New art exhibit focuses on the life of women in religious societies

The exhibition title, “Trespassing,” spells out much of the guiding intent behind the show.

FATIMA ABU ROOMI wages her feminist battles from within the community. (photo credit: SHAY BEN EPHRAIM)
FATIMA ABU ROOMI wages her feminist battles from within the community.
(photo credit: SHAY BEN EPHRAIM)
Art, by definition, must confront established thinking and accepted concepts. The very act of creation means you are pushing the boat out at least a little further. In the case of the artists whose works will be on display at the Museum for Islamic Art from Thursday through to May 3, they had to wrestle with social mores, tradition and religious tenets in order to follow their muses and do what they really want, and what comes most naturally to them.
The exhibition title, “Trespassing,” spells out much of the guiding intent behind the show. The layout comprises the works of 15 religious women from different ethnic backgrounds – Jewish, Druze and Muslim – which, as the museum blurb has it, “express defiance, anger, a sense of suffocation, longing for release and a desire to break through the boundaries of the traditional gender roles.”
Museum general director Nadim Sheiban says the exhibition feeds off a developing trend whereby women from religious backgrounds are stepping forward and challenging their home patch.
“In recent years we have seen an awakening discourse of social solidarity through a female prism. Women from conservative cultures in Israeli society are daring to make their voices heard, breaching the boundaries of patriarchal norm,” he notes.
The fascinating aspect of this pattern is that the artists are opting to fight for their personal and artistic independence within the fold. Almost all the exhibitors have remained within their communities. There does not appear to have been any door slamming.
“They are expressing themselves, but with the utmost respect for their families and the people around them,” explains curator Dr. Sigal Barkai.
That must be quite a task for some of the families and groups involved, in societies where, for example, the male head of the household’s word is generally considered incontrovertible law.
FATIMA ABU ROOMI is an impressive and visually striking case in point. The 42-year-old artist lives and works in Tamra.
“She is divorced and lives in the family home,” says Barkai. “She went through a lot in order to get out of a tough marriage. Today she is a self-made woman, and creates, and she is a well-thought-of artist. She earns a living and supports half of the family, and teaches in lots of places.”
If Abu Roomi’s self-portrait is anything to go by, she is, indeed, a robust character. Her face exudes an inner strength and depth of thought and emotion. But it is not just about her as a person. Abu Roomi portrays herself within the context of her ethnic heritage.
“This is her self-portrait, but she imbues her image with all sorts of cultural symbols,” Barkai notes.
As befits the artist’s fiercely independent take on life, that comes with a feminist twist.
“Here you see the misbaha, which is the masculine chain,” the curator adds, referencing the string of beads used by Muslim men in prayer. “The misbaha, traditionally, belongs to the man, and you can see Fatima looking into the future.”
The future is an uncertain one, but Abu Roomi appears well steeled to take on anything life can throw at her.
“This is one of the first paintings she did after her father died, following a long illness. Her previous exhibition concentrated on her sick father lying on a couch, and was called Venus Palestina. She painted her father lying, helpless, on a couch, in a feminine pose.”
As with the inclusion of the misbaha, Abu Roomi not only challenges the traditional role of the woman in Muslim society, she also examines gender roles within the family.
 “Fatima and her mother were the ones who took care of the family, and earned a livelihood for everyone. The female characters in the family are the strong ones.”
FATMA SHANAN is one of the few Arab exhibitors who has physically left the fold. The award-winning artist was born in the Druze Galilee village of Julis, but now lives and works in Tel Aviv.
Shanan offers a quizzical – literally – view of herself and her cultural-ethnic backdrop. Her paintings in the exhibition – Portrait of My Body 1 and Portrait of My Body 2 – do, indeed, present the artist to the viewer, but not in her entirety. In one picture, her face is daubed with military camouflage paint, and she is looking downward with closed eyes. In the other she is prostrate on the floor, but with the soles of her shoes front and center and the rest of her body increasingly foreshortened.
Like Abu Roomi, Shanan takes a penetrative view of the male-female societal balance in her root sector.
“She talks about switching gender roles,” Barkai explains.
The curator also suggests that the two-parter at the Islamic Museum, which brought the artist this year’s Outset Prize, marks something of a stylistic and thematic departure for Shanan, who has enjoyed residency berths around the world, and has exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum.
“Until now, she always portrayed other people in her work, generally women and young girls,” Barkai continues. “This is the first time she has contended with herself and her own body.”
Not that there is any nudity in there, and we don’t even get to see the subject fully. “She has not yet arrived at a stage whereby she feels free enough to look the spectator straight in the eyes. She always maintains a sense of mystique.”
Both paintings are pretty stylized, and incorporate some subtextual elements.
“Her plaits are reminiscent of some kind of mythological beast, like a centaur with horns,” Barkai posits, adding that Shanan is also playing a tentative game of hide-and-seek.
“She also makes a sort of exposing movement with her hand, pulling at her shirt. In other words, there is some factor of defiance here, but it is very introverted.”
That is also a recurring theme in the exhibition. All the artists adopt a combative approach, to some degree, but you do not get the feeling that they are trying to provoke a response from the general public or from their own personal milieu. They are saying their heartfelt piece, expressing their own credo, without trying to antagonize the powers that be. They do want to impact on the established order, but are not looking to storm the Bastille in the process.
That is not to say that the artists shirk from any issue they feel needs addressing and changing.
YARA MAHAJENA’S video work Pot, which also provides a poignant soundtrack for that part of the exhibition space, addresses the traumatic issue of female circumcision, while Rahmi Hamzi’s expansive graphic-illustrative wall drawing evokes aspects of feminine grace, intimacy and pain.
The Jewish religious way of life is also deconstructed and refashioned in the work of Miriam Barzesky, who studied art in the haredi branch of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. The poses fundamental questions about women’s status and, in particular, her own place in the society in which she lives.
Hanna Goldberg takes a left-field look at physical self-exposure, while Hila Karabelnikov-Paz depicts the lives of Orthodox Jewish women, focusing on moments and circumstances in which they can let their guard down. Accepted Orthodox Jewish practices and tenets also feature in American-born Jerusalemite Andi Arnovitz’s unblinkered portrayal of menstruation and the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, and the “Victim of Guilt – Sacrifice to God” video work by Leah Leukstein, who was born in Latvia as a Christian and became an Orthodox Jew, ponders guilt as a routine mode of thinking in Jewish as well as Christian religious society. Leukstein posits that religious women are programmed to feel remorse and shame as a result of social innuendo, which induces the need to apologize for any deviation from the norm.
Barkai says it is high time the exhibition messages were proffered for public debate.
“The only reason why I took on this project is that I identified a phenomenon which I found interesting – of female artists from Jewish and Arabic religious societies who have something of importance to say, and I provide them with a platform. This is the Museum for Islamic Art, a major institution, not some commercial gallery stashed away somewhere. I wanted to give these women the best stage possible for getting their message out there.”
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