Art, unchained

The artists of the pioneering Agrippas 12 are creating an open space in Jerusalem

Agrippas 12 521 (photo credit: Sarina Penn)
Agrippas 12 521
(photo credit: Sarina Penn)
Tucked away in plain sight, on the bustling pedestrian area of Agrippas Street in Jerusalem, is a small space that houses a vibrant art collective known as Agrippas 12. A modest sign on the first floor balcony marks the precise location, and then several arrows direct the visitor, treasure-hunt style, through a narrow arch-adorned alleyway and around the back. Finally, a set of rickety metal stairs leads to the gallery itself.
“The location of the gallery is very important,” says Rina Peled, 60, in an interview with a few members of the collective.
“It’s in the center of town, near the market, and this alley is very unique – very typical to Jerusalem.”
Agrippas 12 opened its doors in 2004 as a pioneering art space to remain unmarred by commercial interests – the first such establishment in Israel, though a number of similar Israeli collectives have since followed suit. Eighteen artists run the gallery, which is free to the public, take turns manning the visitors’ desk, help install one another’s exhibitions, and entangle themselves in red tape in their annual quest for a bit of government funding. They are not paid, of course. (All members have other sources of income, mainly from teaching.) “It’s like a kibbutz in a lot of ways,” says photographer Adi Shalmon, 32. “Some of our discussions are like a kibbutz. There are arguments.”
“We shout at each other,” confirms Leora Wise, 59, a painter and printer. “But we don’t eat together in the dining hall.”
“I think it’s more like a family than a collective, because we’re different ages and very, very different people,” says the soft-spoken Oded Zaidel, 52, a veteran member of the collective since 2005 who specializes in landscape paintings of industrial zones. “It takes time, but you learn you can do a lot more when you cooperate with other people.”
“We have discussions about ourselves, about our art,” says Shalmon. “And being an artist is a very –” “Lonely thing to do,” Peled finishes her sentence.
“Yeah,” agrees Shalmon. “And sometimes you sit with yourself and you do your art and there are not a lot of places where you can have an open art discussion with other people, and this community allows you to do it.”
“You feel like you’re a part of something that is living and kicking,” notes Peled.
Sarah Shuraki, whose work in ceramics strives to embody forms found in nature, also takes inspiration from daily life in Jerusalem, where most members of the collective live.
“I think it’s a great place to create, because there’s lots of contrast here in the air,” says Shuraki, 30. “There are extreme gaps [among people], and that is good for creativity.”
Some 100 exhibitions have passed through the gallery since its inception. Solo exhibitions cycle through on a monthly basis, with collective projects appearing about twice a year, and the artists themselves have undergone rotations over the years, as well. The collective counts 18 current members.
“People come and people go because I think, after a while, it gets a bit difficult to be active all the time,” says Wise, referring to the constant buzz of new projects and collaboration at the collective. “Right now we’re at the point where there are new members. It’s nice energy.”
At the time of the interview, Wise’s solo “Scapegoat” display donned the space (the exhibit closed on March 17), with a series of haunting printed engravings illustrating a Temple-era Yom Kippur ritual cited in the Mishnah. In the ceremony, a priest bequeathed the sins of the nation on a goat, which would then be carried to the top of a steep mountain with a red thread tied around its head. The goat would be hurled over the cliff, to be torn asunder on its way down – and if the red thread turned white, it was a sign the sins had been absolved.
The eye-catching focal point of Wise’s exhibition was a massive hanging sculpture of a white goat, embroidered entrails and organs piled on the floor below.
She explains that the modern equivalent she had envisioned lay in the behavior of the government.
The artwork, she says, was “about the responsibility of the leaders and our main politicians, who usually kind of throw away of responsibility from themselves and put it on the little man.”
But not all Agrippas 12 projects are political in nature.
“We’re very different artists, and every one of us works in a different medium and works with a different theme and a different idea,” says Shalmon. “Some are more political; some are more personal; some are more aesthetic.”
The focus of the gallery’s current exhibition is the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, which has lately attracted a great deal of negative press thanks to La Familia, a vocal segment of its fans who habitually yell racist slurs from the stands against two new Chechen Muslim players. But Shalmon’s project – which is three years in the making and will run through April 23 – pays no heed to the recent controversy.
“They’re only people,” says Shalmon. “They’re football players.
That’s it. I’ve been dealing with the group for years. I know the people. I know who they are. There’s a big difference between who the audience is and what the team really is.”
The project, says Shalmon, is “an art installation about body, about movement, about people. I think this exhibition is going to open a different point of view that people aren’t used to, and I’m pretty sure that people will come to this exhibition not knowing that it’s an art exhibition.“ Whether for this exhibition or any others, an artist is always present to answer questions, chat and help visitors cultivate a deeper perspective on the artwork – an “enriching” endeavor, says Zaidel.
“When people come here,” says Shuraki, “we talk, we get to know one another. It’s like bringing someone into your house.”
That said, Zaidel said he’s seen some strange reactions to abstract art in particular. “For me,” he says, “it was very weird to see how angry [people] were” about these kinds of paintings.
Both Zaidel and Wise started seriously pursuing art later in life, having short-circuited their engagement in it at a young age and finding their way back only after a number of years. Shuraki, meanwhile, discovered her zeal for the potter’s wheel as a student at Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem.
Shalmon roots her artistic passion in her upbringing: Her mother had been a museum curator, so she essentially “grew up in a museum” and continued pursuing art into adulthood. On the other end of the spectrum is Peled, who grew up in a haredi household and would pretend to pore over an atlas, an art book hidden cleverly inside, if her mother was in the room. She would eventually leave the ultra-Orthodox fold, ultimately helping to establish the Jerusalem Cinematheque and Alma College in Tel Aviv.
“It’s a part of me,” says Shalmon on her artistic pursuits. “If I don’t do it for a long time, I feel empty... I’m lucky that I have the possibility to do things that are my passion.”
“It’s really a gift to create,” says Shuraki.
“A gift and a curse,” agrees Wise, laughing.
“It’s a blessing,” says Shuraki.
As diverse as their ages, personalities and backgrounds are, the artists’ common thread is an appreciation for the freedom that comes with a lack of commercial attachments.
“For a group of local artists, I don’t think there is something like this in Israel that’s been so steady,” says Zaidel. “The idea is, it’s really completely free art... So from the art world of Israel, from the beginning, people liked this place.”
“The stage is yours,” says Shuraki, referring primarily to the monthly solo exhibitions. “You can do anything you want.”
Beyond this, naturally, are funding headaches borne of a famously colossal bureaucracy and a resistant government when it comes to the arts.
“I wish that Israel would have better support for culture,” says Shalmon.
“In other places in the world where this model exists,” says Zaidel, “the mayor and the city... kiss the legs of the artists that take the chance to do these things. And from the beginning here, it hasn’t happened yet.
“It’s out of their interest,” says Wise. “We’re not a yeshiva, and we don’t build bombs.”
Gallery hours:
Monday–Thursday: 4:30 p.m.–7:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 11:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.