The Museum on the Seam deconstructs Jerusalem through self-portraits

Facing up to Jerusalem

EFRAT SHVILY uses her Jerusalemites video work to gain a better understanding of her own perspective. (photo credit: Courtesy)
EFRAT SHVILY uses her Jerusalemites video work to gain a better understanding of her own perspective.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is said that Helen of Troy was so alluring that her face “launched a thousand ships.” The Museum on the Seam has taken that theme and run with it, in a different, more inclusive direction, as will be evident when the Jerusalem Self-Portrait exhibition opens there on Friday, June 12.
Jerusalem has been a definitive cultural melting pot, practically since time immemorial. Over the centuries and millennia, numerous civilizations have passed through here, and some settled here for a while. They were drawn by the religious importance of Jerusalem, or by the simple logistical benefits of controlling a stretch of land that lay at the crossroads of the ancient world, offering marauding powers such as the Egyptians, Thracians, Greeks and Romans a land route between Africa and Europe, and the rest of Asia.
That multicultural human baggage continues to ebb and flow in Jerusalem, some of which is portrayed in still photographs, and video and sound works due to be unveiled at the museum, with the support of the Jerusalem Foundation and the Culture Ministry. It is, says museum founder and curator Rafie Etgar, a manifold tale.
“Jerusalem Self-Portrait exhibits the complementing contrasts that make this city, holy and mundane, devout and fearless yet desperate and fearful.”
That’s quite a purview to cover in a single project but Etgar says the museum went flat out.
“The exhibition tries to tell the story of this city in an experimental way. This is the first time we have had an exhibition which exclusively focuses on faces, in photographs and video works.”
The idea was to get as widely ranging a view of life here as possible, and upped the variegated ante by culling artists from a broad swath of professional interests.
“We have works by journalists and fashion photographers, Jews and Arabs. There are such different people living in the same city.”
Faiz Abu Rmeleh certainly gets that, and as a local, he is well aware of the challenge it brings, not only to reflect the multiple strata that make up the human mosaic in the capital, but also to steer as wide a berth as possible around the tried, tested and regurgitated commercial middle ground.
“Yes, Jerusalem has been photographed so much, including by people from all over the world,” he says. The secret, he argues, lies in acceptance and adopting a non-judgmental line of documentary attack.
“My idea was to accept everyone. To take pictures of everyone, everywhere.”
Abu Rmeleh, a Palestinian who lives in the Old City, opted to capture some of the quotidian flow of life at one of the most recognizable, and busiest, spots in Jerusalem, for his contribution to the Museum on the Seam show: Damascus Gate.
“I wanted to capture the unified Jerusalem,” he says apolitically. “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from, what you have come to do, what your religion is. As a photographer I tried to avoid all these statements that define us in life.”
THE GATE to the Old City is used by thousands of people daily – that is, if there haven’t been any security-related incidents – of all sorts, shapes, colors and ethnic, national and religious identities.
“I was interested in the way they look, their clothing,” Abu Rmeleh adds. The photographer says his line of work offers him the ideal vantage point from where he can passively survey, and imbibe, street-level tides, before committing the scene to his digital memory banks.
It also enables him to go where many others fear to tread.
SIGAL ADELMAN’S Women in Black and White shows how clothing dictates our view of the people we encounter. (Credit: Courtesy)SIGAL ADELMAN’S Women in Black and White shows how clothing dictates our view of the people we encounter. (Credit: Courtesy)
“I see all these people passing by each other, all using the same places but not even really looking at each other. They don’t say: ‘Wow! We live in the same place.’ There are so many people that don’t know each other, that don’t get to know each other.”
That alienated home-base ethos informed Damascus Gate, as Abu Rmeleh set up his tripod in front of the gateway in the ancient walls, and asked people if they would be willing to take a few moments out of their busy day to sit for him. The visual result is intriguing, appealing and heartwarming.
The idea was to get people just to be themselves, thereby offering some insight into the emotional machinations that comprise this feted and troubled city of ours.
“I asked people to sit for me, for about 20 seconds, quietly and without thinking, just to take in the atmosphere of the place.”
That was probably quite a departure for most. We all, generally, just rush around from place to place, ticking off items on our daily agenda, so hell-bent on getting where we need/want to go safely and with as few disruptions as possible that we fail to relate to the here and now around us. Abu Rmeleh hopes the project in question, and his ongoing work, can help to redress that elective awareness shutdown.
“When people sit for me, and take note of the things around them, that can generate a different view of the place for them. They suddenly begin to notice things and people they would probably otherwise have missed.” That, he feels, can go a long way to creating a sense of oneness, especially in this divided city of ours.
It is an approach he endeavors to apply in his own life, too.
“As a photographer, I go to all kinds of places that other people, including Arab Palestinians, are afraid to go. I take pictures in the Jewish Quarter as well. I don’t see a problem with that.”
Apparently the locals don’t either.
“People there accept me. I take pictures of religious ceremonies, of haredim, Muslims and Christians – everyone. There isn’t anything that doesn’t interest me. We all live together. In the same place.”
His tool of trade helps.
“For me, photography is a way to learn something new every day. I don’t want to feel I can’t go somewhere because I am afraid, because some place or other is not for me. The whole of the Old City is for me. I can go anywhere.”
ABU RMELEH says it is not just a matter of ethnic divide between the communities that live in the Old City. He has to work to bring his neighbors into his open fold, too.
“It is a real problem if you don’t know who lives next door to you. I have taken pictures of people who live in my own neighborhood, but they don’t talk to each other.”
Damascus Gate was an opportunity to bridge some of that social gulf.
“This project allowed me to get a little closer to some the people who live and pass through here. That’s one of the benefits of being a photographer, but we can all do something to get closer to each other.”
The exhibition roster features a wide range of professionals, Jews and Arabs, and internationally renowned American photographer Mark Bennington, with each bringing their own take to the artistic fray.
Jewish Jerusalemite Efrat Shvily has two video works in the lineup. “Jerusalemites,” as the title suggests, features a bunch of locals in an unfettered format. In fact, the work originally incorporated several subjects, and was called “Hot and Cold,” which conveys something of the meandering emotional trail the 20-minute video clips followed.
To paraphrase a well-known saying, art is in the eye of the beholder, and Shvily’s work is anchored by her own take on her sitters’ viewpoints.
“I videoed each of them, during which time they sometimes say things, but I only introduce sound when they say something that I connect with. It is about how I look at myself as a photographer – how I see them, and look at them.”
The original title of the work, Shvily explains, comes from the fluctuations in her perception of her interviewees’ mindset.
“I tried to understand them, to get to know them a bit. I asked them to, at first, stay still and quiet, and then to move and start to talk, or sing.”
The result, says Shvily, is a portrait of the Jerusalemites she videoed.
“I got some insight into who they are, what they feel and think, and what they were trying to keep from me. It was a fascinating process.”
At the end of the day, Shvily says the whole venture was about her.
“It was really about what I want to hear, and what I choose not to hear.”
The exhibition catalogue notes that the also addresses the cultural divide between the country’s two major cities.
“[The subjects are] not too religious and not too heretic, not too Left and not radically Right, not too old and not too young, just Jerusalemites who stay in Jerusalem for a thousand different reasons, including the distance from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, which is much shorter than the distance from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”
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