Beverley-Jane Stewart needs roots. Let’s face it, we all do. As any artist will tell you, regardless of their chosen discipline and/or genres, you’ve got to know where you come from in order to plow into the unknown, into the future. It is not a matter of knowing exactly where you are going to end up – that would be antithetical to the creative process – but you need to have a firm foothold in your history if you are going to leap into uncharted waters.
In Stewart’s case, that backdrop takes in her personal background as a Brit but also her ethnic-national heritage. This is succinctly portrayed in the centerpiece of the London-based Jewish artist’s contribution to the third edition of the Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, which kicked off last week at various venues around the capital and will run through to November 16.
The showing in question is called “Balfour Accomplished,” currently on view at the Museum of Underground Prisoners in the Russian Compound, referencing the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which helped pave the way for the creation of the State of Israel. The British government’s daring initiative was conveyed by then foreign minister Lord Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, one of the leaders of the British Jewish community, to be relayed to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.
“Balfour Accomplished” incorporates a handful of modestly proportioned etchings that follow a temporal hopping theme, marrying formative events through history with more contemporary scenes. One such shows olim disembarking from the Exodus at Haifa Port. The imagined happy end of the fabled story of the abortive attempt by the jam-packed ship to gain entry to British Mandate Palestine is succinctly counterpointed by a portrayal of present-day Haifa with predominantly modern buildings towering up on the other side of the harbor, with a church spire, mosque minaret and the domed Bahai Temple also in full view. Just in case we somehow miss the time lapse divide, Stewart portrays the older event in a sepia shade, while the here and now appears in a bluish tint.
A similarly color-fused etching shows a row of yesteryear soldiers in a brownish color with, again, a towering 21st-century metropolis backdrop. But it is the foreground characters that are the most intriguing: three armed khaki-clad female IDF soldiers.
“This partly shows how far Israel has come,” Stewart suggests, before expounding her thoughts about her view on history. “I look upon human beings as trees. For a tree to survive, it has to have roots, and it roots have to go very very deep and very very long. Also for it to survive, it needs nutrients.”
That refers, among other things, to the reciprocal relationship the artist advocates for Israel and Jewish communities around the world.
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“I believe that Jews should be supportive of Israel in the Diaspora, and that the Diaspora needs Israel’s support as well,” she says. Stewart says her output includes digging through the strata of time.
“I’m questioning life and I’m questioning things. My work is very much based on how the past affects the present. As an artist, I want people to see things in new ways,” she says.
Part of that ethos involves enlightening non-Jews about Judaism and the Jewish way of life. That is evident from the number of synagogues Stewart has depicted over the years, which take in the Middle Street Synagogue in Brighton, a wedding ceremony at the New West London Synagogue, and the Bradford Reform Synagogue. The latter appears in an oil painting called Bradford and the Wool Industry, which featured in an exhibition at Trinity House, London, in 2014, as did the portrayal of the nuptials in the capital. The exhibition catalogue explains that the Bradford scene depicts the first purpose-built Reform synagogue established for “irreligious German Jews” who helped to bring the Worcester wool trade to prominence during the Industrial Revolution. As with the current show in Jerusalem, Stewart uses the painting to illustrate the evolution of the cultural-social fabric in the Yorkshire city by including a number of sari-clad figures.
That is front and center in the eponymous offering at the Museum of Underground Prisoners. The painting contains an abundance of detail and, as you run your eye across the canvas, you catch more and more characters in a variety of garb and all manner of settings.
The British element is very much to the fore, with the Houses of Parliament accounting for most of the lower part of the picture. A Union Jack ripples behind the turrets of the Palace of Westminster and has the self-explanatory legend “1917 – Balfour Declaration Centenary – 2017” strung across the central strip of the flag.
The physical and thematic anchor of the whole multi-storied effort is a Star of David which overlaps the flag, with each segment containing a different scene. There is, for example, a snippet of the Knesset, a smidgen of the remains of the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City, and British troops defending the Suez Canal in the 19th century, as a nod towards the involvement of the British Empire in Middle Eastern political affairs. David Ben-Gurion declaring the creation of the State of Israel also gets in there, as do the realization of the pioneering dream presented in a kibbutz farming scene, the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv and an El Al plane soaring to the skies, and a group of talit-clad men holding lulavim in front of the Western Wall.
Israel’s first president, scientist Chaim Weizmann, whose invention of acetone greatly assisted Britain’s war effort during WWI and earned him invaluable points with the British political hierarchy, played a part in the Balfour Declaration. Naturally, the said British foreign secretary features in the painting in tandem with Lord Rothschild, with a small copy of Balfour’s missive nearby.
You get the pan-historical, figuratively elaborate picture.
As Ram Ozeri, founder of the Jerusalem Biennale and exhibition curator put it: “Beverley-Jane’s work is truly unique in the way it brings the evolution of Jewish and British identity to life, and we are delighted to be able to showcase her work as one of our leading artists at this year’s Biennale.”
For more information: http:// www.jerusalembiennale.org/ biennale2017-1
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