The ups and downs of government

The Museum on the Seam’s latest exhibition explores leadership and how it impacts our daily lives.

‘Piss Be Upon Us’ by Ramin Haerizadeh. (photo credit: GALERIE NATHALIE OBADIA)
‘Piss Be Upon Us’ by Ramin Haerizadeh.
At best, political and other leaders are objects of across-the-board admiration; at worst, they are objects of derision. A new exhibition at the capital’s Museum on the Seam, called “And the Trees Went Forth to Seek a King,” addresses the wide range of views of the powers-that-be, with works by artists from a diverse spectrum of social and political backgrounds.
There are contributions from Spain and Iran, Scotland and Russia, Israel and Uzbekistan, each offering its own angle on leadership and how it impacts our daily lives. While some may look up to their leaders with a respect bordering on awe, and others may use them for target practice, curator Rafie Etgar says the inspiration for the exhibition came from the ground level.
“The exhibition was generated from the street, from reality in this country,” says Etgar, who is also the museum’s artistic director. “We don’t invent anything, we present things.”
Of course, presenting “reality” is not the exclusive reserve of museums and other cultural institutions. That role is first and foremost filled by the media.
South African-born artist Kendell Geers, who lives in Belgium, addresses that in a stark manner: He examines the way in which images of violence have become trivialized through the media. His creation, Signs Taken for Wonders, explanatorily titled 24 Police Batons, features the said 24 implements arranged in the shape of a star.
Geers is very much a product of the Apartheid era in his native country.
He chose exile over conscription to the South African army, only returning home after Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as president. In 2000, he relocated to Belgium. Geers’s creations are visually arresting and highly palpable, and he chooses his objects for their symbolic rather than their aesthetic properties.
For people in this country, the hexagram the batons form may immediately spark associations with the Star of David. In fact, the shape refers to the symbol of the police and alludes to the brutality that was endemic to the South African cops in the days of the Apartheid regime.
Perhaps the most startling – not to mention cynical – image in the whole exhibition is Photo Op by English artists Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips, which depicts former British prime minister Tony Blair taking a selfie while a cataclysmic explosion erupts behind him.
Kennard is not known for pulling his punches, and came to public attention when he created compelling images for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament movement in Britain during the 1970s and ’80s. He bases his works on the marriage of images that our consumer society usually keeps apart, and in so doing, he offers us a perspective on a reality thrust upon us by the capitalist system and its leaders.
Both he and Phillips engage in issues related to the misuse of power and to war around the world. In Photo Op, we see Blair smiling into his cellphone camera, as if taking an innocent photo on a day out in the country. His broad grin and relaxed stance convey an unequivocal message that poses painful questions about the responsibility and morality of politicians who lead their electorate into war.
Humor of the darkest kind is a natural bedfellow of the “And the Trees Went Forth to Seek a King” display – the name of which, incidentally, comes from the biblical text of Jotham’s Parable in Judges 9:8. That passage refers to the motives of candidates for office, and whether their intentions are pure or may end in violence and tears.
Etgar feels that the exhibition is highly pertinent to today’s political reality.
“It is not pleasant to display the ugly reality outside in the museum, but we have no choice,” he says. “We are seeing our leaders – like leaders in other countries, although here it is becoming the order of the day – misbehaving and becoming corrupt.”
The curator says that there have been better times. “In the past, there were leaders who retained a sense of modesty and humility. Think of people like Menachem Begin or David Ben-Gurion.
Today, we have reached a situation in which leaders steal from the public coffer and act irresponsibly and with impure motives.”
He says he understands why we look up to our leaders, but feels we don’t always put our trust in the right place.
“Experts talk about our need for a leader, for a father figure, someone to admire and love, someone to take care of our needs,” he says, but the positive vibes tend to dissipate after the new leader strides confidently into his or her well-equipped office.
“To begin with, we admire our new leaders, and later we hang them in the town square,” he says. “The pendulum swings over time, and that is what I wanted to address in the exhibition.”
As an example, the curator points to former prime minister Ehud Olmert, “who started out from a good place and wanted to fight corruption. But just look at him now, trying to get his prison sentence reduced. I don’t care whether he serves 400 years in prison or four years. What interests me is what residue remains for the people from something like this – a bitter taste in the mouth, and burns. And it is a cumulative negative process.”
Iranian-born artist and Dubai resident Ramin Haerizadeh contributed five works to the exhibition, and they conjure up images of Terry Gilliam’s cut-and-paste animation for the Monty Python TV series and movies.
The play on words of Piss Be Upon Us resonates powerfully in the visual parody on leadership in the ink and acrylic collage, and it is safe to say the ayatollahs would not be pleased with Jacob’s Ladder, which pokes fun at the pot-bellied Iranian leaders and features assorted corrupt historical figures and a female nude flitting across the canvas.
It seems little wonder that Haerizadeh had to relocate.
Other standouts in “And the Trees Went Forth to Seek a King” include Uri Lifshitz’s emotive Exodus, which features a torn iron plaque with the Ten Commandments, and South African artist William Joseph Kentridge’s powerful animated film Monument.
“And the Trees Went Forth to Seek a King” runs until December 31. For more information: 628-1278 or