National Unity through avant-garde jewelry

An extraordinary jewelry exhibit now on display at Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum captures the theme of hybrid identities

Jewelry 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewelry 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Perhaps the major challenge most countries have faced over the past 200 years is the need to forge some kind of national identity out of the hodgepodge of racial, ethnic, linguistic and social class groups living within their borders.
The attempt to create “melting pots” or “patchwork quilts” of diverse and often mutually hostile groups has been a major part of the post-colonial history of countries in both North and South America, Asia and Africa. The national mottos of such widely disparate countries as the United States of America (E pluribus unum – “One from many”) and the Republic of Indonesia (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika – “Unity in diversity”) reflect common efforts to create integrated new nations out of separate, and sometimes segregated, old ethnic groups.
The effort to build a single new State of Israel from the “ingathering of exiles” long dispersed to the four corners of world has been a central part of our country’s agenda as well. And most would agree that it is a work in progress. It is also the theme of an extraordinary exhibition of jewelry that opened on May 13 at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv.
As exhibition curator Sigal Barkai, explains, “The show is called ‘Sequences; Identities.’ It talks about the sequences of different identities that are present in our society, such as Arab and Jew, black and white, Mizrahi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews, religious and non-religious, men and women.
“What I’m trying to say is that contrary to our usual idea of separateness, there is in any one of us both east and west, male and female, and so on. Breaking stereotypes relies on finding those things that join us together instead of dividing us.
“So I wanted to encourage thinking about hybrid identities, which I think is much more post-modern and contemporary. This was the message I tried to communicate to the artists.”
Eighty-five different artists took up Barkai’s challenge and decided to participate in the exhibition, each submitting a sketch and later an actual piece of work for the show.
“I’m pleased to say that they all captured the idea of hybrid identities in a very enthusiastic way,” Barkai says. “They each took their own identity and developed a statement – very unusual for an exhibition of jewelry, which is usually regarded as a product or commodity, something mainly for the consumer. Here, it’s first of all about the producer, the artist, trying to say something about himself or herself, while also connecting to the viewer or consumer.
“We’re always thinking here in this exhibition about the tension between the individual and the group. On the one hand, we’re talking about the various groups that exist within our society, each and every one with its own subculture. But at the same time, each group can give to the others new ideas and colorful traditions that can be adopted from one group to another.”
Asked for an example of a piece that conveys this spirit, Barkai points to a work by artist Sigal Lifchitz: “Sigal lives in a neighborhood in Haifa inhabited by Jews and Arabs, Christians and foreign workers, very old secular Zionist Israelis and new immigrants. So she built this piece of jewelry from very small pieces of silver, each one like a little jewel box. She went out into the neighborhood picking leaves from all kinds of plants and trees producing fragrances distinct to the place – lavender, sage, olive trees – and compressed the leaves inside the silver boxes. Then she created a net, created from a combination of identities, to join the piece together.”
Exhibitions come and go, but Kinneret Palti, curator at the Eretz Israel Museum, is especially excited about this one.
“We have 85 very talented artists in this exhibition, both established, well-known artists and young, new artists just starting out. We’re displaying them as equals.”
Waving a hand toward a row of identical display cases set along the wall, she says, “You cannot tell from the display case who is famous and who is new. The quality of all the work is excellent.”
Much of the credit for this and other unique features of the show goes to Alon Razgour, designer of the exhibition. In addition to small, chest-high display cases set into a round, curving interior wall – scaled in size to optimize the visual effect of the pieces on display – numerous floor-to-ceiling columns, contoured like the human body, stand almost randomly around the room “wearing” various pieces of jewelry.
Razgour refers to these columns as “totems.” “I wanted this to be different from other exhibitions,” he says, “where the display is kept separate from the viewer. I want people to walk around the totems, to stand around with them. The people become part of the groups of totems; the totems become part of the groups of people.
“So now, when you go around the space, you don’t really know if you are looking at an exhibition – or are yourself part of the exhibition. The show is supposed to talk to you, and you are supposed to be part of it.
“Jewelry is an important form of art, and what I’m trying to do is bring the art to the people and not separate the people from the art.”
What kind of art is on display, and by what kinds of artists?
Deganit Stern Schocken, introduces herself and the work she has on display here by saying, “First of all, I am a teacher.”  Her piece is made from a small rectangular piece of metal which she purchased in East Jerusalem, decorated with a few words in Arabic and a depiction of a child being taught to read.
Is the point of her jewelry to instruct?  “No, but being a teacher puts you in a position of not only getting, but also giving. And I was particularly drawn to this little metal piece about teaching children how to read.
“It’s not enough to simply be an artist like in the old days, some kind of ‘maestro’ working on his own. Today, I think it’s important to work socially in a group that reacts to contemporary issues, to politics, and so on. It’s important to create work that gives something back.”
To that end, Schocken has formed a group consisting of herself, four graduates of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, where she previously taught, and four graduates of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, where she is founder and head of the Jewelry Design Department.
Kobi Roth, a graduate of Bezalel Academy’s Department of Jewelry Design, stands by a showcase containing sets of very thin, unornamented silver rings attached to each other in couplets or groups of three. They are designed, he says, for “groups of users.” 
Roth explains: “Each piece is designed to contain two to three users. It’s not a ring for an individual. It’s a proposition for the idea of group jewelry – purely hypothetical – intended to highlight the relationship between the users of the jewelry, and not the actual piece itself. Usually, a piece of jewelry can stand by itself, especially if it’s made of precious materials. These pieces invite groups of users to wear them together.”
Rings are also the design motif for Vered Babai, a full-time artist designing jewelry, she says, for “about 20 years.” She begins her explanation of the work she has contributed by noting the attractiveness of jewelry as an artistic medium.
“First of all, jewelry does not always have to be commercial. A piece of jewelry can be a one-of-a-kind work of art in which the artist is expressing his feelings in a simple creation. Also, jewelry can be hidden when you don’t want to see it, so it’s neither brutal – like the art of architecture – nor pure art. Although it is made in a very small size, a piece of jewelry can express a lot of the artist’s thoughts and feelings.”
Babai directs attention to a display of nine rings, saying, “These are pinched rings. They deal with the idea of a pinch – a pinch in the heart, or a pinch in the skin. This work is made of tin, silver and aluminum, and it is based on the simple action of pinching the metal, and then folding it. You can see different kinds of decorative motif resulting from the action of the pinch.”
Many of the pieces on display in the exhibition, like Schocken’s depiction of a child being taught to read, are clearly not designed to be worn, begging the question of what exactly constitutes the difference between “jewelry” and “pure art.”
Babai replies, “Well, first it’s the scale; and second, it’s the relation of the work to the body. Even if it’s never worn, or never even intended to be worn, jewelry, unlike other kinds of art, has to somehow relate to the body.”
Adds Razgour: “Jewelry is a kind of art, a form of expression and presentation for your heart and mind and spirit. It helps you to be better. And when you choose a piece of jewelry, you are deciding to say something. It helps you present to others what you want to say about yourself.”
In addition to the pieces on display, “Sequences; Identities” features a short film by celebrated video artist Ran Slavin, in which a health club gym is depicted as a sort of ‘ground zero’ meeting place for members of various sectors of Israeli society – “older women, tattooed thugs, boys and girls, Arabs and Jews, religious and secular, old and young, men and women, black and white” – each exercising while wearing a piece of iconic identity-marking jewelry.
The film’s “cast” is composed of several of the exhibition’s participating artists.
“Sequences; Identities” will run through December 13 at the Eretz Israel Museum, Haim Levanon 2, Ramat Aviv. Tel. 03-641-5244.