At the beginning, it didn't seem like Haim Maor and Khader Oshah had much in common. Although both are artists, Maor is a professor at Ben-Gurion University and his work, which explores Holocaust themes, has been on display across the United States and Europe. Oshah, meanwhile, was born in a refugee camp in Gaza, and now lives with his wife and 11 children in the Bedouin town of Rahat, outside Beersheva.
But that all changed one evening four years ago, when the two men met and embarked on a project to document and paint each other's families.
The result is a wide-ranging collection of various paintings and sketches, part of which is now on display at the Slought Foundation in University City.
"The Family: A Project of Reconciliation," as the exhibit is titled, is essentially an attempt to bridge the gap between two sides of the conflict, albeit on a smaller, personal level. Both Maor and Oshah insist that they represent no one but themselves, and say that their project was about getting to know each other, rather than having anything to do with politics.
Still, politics are never far behind when it comes to the Mideast, as in one series of pictures painted by Oshah in which Maor's family members are painted on a map of Israeli in 1948, with the names of the Palestinian villages written out in Arabic.
"We are not a voice box for any political agenda," Maor insisted during a recent interview. "We want to show that it is possible that two people" representing the different sides of the conflict "can respect each other and work together. To look at the exhibit from a political point of view is to minimize it. The project is about identity and sharing your story with the 'other.' "
The project is relatively simple in concept — Maor paints Oshah's family, Oshah paints Maor's family — but in a region where reality is seldom simply what meets the eye, the result is a complex exploration of what it means to be Israeli, Jewish, Palestinian, Bedouin, and a host of other labels and identities.
The artists explained that their paintings are based on hundreds of photographs of the two men's children, wives, siblings, parents and friends taken over the course of four years.
Oshah and Maor were in Philadelphia recently to attend the opening of the exhibit at Slought. And they noted that they were pleased with the reaction so far.
"Because people here aren't part of the conflict, they are able to see it as art, and not politics," said Oshah.
A week after their fated meeting four years ago, Maor traveled to the Bedouin town of Rahat to tour Oshah's studio.
"There were similarities between our work," he recalled. "We both explored issues of identity, memory and family."
Soon, he said, they had introduced each other to their respective families and become close, personally and professionally.
'A Ripple Effect'
Their biographies, however, couldn't be more different.
Maor is the son of Holocaust survivors — his father was in Birkenau for two years — while Oshah was born in Gaza and moved to Israel when he married his wife, who is also Bedouin.
As Oshah tell it, "I always saw Israelis in uniforms, I saw them as bad."
But together, they tried to explore the complexities of their identity, as well as the assumptions they have about each other's religion, culture and values.
Oshah said that his neighbors in Rahat weren't happy about his cooperating with an Israeli Jew, while Maor said that many of his family members had never been inside the home of an Arab person before the project started.
"It had a ripple effect. We started as two people wanting to make art, but we brought people together," said Maor.
Along the way, Oshah and Maor sampled each other's food, observed cultural practices and even celebrated some holidays together — Oshah said that he particularly liked matzah at Passover time.
With 16 kids between them — Maor has five — and no matter what language their children speak, all of them, said these fathers, seemed to love American movies and Japanese cartoons.
The artists did say that at home, the reaction to their work has been mixed.
The Slought Gallery is the first outside Israel to display the artwork, though the men hope that other galleries abroad will follow suit. In Israel, they said that most people have met their project with a combination of silence and confusion.
"People don't know how to deal with a Jewish Israeli artist and a Palestinian Israeli artist working together so closely," said Maor. "People like the concept and the artwork, but leaders in the field of art are afraid to deal with it. It's too dangerous."
The exhibit, which is also supported by the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia, is on display through Wednesday, April 21.
For more information, see: www.slought.org.