Public art takes hostage crisis to the streets in many forms

An installation of beach towels and thongs along side posters showing those kidnapped in support of the Global #BringThemHome Campaign at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Thursday, November 2, 2023.
An installation of beach towels and thongs alongside posters showing those kidnapped in support of the global #BringThemHome campaign at Bondi Beach in Sydney on November 2, 2023 (AAP Image/Dean Lewins).

PHOTO ESSAY: As negotiations continue without resolution, art is providing a way to keep community attention on the hostages still held by Hamas.

French artist Henri Matisse famously said “creativity takes courage” – a sentiment that feels particularly poignant as creatives around the world turn to the streets to stir community action post-October 7.

Large-scale murals, physical installations and collaborative cross-border art projects are among the many tools being used by international artists to advocate for the safe return of the more than 120 hostages still being held by Hamas in Gaza.

Mock Hamas tunnel in Tel Aviv
A mockup of a Hamas tunnel built in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square by family members on January 13, 2024 to draw attention to the plight of the captives (Courtesy/Hostages and Missing Families Forum).

To commemorate 100 days of captivity, families of those kidnapped built a mock tunnel to raise awareness of the dire conditions faced by the hostages in Hamas’ underground network. The interactive reconstruction – set up outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art – is deliberately dark, cramped and includes the names of the hostages and messages of hope etched into the walls.

Israeli singer David Broza performs on The Yellow Piano NYC on the 100th day since the October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel in Washington Square Park on January 14, 2024. The yellow piano NYC was donated by the Ohel family, whose 22 year old son, Alon Ohel, was kidnapped and is still being held hostage in Gaza (Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images).

A similarly hands-on initiative is the “Yellow Piano Installation” which was replicated in New York, Berlin and Tel Aviv. The public is invited to play the piano and reflect on the hostages still being held by Hamas, which includes accomplished musician Alon Ohel.

Honouring the hostages

The Combat Antisemitism Movement and Artists 4 Israel joined forces to create the world’s largest hostage mural in California.

A mural titled “Bring Them Home Now” by the Combat Antisemitism Movement and Artists 4 Israel displayed on the facade of Ample Entertainment headquarters in Culver City, California on December 22, 2023 (CHRIS DELMAS/AFP via Getty Images).

The almost 37-metre-long mural includes several posters depicting the hostages’ images and personal details – echoing the global guerilla #KidnappedFromIsrael poster project – alongside several street-level posters that have mirrors in place of a captive’s photo to reflect passersby.

The medium has similarly been used by Israeli-based advocacy group Free Our Kids IL which joined forces with street artists to create a collection of 38 murals entitled “Walls of Hope”. The murals honour each of the 38 captive children and aim to put pressure on international bodies to secure their safe return.

Three images of artists painting a portrait of an Israeli hostage in Gaza
Between October 22-27 2023, painters from all over the country gathered at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art square to document the faces of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza. The artists hope to give each hostage their portrait upon their safe return (Freshpaint website).

The “This Is Us” project also created a unique portrait of each hostage, which were painted or drawn by a different Israeli artist. The initiative by Freshpaint Group and Yotzrim Seviva, in collaboration with The Hostages and Missing Families Forum, saw many of the artists work live from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art square.

“It was a very intimate experience for me to paint the portrait of one of the kidnapped hostages. I kept on thinking about what she was going through, and I felt that somehow I was getting to know her personally,” artist Hodaya Gilad told The Times of Israel about her portrayal of 18-year-old hostage Liri Albag.

Empty chairs, empty tables

One of the most popular artforms used as a protest tool are installations of empty tables dressed for Shabbat that have been displayed in heavily frequented public areas, from New York’s Times Square to the United Nations in Geneva.

On October 26, 2023, the Israel American Council sets up mock empty Shabbat tables in Times Square, New York City for the over 200 hostages kidnapped by Hamas as part of a demand that they be released (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images).

Artists, activists and community groups in countries including Spain, Switzerland, Denmark, Israel, France, America, Austria and England have created eerie empty tables with a place setting for each hostage, and accessories including white roses, highchairs, milk bottles, teddy bears and “Kidnapped” posters.

Cutout cardboard effigies, representing Israeli hostages, are seen during a protest outside Parliament House in Canberra.
Cutout cardboard effigies, representing Israeli hostages, are seen during a protest outside Parliament House in Canberra on November 28, 2023 (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas).

Closer to home, a large-scale art demonstration took over the front lawn of Canberra’s Parliament House in late November. The installation featured a mass of cardboard cutouts referencing the name of each hostage alongside a statement calling for their release.

The cutouts followed an earlier installation in the same location, which comprised of red balloons, shoes, toys, strollers, wheelchairs, Kidnapped posters and similar messaging lobbying politicians for the urgent and safe return of the hostages.

The project’s organisers, all of which were Israeli-Australian volunteers, also held meetings with federal MPs and engaged in informal conversations about the art campaign.

A uniquely Australian image

Bathers heading to Bondi Beach for a swim in November saw 230 blue and white towels each with a pair of thongs and a Kidnapped poster placed along the Pavilion Railing. In a setting where towels and thongs are commonplace artefacts of those who have just gone for a swim, the absence indicated by this installation was powerfully sinister.

An installation of beach towels and thongs along side posters showing those kidnapped in support of the Global #BringThemHome Campaign at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Thursday, November 2, 2023.
An installation of beach towels and thongs alongside posters showing those kidnapped in support of the global #BringThemHome campaign at Bondi Beach in Sydney on November 2, 2023 (AAP Image/Dean Lewins).

NSW police were called when two men attempted to vandalise the tribute’s Kidnapped posters – a response that has similarly been directed towards other pro-Israel art projects.

From streets to museums

Museums and art galleries have also created dedicated spaces to support the hostages and pay tribute to those killed by Hamas.

Items salvaged from the Supernova music festival have formed part of an exhibition in Tel Aviv that aims to simulate the aftermath of the October 7 massacre.

The installation entitled “Nova 6.29” – the precise time of the Hamas attack which killed more than 360 festivalgoers – recreates festival scenes with hundreds of retrieved objects from the site, including tents, picnic chairs, sleeping bags and water bottles, set against footage of young people dancing to a DJ.

Image of hostage 79-year-old Channah Peri, with book “My Wild Garden: Notes From a Writer’s Eden” by Meir Shalev as part of the National Library of Israel's Every Hostage Has a Story exhibit
79-year-old hostage Channah Peri, who loves tending to her garden, received the book “My Wild Garden: Notes From a Writer’s Eden” by Meir Shalev as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Every Hostage Has a Story” exhibition (Liron Halbriech/National Library of Israel website).

In Jerusalem, librarians have reserved a hand-picked book for each of the hostages for the National Library of Israel’s “Every Hostage Has a Story” exhibit. The books, placed on a chair beside the image of the hostage and a personal library card, aims to portray the hostages’ individuality and life stories – accomplished in partnership with their families.

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