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A new film is bringing the story of Palestine-Israel’s first sex worker collective to the world

gal-dem meets director and former sex worker Liad Hussein Kantorowicz to unpack her latest work exploring the work of the Argaman Alliance.

08 Feb 2022

Aviv Victor

Years before sitting down to speak to Liad Hussein Kantorowicz for the following interview, I’d actually met her years before in London, at a SWARM (Sex Worker Advocacy and Rights Movement) conference. As if by magic, Liad appeared at my side as I was browsing the zine stall. We spoke briefly about how wonderful the day had been and how importance of sex worker led spaces for our community Then she shimmered away. If it had been anyone else, I may have forgotten our conversation, but Liad is not easily forgettable; with a cloud of bubblegum pink hair, her clothes a shock of bright colours and textures, rings on every finger and a warm and earnest disposition, she certainly leaves an impression on the senses.

“Before I was an artist I was an activist,” says Liad. “With my past work I coined the term sex work in Hebrew and had a weekly column in a newspaper based in Jerusalem.” Similarly the film Mythical Creatures, one of the pieces of work exhibited at the ICA this February, allows Liad to give a voice to sex workers in Palestine-Israel. It’s being shown as part of Decriminalised Futures, a new exhibition exploring “different feminist perspectives on sex work and the interwoven issues faced by sex workers, people of colour, trans people, migrants and disabled people” . According to Mythical Creatures is a political “once upon a time” about a specific moment in the history of the Argaman Alliance, the first sex worker organisation in Palestine-Israel. 

gal-dem: How did you come to make art focused around sex work activism?

Liad Hussein Kantorowicz: My story is a series of perpetual migrations which have greatly influenced my work and my art. I was born in Palestine-Israel, [and am now] based in Berlin. As a former sex worker, my work contributed to why, and how, I migrated. That identity has influenced how I see myself and also the communities that I am part of and that I represent; you can definitely say that my journey through art is largely influenced by sex work. My first full length performance was called Watch Me Work, which was based on my work as a cammer. I wanted to talk about feminism and labour, using performance to frame a political topic that was more than black and white. 

gal-dem: What is Mythical Creatures, about?

I follow the first direct action of the Argaman Alliance; the film is the story of how it came into existence. Argaman is the first organisation of sex workers in Palestine-Israel with real political representation. In late 2018 the Israeli government made the purchasing of sexual services a criminal offence. A Facebook page, When She Works, run by a collective of sex workers, was made in response to this law and the Argaman Alliance was born from that page. It was a place where sex workers could simply get their voices out. Argaman is formed of people from all parts of the industry, including current and former sex workers. There are people of all gender identities and of different ethnic backgrounds, including Mizrahi, Ashkenazi and Russian descent. Some important allies joined from feminist and queer backgrounds who involved in social work and social justice.

The organisation never faced political repercussions as such, but it’s members faced and continue to face violence, silencing and deliberate exclusion from any arena in which the issue of sex work is discussed, for instance, being physically silenced and thrown out of discussions in the Israeli parliament by security and being physically barred from discussions held on the issue of sex work in the Tel Aviv municipality or public places meant to influence public opinion. They are still repeatedly attacked by white-feminist swerf groups in large feminist events such as End Violence Against Women (yes, ironic, I know.)

gal-dem: That’s an interesting point you made – do you think there is a separation between art and activism?

When you live in a country where the political situation is very intense – where there is war, for example – you must act on the frontlines. You can’t necessarily do that through art. As an artist, I know that it can be a tool, but I have stopped believing that art can bring about political change by itself alone. Some of my favourite art subverts and makes people question things and propels them into action. But in terms of immediately bringing about urgent change, I don’t think that art is necessarily and inherently a form of activism. 

gal-dem: I’m interested in your work as a journalist now – can you tell me about that?

I became a journalist in 2002 when a friend of mine offered me a weekly column about sex work in a Jerusalem based newspaper. I wrote openly about sex work, framed in the context of feminism. After that, I wrote for newspapers in Tel Aviv and then internationally for about a decade. I was the first person to write about sex work in Hebrew, and in 2005 I wrote the first article about the notion of sex work activism – at the time, nobody there could imagine that not only were we not victims, but that we had the power to collectivise and fight for our rights. Mythical Creatures is about that lack of visibility that we experience. It starts with a point of absence, particularly of visual representation.

gal-dem: I hear that, so much about sex work history is hidden, when you find something about our history it’s incredibly exciting – like an a-ha! moment.

The more marginalised a group is, the less likely it is, because of lack of resources and the challenges of visibility, for there to be documentation about our history. 

gal-dem: What do you want people to take from the film, and what does it mean to have your film in an exhibition about sex work in such a prestigious gallery?

Sex workers in Palestine-Israel will always be important to me. What I really want to show in the film more than anything is how extraordinary, radical and brave the activists in Palestine-Israel are, particularly because of the adverse conditions under which they do things. The film is a conversation. I want people to have an insight into the difference of positionalities that I, and activists in Palestine-Israel, have. I’d like people to see that the real stars of the film are the people who contribute to the historical event that I describe in the film, who have since risen up to become central figures in the resistance.

My film is dreamy and conceptual, but to see it only as that would be misleading, I want to steer people into action. I don’t want people to exotify Palestine-Israel as this war torn place, and make a distinction between what’s happening there to what’s happening here. I’d like for people to universalise the struggle, and focus on how to support and care for their own local communities. Because if we don’t take care, they will be gone.

gal-dem: And finally – what’s next for Liad?

I’m preparing an album, called Nothing to Declare, a play on words from crossing borders and my history as a migrant, and I have a single coming out called Do it Again. There’ll be videos drawing from my performance art and I’ll be performing live, so I really hope people can come and see me! It’s going to be exciting. 

Mythical Creatures is showing from 15 February 2022 – 20 May 2022 as part of the ICA’s Decriminalised Futures exhibition, organised in collaboration with Arika and SWARM. More information and tickets can be found here.