The Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art is the new kid on the art block. Though the Jerusalem Artists’ House has been hosting a Biennale for Drawing since 2001 and it has a strong following amongst art aficionados, one does not come away feeling that there is necessarily an essential tie-in between the Jerusalem location and the art shown. The move to bring together Judaism and contemporary art in Jerusalem takes advantage of the city’s centrality to the religion that inspires the art made. The organizers expect that it will be established as a bi-annual event, as the title suggests.
I have invited Dr. Susan N. Fraiman, an expert in Jewish Art, to share her impressions of the ongoing Jerusalem Biennale. Though the news of the festival has been covered widely, including here, here and here, my sense is that this event is much more significant than yet another festival to draw tourists to Jerusalem. Guest blogger, Dr. Fraiman, helps us to see why, as follows:
Few know that one of the first Zionist institutions established in Palestine was not Kibbutz Degania, which was established in 1910, but the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, established in 1906. The pursuit of art was seen as a necessary part of the Jewish national revival by cultural Zionists. In fact, Martin Buber, wrote
a nation without art is not a nation.
Even Rav Kook wrote a letter to the founders of Bezalel in 1907, comparing the rebirth of Jewish artistic activity to the healing of a sick child. In this light it is an appropriate and most welcome development that for the first time Jerusalem is the site of a “Biennale” of art in dialogue with Jewish sources.
For many years, the Israeli art establishment denied that there could be such a thing as art produced by “religious” Jews, claiming that it would be “enlisted” art, propaganda for religious Judaism. As such, artists coming from a religious perspective were often side-lined, much in the way figurative art was pushed to the margins of Israeli art for at least 20 years.
The blossoming of visual expression among the growing numbers of artists who feel connected to their Jewish heritage belies that claim. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, there are still few professional venues for such artists.
This Biennale was the brain child of Rami Ozeri, 34, originally a student at Bezalel. While certainly not of the size and scope of its famous namesake, the Venice Biennale, Jerusalem’s, like Venice’s, is spread over a few venues in the city, and each venue has been curated separately. What is uniquely Jerusalem is the connection to Judaism; moreover, the connections are in no way uniform — each exhibit has a slightly different spin on the many aspects of contemporary Jewish art. Most of the art exhibited in the current Biennale relates in some way to Jewish texts or to the Jewish experience, spiritual and historical. Many of the 50 artists represented by works come from the “religious” community, but not all.
This makes for a refreshing (albeit for some, perhaps, overwhelming) blend of media and subject material. At the Hasid Brothers complex in the German Colony one exhibit is called “Now, Now,” the other “Here and There.” Both exhibits contain figurative, video and conceptual art. The latter has come to the fore in recent years as a vehicle for expression among religious artists, perhaps because it enables them to sidestep issues of representation while at the same time allowing them to grapple with ideas and concepts – sometimes in a critical way, sometimes playfully.
A fine example is the work by Andi Arnovitz, “A Coat for Chicken Little”, in which the artist conflates the American children’s tale about an alarmist, worried chicken with the chicken used by many on Yom Kippur eve as a kapparah, an atonement to which one’s sins are transferred, much as the biblical scapegoat. The intricately-fashioned garment, a kind of diaphanous collar, is petalled with the artist’s regrets/fears/worries—worries that she hasn’t been a good daughter or a good mother, to name two.
Ruth Schreiber‘s video piece, “Creating Adam and Eve,” attempts to reconcile the two creation stories in the book of Genesis by juxtaposing Jewish texts with animated clay figures as they are formed and then reshaped by the artist, whose (feminine) hand represents the “hand” of the Divine. It is interesting to note that traditionally, from the 3rd century synagogue of Dura Europos through the arts of medieval Jewish manuscript illumination and up until the modern period, G-d’s presence is often portrayed as a hand by Jewish artists. The artist’s hand and its manipulation of the figures adds yet another midrashic layer to the texts quoted and depicted in the work, many of which are unfamiliar and even unsettling.
The “Now, Now” exhibit includes several intriguing video pieces. What happens when a group of men transports an object bearing a strong resemblance to the Holy Ark near the Knesset (Guy Briller, “holy ark”, 2010, video)? There are also a few works whose meanings may be inscrutable for the average visitor (Eran Nave, “Untitled”, 2013, mixed media) —the kind of works that raise the question of whether the artist creates to communicate or not, and if so, with whom?
The exhibit in Heichal Shlomo in downtown Jerusalem is entitled, “My Soul Thirsts.” Nurit Sirkis-Bank, curator of both the exhibit and of the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art housed there, scoured the country to find works expressing a spiritual thirst, a yearning for the “dimension beyond” – whether in an attempt to approach the holy, to experience inner growth, or “to move beyond the here and now and the mundane” – in short, works that succeed in making the intangible tangible or visible in some way.
Many of the artists are well-known: Chana Cromer, Belu-Simion Fainaru, Toby Kahn, Judith Margolis, and Israel Rabinowitz; others less so. Some are the students and teachers of an ultra-orthodox art academy (a fascinating phenomenon in its own right, recently taken under the wing of Bezalel) named “Oman” (artist) but spelled without the “vav” so the name of the academy can be read “Amen.”
In the words of the curator,
I wanted to find works in all the media, of all kinds by all kinds of artists, religious and non-religious, teachers and students, men and women.
Sirkis-Bank has succeeded in putting together textile art, painting, photography, and various other media; some works are exhibited in the entrance hall, others on the third floor among the Wolfson Museum’s venerable collection of Jewish ritual objects.
The entrance gallery on the right as you enter is dominated by a deceptively understated work by Chana Cromer, “The Child is Not,” based on Genesis 37:29-30. An off-white garment, open at the sides like a tallit katan, is torn at the front in a kind of zig-zag. We see and feel the implication of Joseph’s disappearance at the hands of his brothers, through his brother Reuven’s response, extrapolated to his father Jacob’s response, and by extension to the loss of any child. The plain linen is also reminiscent of a shroud, so the piece signifies not only the mourner, but the mourned. It succeeds in rendering the unseen visible.
Further down King George Street towards town is the exhibit at Beit Avi Chai, “Thread of Gold.” This exhibit, by father, Michael Elkayam,and his daughter, Neta Elkayam, is probably the most coherent of the three exhibitions I visited because of its strong unity—a father and daughter communicating through their art. While the father has consciously adopted the use of a naïve artistic language, the daughter combines a variety of media and techniques. By doing so she builds and comments on the hidden levels of her father’s work.
The title “Thread of Gold” is not only a reference to the threads hanging from the ceiling, but also to the thread of their Moroccan tradition, symbolized by the beautiful gold threads sewn on the garments worn by Moroccan women or used for synagogue embroideries in those communities. Michael Elkayam sees joy and color, birds and fish even in his portrayal of Memorial Day, while Neta Elkayam takes these same symbols and uses them to comment on the difficulties of life in the development town of Netivot, the sacrifices made by the immigrants who came to Israel in the 1950s, and on other trials and traumas of Israel society, such as suicide bombings. In addition, she touches on the differential status of men in Moroccan culture as illustrated by “Self-portrait as a Bar Mitzvah Boy.”
She comments not only on the place of the Moroccans in Israeli society and social injustice, but also on the status of women in Moroccan Jewish society. Despite the seriousness of its subjects, the exhibit is not without humor. In the portrait of Ben-Gurion as the Baba Sali, “Baba Gurion,” is shown with a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary before him—imagine that twist in modern Jewish history.
One questions whether the Biennale may have to hone itself down more—should it be about whatever “religious” artists are doing, even if the theme is not ostensibly connected in some way to Jewish sources? Moria Levi’s series of photographs, “Only About Myself,” on display at Heichal Shlomo, in which she has photographed herself in recreated Old Master interiors, is one such example.
The Biennale suffers a bit from its newness—the lack of signs on the gates of the Hasid Brothers complex is due to the fact that city has been giving them fines for so doing. The poster/brochures produced are not as user friendly as a more conventional small pamphlet that could have more information about the artists inside (emails, websites, etc.). The range of artistic ability is wide. Yet, for anyone interested in the juncture of Judaism and the arts, the Biennale is a must.
All of these venues could benefit by holding regularly scheduled gallery talks. Friday October 11 at 12 noon there will be one at the “Now, Now” exhibit at the Hasid Complex on Emek Refaim. At Heichal Shlomo, there are two-hour informal talks on Sunday mornings devoted to different aspects of the exhibit. On Sunday, October 13, Professor Ziva Amishai-Maisels will be discussing the works of Yael Avi-Yonah, z”l, at 11 AM.
For 30 shekels one gets a ticket that grants entrance to the three venues charging admission (The Hasid Brothers complex on Emek Refaim, Heichal Shlomo and the Central Gallery of the First Station complex), while the exhibits at Beit Avichai and Musrara are free.
Exact hours and more info at the web site: www.jerusalembiennale.org. . Rumor has it that there will be an art sale at the end of the exhibition in support of a future biennale- for further information contact here.
Closing October 31
Dr. Susan Nashman Fraiman received her doctorate from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is a lecturer at the Rothberg International School of Hebrew University, specializing in Jewish and Israeli art. In 2012 she served as an adjunct professor at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.