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In 701 BCE, Sennacherib, king of Assyria, undertook an occupation campaign against the Kingdom of Judah, with the aim of overthrowing the entire kingdom and conquering Jerusalem. It was a punitive campaign by the Assyrian army against a rebellious coalition organized among the peoples of the region, including the Kingdom of Judah, In order to enslave the rebellious kingdoms and put the whole region under the wings of the empire. In the Bible, the war against Sennacherib is recognized as one of the great victories of the Judean kingdom at that time, as it defeated the Assyrians, and Sennacherib failed in his plan to conquer Jerusalem, the center of the kingdom. Except for Jerusalem, all the cities of Judah had been taken and destroyed to the core. many Judeans were exiled and scattered throughout the empire, many territories were conquered and transferred to the Philistine kingdom, and all the treasures of the kingdom were transferred to Assyria.
One of the major cities destroyed by Sennacherib and his army was the city of Lachish. It was the second most important city in the kingdom. Lachish was less strong and less fortified, and because of its proximity to Jerusalem Sennacherib decided to conquer it and make a camp out of it, for his army. Lachish was completely destroyed, its inhabitants brutally murdered or exiled to Assyria. Since Sennacherib did not win a victory over Jerusalem, he made sure to adorn the walls of his palace with reliefs depicting the violent conquest of Lachish. They are now known as the "Lachish Reliefs", and they are part of the permanent exhibition of the British Museum in London.
Details of the violent conquest of Lachish, from Sennacherib's relief
I did the work I Come in Peace, especially for the exhibition "From a Village You Are, and to a Village You Shall Return", curated by Raafat Hattab at the Janco-Dada Museum in Ein Hod. The Ein Hod Artists' Village is located on the remains of the Palestinian village of Ein Hawd, and the Jews living there actually live inside the homes of the residents who were deported and fled from them. After the '48 war, some of the original villagers returned to the area but were not allowed to return to the village, so they re-established Ein Hawd, and settled not far from their original place. Ein Hawd received institutional recognition from the State of Israel only in 2005, and only a year later it was connected to the electricity system of Israel. The exhibition was the first time that the museum, which is also located in an old Arab house, was directly dealing with this bleeding scar of the village.
When invited to participate in the exhibition by the curator, I suggested using the Lachish reliefs to describe the brutal realities of war, occupation and deportation, which are continuously repeated over and over again in our region, in a kind of an endless cycle of trauma. I chose to make a large charcoal drawing on the three walls of the room assigned to me, knowing that at the end of the exhibition, the drawing would be buried under another layer of whitewash and oblivion, and would remain forever within the walls of the building, as part of the museum's (and possibly Israeli art as a whole) unconscious.
Work in progress. Photos: Talia Klieger
The drawing was indeed based on the reliefs of Sennacherib, while within it I "planted" my own additions, which came from different sources of inspiration, and were intended to charge the work with some additional meanings. I asked to title the work "I Come in Peace", in order to emphasize the cynicism of the act of occupation and deportation that brought the Jewish villagers to a life of pastoral welfare, at the expense of the original residents of the place. The work, like the historical fact itself, was indeed buried under layers of whitewash and paint, at the end of the exhibition. The attempt to erase the drawing before painting the wall in white was unsuccessful, and the workers had to use quite a few layers of paint until it disappeared completely.
Erasing the work. Photo: Maya Ben Natan
In the center of the room where the work was presented, a pit had been dug in 1997, by a group of artists and architects, known as the Tav Group. The pit had been dug as part of an artistic project commissioned from the group by the museum, and it has since been used as a small gallery space, mainly for video art works. Inside the pit, which looks like a rock-hewn cave, I placed some small sculptures of gods and goddesses that I have created from air-dried clay and some toy dolls. In the context of the exhibition, they served as kind of a subconscious for the work displayed on the walls above, echoing the fact that till those days, many of the conquests and wars are allegedly made in the name of transcendent entities.