Art in ‘conversation’

The Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art at Heichal Shlomo hosts ‘This Too Is Possible’

 Left: ‘Mother,’ Majdal Shams, 2015, pastel on cardboard, by Sonia Mahmoud. Right: ‘Leisure Time,’ Jerusalem, 2003, oil on canvas, by Naomi Amedi (photo credit: YAIR HOVAV/SADAN PROART)
Left: ‘Mother,’ Majdal Shams, 2015, pastel on cardboard, by Sonia Mahmoud. Right: ‘Leisure Time,’ Jerusalem, 2003, oil on canvas, by Naomi Amedi
Curator Adi Yekutieli was putting together a show in December for young female artists in the Arab community. Somehow the exhibition’s catalogue found its way to the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art at Heichal Shlomo; and once Michal Sadan, the museum and gallery’s art consultant, saw the quality of the work, she asked if Yekutieli would be willing to move the exhibition there.
“When I found out more details about the gallery, I was very surprised at their openness to show that type of work,” Yekutieli says. “We started discussing how it could be presented, and I came up with the concept of having the pieces shown side by side with artifacts from their collection.”
Heichal Shlomo’s collection of Jewish artifacts and memorabilia is one of the 10 best in the world. Yekutieli was intrigued, to say the least.
Being active for many years as an artist himself and as the director of the Association for Art in the Community and Cross-Cultural Dialogue, Yekutieli has established quite a few art workshops of a similar ilk and is invested in how one can showcase the interaction and working dialogue between art and culture. He believes ardently that, especially in Israel, it is something that is beneficial for all sides.
Heichal Shlomo and Yekutieli seem to have met at the perfect time. The gallery is currently undergoing a dramatic about-face, which has it looking into innovative projects and new directions.
“Heichal Shlomo is undergoing a complete makeover,” says Sadan. “The aim is to reflect the identities and values of Jewish society in both Israel and abroad, and at the same time to address the myriad aspects of Israeli society. The Museum functions as a home for local culture, serving as a focal point for multidisciplinary artistic activity. It fosters cross-cultural dialogue and encounters, believing that art crosses borders. The museum’s diverse collections constitute a unique platform for a universal dialogue crucial to Israeli society at the present time.”
OPENED IN early 2018 and running through November, “This Too Is Possible” combines artifacts from the museum’s collection with the works of both Arab and Jewish artists. The exhibition is truly unique, but putting it all together was a journey in itself.
Yekutieli thought it might be risky to take the paintings and match them with artifacts, but when he went into the gallery’s storage area and saw what was there, it intrigued him intellectually.
“First of all, I found a lot of things that in the aesthetics of it, the references were similar,” Yekutieli adds. “We opened the concept even further and started thinking of adding other artists, women from Jerusalem who were either Orthodox or secular Jews, that could be shown side by side with the Arab artists. I had my fears, but since I like to do things that are impossible, I decided to do it. I started getting their artwork, and then I thought it would be even more challenging to create a combination of pieces that will have all three interacting with each other.”
In the exhibition, some of the artistic “conversations” involve two or three different artists, as well as the artifacts. There are all kinds of varying combinations, making it a true aesthetic journey for the viewer.
Yekutieli describes feeling overwhelmed at first because there were 25 artists, and anytime a curator is dealing with a group exhibition, the task becomes more complex. Adding artifacts only exacerbated the curatorial difficulty.
“If we are having a conversation with a group of people, you might start with small talk with one person, then there will be all these pairs going on, then other people are added so that it’s groups of three, or groups of four,” Yekutieli states. “I wanted to not make it a narrow kind of conversation. I wanted to create it specifically, but not concretely. When the viewer looks at the combination of artwork, they will be able to reference from their own experience and history. Maybe they will look at it visually, emotionally, conceptually, historically or even culturally.”
After pairing and matching the artwork with the artifacts, Yekutieli decided to add text. The text does not elucidate meaning, but, rather, is meant to stimulate thinking. The viewer then has a choice of which direction to go.
In Yekutieli’s opinion, the text shows a kind of north, like a compass; but, depending on where you are oriented, or which direction you decide to go afterwards, it is simply a jumping-off point. He expects viewers to arrive at the gallery with preconceived notions, and does not want the text to enhance their own prejudices. He hopes that it will create a surprise and a place where the viewer can engage and utilize his own thinking.
“We are in times where this kind of interaction is very suspicious. People shy away from these kinds of interactions. I wanted to examine, look, and reflect in a way that would be appealing. The more you look at something, the more you find more layers and more connections between the things,” he adds.
“This Too Is Possible” is the kind of exhibition that begs for more than one viewing. The artistic groupings and all of the possible conversations therein are nuanced in their particular beauty, requiring repeat views. There are many different narratives, and each one resonates.
Usually, with a typical art exhibition, people stand next to a piece, and there is something that explains each one clearly. With this exhibition, the viewer is not afforded such a luxury.
“Here, in a certain way, I carefully took the freedom of creating the pieces, which don’t stand alone; they only stand in reference to others, which is very unusual from a curatorial point of view,” Yekutieli shares. “I almost treated them like ready-mades. I created a meeting or a possible story between them. In that sense, I didn’t judge the pieces separately, but, rather, challenged myself. There was a system. First, I created things that were easy for me to create, intuitive associations. I researched what the objects meant. Then, as I went further along, I went deeper.”
The exhibition comprises three different halls; thus, it is relatively large. The size of the space made it even more challenging for Yekutieli to find ways for the various pieces to connect. His main goal was that everything should relate to something else.
It took curatorial bravery to see the big picture throughout, and it shows in the finished product. Courage was also required on the part of the gallery itself.
“For a museum like that, it’s an unusual and brave notion to do this exhibition,” Yekutieli adds. “They had to make a shift in their approach to their audience and to themselves. It’s a gallery that services everybody, but specifically Jewish art and history. So I think it’s a very courageous step for them. But it was also a worthwhile risk, and now they’re realizing that. It widens the audience and creates interactions between different audiences.”
A few weeks ago, the gallery staff and Yekutieli had a meeting with the artists featured in the exhibition. At that point, the artists did not know that the concept of the show had their pieces interacting with one another in such a way.
The responses were overwhelmingly positive. Some of the artists said that they had never exhibited with a curatorial approach that was so sensitive to them; it was as though Yekutieli actually knew them, which he did not.
DUE TO the immediate success of the exhibition and the overwhelmingly positive response it has received, Yekutieli believes that the next stage is to create a process of bringing some of the artists together and working collaboratively.
The notion of creative collaboration in the context of visual art is something Yekutieli has been invested in for almost 20 years. He even taught a class on the subject at the MFA program in Boston.
It is a concept that is very unusual for the visual arts, whereas in theater or music, it happens frequently and is touted as a wellspring of inspiration. The image of an artist creating by himself in the studio is much more common.
“What I’ve found over the years is that even if artists continue to work by themselves after this, the experience has a profound impact on them,” Yekutieli emphasizes.
The collaboration is not based on where the artists are similar, but, rather, on where they are different.
“I think more collaborative work in the future will be great, and to even take artifacts that are Christian and Muslim, instead of the Jewish ones that we used for this,” Yekutieli says. “Many times, conflicts come from a religious base, and yet most religions talk about the same human values at the core. So we’ll see how it develops.
“I would also like to try to find more locations for this exhibition to be shown; to take all of these things that we look at as explosive, and yet the feeling that you have when you walk into the exhibition is not extreme at all. It allows you to go as far as you choose.
“Many times, artists are fearful of curating, because they’re there to show their particular theme or point of view,” Yekutieli notes.
“I tried to be much more precise and humble about it and to suggest that this [conversation] is possible. When we suggest a possibility, we’re not saying that this is the way we should live. But, on the other hand, we’re not suggesting that we avoid each other either.”