Israel and the Middle East,” design historian Mel Bryars writes in its preface. “Domestic daily design, such as products for daily life, remains rather light-hearted. Unlike macabre Israeli fine art, you will find no bullet holes in chairs, blood dripping from draperies, or a cynical vocabulary.”
Part of a bigger international design festival, the Brussels exhibition is sponsored by the Israeli embassy in Belgium. PromiseDesign has previously visited Milan and Paris and clearly fits in with the concept of “Brand Israel.” That project was the result of several years of discussions between the Israeli foreign ministry and public relations firms (including the global giant Burson-Marsteller) to improve Israel’s image abroad.
“Brand Israel” had its first major international outing in Toronto in 2008, when a multi-million dollar promotional blitz began. The blitz culminated with a section devoted to Israeli cinema at the Toronto Film Festival the following year. This deliberate attempt to distract attention from Israel’s crimes – most particularly, its assault on Gaza in 2008 and 2009 – was denounced in a declaration signed by the writer Alice Walker, the singer David Byrne (formerly of Talking Heads), the film-maker Ken Loach, journalists John Pilger and Naomi Klein, the theater director Juliano Mer-Khamis (who was murdered in Jenin earlier this year), and the subsequently deceased historian Howard Zinn.
Contrary to what Mel Bryars claims, art is not made in a vacuum. Allowing an exhibition to be sponsored by the Israeli state makes it political by definition.
And there is something obscene about celebrating “happy material” chairs from Israel, when schools in Gaza are so broke they struggle to provide seats for their teachers (as I heard John Ging, then head of the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), complain last year). The “light-hearted” design that Israel is promoting is intended to distract us from the suffocation of Palestine. For that reason, “Brand Israel” must be boycotted.