Art: Beauty and the ‘beasts’

The exhibition ‘Threatened Beauty’ is on display in Jerusalem.

April 19, 2015 13:44
Art exhibition in Jerusalem

The exhibition ‘Threatened Beauty’ is on display in Jerusalem.. (photo credit: PR)


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Ancient Persia – modern Iran – is often described as the mainspring of much of the creative endeavor that has evolved around the globe over the millennia. Andi Arnovitz certainly feeds off the esthetics of Persia of yore, as evidenced in her new exhibition “Threatened Beauty” at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem. However, as the title suggests, it also has darkness at its core.

While the source material may date back a couple or so thousand years, the message the 55-year-old Kansas City-born Jerusalem artist is seeking to convey belongs very much in the here and now. Arnovitz delved into the past of one of the world’s most opulent and visually striking cultures in an attempt to find out what would happen if she deconstructed the rich, artistic legacy of Persian art – its rugs, textiles, embroideries and ceramics – and manipulated it to create new statements that, for her, reflect some of the negative energies that abound in the world today – principally, the political turmoil and the nuclear arms race.

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Arnovitz’s “weapons” for communicating her take on where we’re at are watercolors and collage. Some of her works are dreamy and perhaps hopeful, while others suggest that if we are not careful, we are placing our very existence in jeopardy. They portray a kind of terrible beauty: a paradox, a collision of the past and the present, of good and evil, of looking forward and backward at the same time.

“Threatened Beauty” is about pulling almost hallowed images to pieces and reassembling them, in seemingly random fashion, against a very different visual backdrop.

And there are messages to be gleaned from all the items in the 33-piece display. Sleeping, for example, includes grand Persian architectural elements against a surreal-like background, with scattered wispy blood-red streaks and the head of a female statue with a plainly startled facial expression to one side. Lower down, there is a pair of headscarved Muslim or Iranian women looking at each other, although their facial features are not detailed, and there is something that looks a bit like an animal head between them. Above them floats the fractured skull of an animal, with one horn split into two; and there are three power plant cooling towers in the center of the skull, emitting polluting vapors.

Arnovitz is less interested in expressing her opinion about global ecology. Instead, she wants us to sit up and take notice of the deplorable state of women’s liberty in various spots around the world.

”The rights and progress of women the world over are questioned here,” she says. “Today, there are places where women have less freedom than they had 20 years ago. Some of us realize what is happening, and some of us are being watched by the oppressed and defenseless and will be held accountable for what we did and did not do to help.”

That may sound pretty heavy, but the overall sense one gets from “Threatened Beauty” is one of rich esthetics with an underlying respect for time-worn artistic traditions and even a sense of fun. Some of the cut-out pieces in the works and the way they have been placed around Arnovitz’s original watercolor substratum are reminiscent of the madcap Monty Python animation sequences created by Terry Gilliam.

While admitting to being a fan of the ground-breaking British comedy team, Arnovitz says the exhibition is very much about making her voice heard about regional current affairs and other burning global human issues. In fact, had it not been for the fast pace of regional developments, the exhibition may not have come about, and the show came together in a similarly rapid manner.

“Rachel Hasson [the artistic director of the museum] called me and said, ‘I have a hole between when the Donkey show comes down and the Palestinian embroideries go up in six weeks. I must come to see your work.’ I said, ‘Come, come,’” the artist recounts.

While impressed with what she saw, Hasson said she needed more of the same to fill up the display area.

“She said I must do at least 10 more pieces,” Arnovitz recalls. “So there was this frenzy. There was about a month when I didn’t leave my studio.”

It must have been tough to try to churn out the work. After all, we are talking about a creative process, not mass manufacturing. Arnovitz says the news helped move things along nicely.

“Everything is based on ISIS and Iran and what’s going on in the Middle East. Every day the papers gave me new ideas,” she says.

That would intimate that the underlying sentiment of “Threatened Beauty” is anxiety.

“I’d say this feeds off worrying,” says the Jewish mother of five. “Some of it is fear.”

But there are other emotions in there, too. One of the more striking pieces is called 8,000 Books, referencing the destruction of ancient manuscripts and other valuable publications in Mosul, northern Iraq, last month by ISIS.

“This didn’t come from fear, it was from utter disgust,” Arnovitz declares.

“What year is this? This could be, for instance, the 1930s in Nazi Germany.”

Meanwhile, Heavy Water and Heavy Water II reference Iran’s efforts to produce nuclear warheads. Both works feature fish that may be swimming around aimlessly or may in fact – in the words of Monty Python’s famous Dead Parrot sketch – have sloughed off their mortal coil and joined the choir invisible.

“It’s as if everything looks fine on the surface, but underneath it’s about ready to erupt,” notes Arnovitz, referring to Iran’s underground nuclear facility at Qom. “You could look at this and say it looks whimsical, and you could also say it looks like poisonous gases, and nobody’s alive.”

In the piece All That Is Precious, Arnovitz also takes a swipe at consumer-driven society and the icons we nurture. It features deconstructed figures of the famous Hollywood sign, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben and the art deco Chrysler Building in New York.

With Displaced, she draws attention to the worldwide refugee problem, noting that “for the first time since WW II, the number of refugees in the world has exceeded 50 million.”

Possibly the most emotive of the lot is 13 Boys, which was inspired by the brutal murder by ISIS of 13 teenage boys in Mosul. Their “crime” was watching an Asian Cup soccer match between Jordan and Iraq.

There are mythical beasts in some of the works, and there is a Thousand and One Nights feeling that permeates the whole display.

“There is something epic about what is going on right now,” Arnovitz observes. “Some days I feel that we have learned nothing. How is it that we are beheading people today? Or 200 schoolgirls get kidnapped [in Nigeria] and, in the age of jet planes and the Internet, we can’t rescue them and bring them home to their mommies and daddies? I don’t know if I’m becoming a cranky old woman or it’s just a matter of perspective, but it seems that we don’t learn anything.”

That troubling idea notwithstanding, “Threatened Beauty” leaves you with a sense of appreciation for the richness of Arnovitz’s works and the cultural traditions that underpin it.

And coming away from any artistic offering with food for thought is always a boon.

‘Threatened Beauty’ is on display until May 15 at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem. For more information: (02) 566-1291 and

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