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The Palestinian Perspectivea

Stewart Oksenhorn

A fifth-generation Coloradan, whose ancestors crossed the country in covered wagons to settle the state, Aspenite Eric Ringsby developed a keen interest in the issues that divided European-descended pioneers and American Indians. In examining those rifts, Ringsby found his feelings divided.

“I have deep sympathies on both sides,” said the 40-year-old Ringsby, “for the West pioneers and for the Indians, who were so mistreated. I wish they could have gotten along better.”

Ringsby says it is a very similar sentiment that underlies The Indian Wars of Palestine, his recent exhibit currently showing at the David Floria Gallery. While the art comes from the Palestinian perspective ” most of the source imagery, including photographs and video, was donated by Palestinians ” Ringsby says the art is intended toward a conciliatory end. His fervent hope is that Israelis and Palestinians can resolve their issues without one group or the other facing the decimation that American Indian tribes have experienced.

“The Arab-Israeli conflict is so complicated, I think it’s important to look from different viewpoints to get a better understanding of it,” said Ringsby, who is donating all proceeds to Rebuilding Homes, a joint Israeli-Palestinian project. “I think it’s important to see the Palestinian viewpoint, so we understand their situation as well.”

Wading into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is akin to raising a lightning rod in a storm, and doubly so when presenting the Palestinian angle in the United States. Ringsby hasn’t avoided the strikes. Several letters to the editor of local newspapers, and complaints registered with gallery owner David Floria, have ensued since the exhibit opened last month. (The Indian Wars of Palestine runs through Sunday, April 11.)

But Ringsby has hardly entered the fray blindly. In addition to having thought much about the conflicts between pioneers and American Indians, Ringsby saw two political conflicts from close vantage: As a teenager, he lived as an exchange student in Chile and Paraguay, where he witnessed both brutal oppression and what he sees as horrendously misguided U.S. policy.

“That really opened my eyes to the dark side of American foreign policy, living under two dictatorships that were aided and abetted by U.S. foreign policy,” said Ringsby, who splits his time between Aspen and what is left of his family’s Wyoming ranch 35 miles northwest of Laramie. “I left for Paraguay as a young Republican, and came back a liberal progressive.”

From the West to the Middle East

Interestingly, while he hopes his current work can help ancient cultural rifts, Ringsby began making art to heal himself. Eric, who grew up in Aspen and other Colorado towns, developed a severe medical condition at the age of 18. The progressive neurological disorder, which had his nervous system shutting down and causing chronic pain for seven years, left Ringsby believing he was going to die. An acupuncturist finally provided physical relief; for spiritual soothing, Ringsby turned to art.

“I started making art as a form of therapy,” he said. “And to work out some political situations, especially the Cold War politics toward Latin America, and why the U.S. would support dictatorships like Stroessner in Paraguay and Pinochet in Chile.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Colorado, Ringsby studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned a master’s in fine art in 1995. Most of his early work was in sculpture and installations.

In 1999, Ringsby’s art took something of a turn. After working for three summers at the Snowmass Rodeo, he created out of that experience “The Rodeo Series,” a documentary about his education in riding saddle bronc. The art was intended at once to connect him to his ranching roots, and to expand his reach as an artist. The series, which showed in New York, Texas and around Colorado, was an experiment, with digitally altered photographs projected onto dried cow skins.

Ringsby expected to expand his interest in Western culture. But in 2000, he traveled to Israel, where he had a mixed bag of profound experiences. For three days, he read the Old Testament at the Western Wall, which he found a surprisingly moving experience for someone raised Unitarian but with few current religious convictions. On the other side of the spectrum of profundity, Ringsby was strip-searched and interrogated for hours while both entering and leaving Israel. The trip to the Middle East also caused more eye-opening experiences.

The strip-searches “are very small inconveniences compared to what happens to the Palestinians on a daily basis,” he said. “It was a wake-up call, to see how extreme the situation had gotten.”

The Middle East experience got his attention, and the attacks of Sept. 11 solidified his focus. Ringsby set out to make art that focused on the suffering of the Palestinians. But also still in his mind were the ideas and the materials from “The Rodeo Series.” Thoughts of the Palestinian issue became intertwined with sympathies for the American Indians, and those ties and comparisons became a central part of The Indian Wars of Palestine.

The current exhibit features a series of digital C-print photographs, altered from such source images as a young man throwing a rock at a tank. The photos are rendered in the style of the ledger book drawings of the Cheyenne, which documented the tribe’s battles against the U.S. cavalry. Also in the exhibit are the “Winter Court” paintings ” images from the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank on cowhide, modeled after the Cheyenne’s Winter Court paintings. There is also a video projection that uses cowhide as a screen.

Creating controversy

The materials make the point, reiterated in his artist statement, that Ringsby sees significant connections between the current Palestinian situation and the Indian massacres of centuries ago. “My comparison is, I see two native people driven off their ancestral land by more technologically advanced settlers, and in some cases ethnic cleansing,” he said. “In both cases, they justified their immoral actions with their religions.”

While Ringsby defends the significant similarities, he acknowledges that the comparison is not precise, nor is it meant to be. And it is this imperfect comparison that seems to have drawn the most criticism of the work. A letter to the editor, signed by several local people and printed on page A27 of this edition of the Aspen Times Weekly, opens, “The claim that Israel is to Palestinians as America was to Indians is just plain wrong.” The letter continues, “The conflict in the Middle East … is not the story of white colonialists coming to steal the land of, and subjugate, a native population.”

Even gallery owner Floria, while defending the idea generally of politically provocative art as one that extends to Picasso and Goya, has come to see some problems with Ringsby’s exhibit. Floria praises Ringsby as an artist, and adds that The Indian Wars of Palestine is thought-provoking rather than inflammatory. But the comparison between the two situations doesn’t hold up for him.

“With politics, there’s an issue about truth and historical fact. That’s not so flexible as with issues just of beauty,” said Floria who, in response to criticism of the exhibit, is looking to show Israeli artists to present another side of the issue. “I feel his exhibition presents a historical comparison, comparing the Palestinian issue with the American Indians. But the history is much more complicated than that. Stating it just this way that he states it is not the whole picture. It’s not accurate.”

Ringsby dismisses criticism of the work as the knee-jerk reaction of patriotic hard-liners. “The people who are maddest about the comparison haven’t even asked me about the comparison,” he said. “It’s people who have a knee-jerk reaction to any criticism of Israel.”

Anti-Semitism, or anti-anything, Ringsby contends, is the farthest thing from his heart.

“If I can somehow succeed in humanizing the Palestinians, I’ll have done an important job. If the other side is humanized, peace is sure to follow,” he said. “I think when Israel solves the Palestine question, they will have a happier, more decent society to live in. If that’s not the most pro-Semitic viewpoint to have, I want to know what is.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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