From comfortably naked to haredi streets: Art at Jerusalem Artists House

Half a dozen exhibitions currently show at the Jerusalem Artists House.

Marwa Abd Alkadr sheds light on the Bedouin way of life: ‘Rana,’ 2018, Performance. (photo credit: LIANNE SILBERMAN)
Marwa Abd Alkadr sheds light on the Bedouin way of life: ‘Rana,’ 2018, Performance.
(photo credit: LIANNE SILBERMAN)
Sometimes exhibition honchos get it right. While that may sound tantamount to damning with faint praise, there is a particular sense of continuum, and of a natural dynamic flow, between the half dozen exhibitions currently showing at the Jerusalem Artists House.
“All these artists feed off their natural milieu, what you find here,” notes venue director Ruth Zadka. “They are all rooted here. They work with what they find here, in Israel.”
On the face of it, Zadka might be accused of erring on the side of generalization but, as you wend your way through the individual layouts, which take in an expansive array of sculpture, painting, installations and photography, you get the thread, however subliminal it may seem at times.
Over the years, the Jerusalem Artists House has unveiled its fair share of intriguing, if not downright nose-joint jarring, works, and the current crop maintains that cutting-edge line of thought. Take, for example, Noa Arad-Yairi’s series of seven “Madonna” sculptures, curated by Nogah Davidson. There is an unequivocal sociopolitical message to be had here, besides the enchanting aesthetic proffering. Six of the statuettes are of female characters, while the one male figure is presented in a feminine pose, bearded visage notwithstanding.
“They all have a degree of vulnerability,” posits Zadka. Indeed they do. “Noa shows women in private intimate poses – the women with themselves.”
The first thing that strikes you about the works is that they have an inviting vibe of cozy humaneness about them. There is nothing statuesque, no element of bravado, or faux naturalism.
“There are no Barbies here,” says Arad-Yairi, somewhat superfluously. “They are not sexy and beautiful [in the traditional sense]. These women are not trying to put on a show, for anyone.”
The glaring subtext, hovering barely millimeters beneath the surface, is that women are conditioned to look a certain way and conduct themselves in a manner that is considered to be “acceptable.” In a world driven by advertising and image, in which models who are often barely past puberty are considered to represent the female ideal – particularly in the Western world – the corporeal pockmarks of the passage of time, including the upshot of such welcome natural phenomena as childbirth, are considered taboo.
As you view the sculptures, each in their own private pose, you might get a sneaking feeling of gate-crashing moments of intimacy that you really shouldn’t be party to. Then again, you can’t help yourself. You are drawn by the let-it-all-hang-out demeanor, and want to get up close. Arad-Yairi’s women are mostly past their first flush of youth. In short, they are real women, rather than the artificially crafted creations of some marketing consultant.
We catch the delightful characters off guard. One appears to be checking out her own armpit odors. “That’s something women do,” remarks the artist. Is that, then, an expression of freedom from conformity to social conventions, or quite the opposite? Zadka says it is the latter. “We want to make sure that nothing’s awry.”
Arad-Yairi’s sensitivity to the subject matter is alluring, and clearly feeds off a basic, probably personal, understanding of the facts and feelings on the ground. She also references some of the historical backdrop of her discipline. Botticelli comes into this, too, she says, although adding that her work is very much about the here and now, and life as is.
The “Madonna” aspect is also patently conveyed through the inclusion of an ecclesiastical medieval-implying halo on each figure.
“We women sometimes stink and we get tired, and we urinate too,” deadpans Arad-Yairi. The latter bodily function is present in a statuette of a woman who is clearly in extremis and can’t wait another moment to get to the washroom. “We women are dictated to about how we should look and behave,” Arad-Yairi notes. Nothing new there, unfortunately. “It has been the case throughout history. If you look at figurines from millennia ago, you see women as a symbol of fertility with enormous breasts.”
The quotidian perspective is underscored by the apparel. “In art women are portrayed in the nude. That’s always been the case. Female nudity in art has always been taken for granted. Why should that be?” The golden coronas bring the concept of sanctity and hallowed perfection back down to earth, into the reality of honest-to-goodness parochial life. “Halos are a symbol of the ideal. These women are ideal in their own eyes. They are perfect and beautiful, to themselves.” That certainly comes across in “Madonnas,” flab, wrinkles and “lived-in” appearance notwithstanding.
Arad-Yairi’s creations make for compelling and endearing non-formulaic viewing. They may even help to open our eyes and broaden our social vistas, to be a mite less judgmental and blinkered.
CLAY, AND the manual modeling thereof, lends itself to a Mother Nature state of mind, and the ground-level ethos is apparent in Tal Rosen’s “Knead Pain into Thin Air” showing, curated by Dalia Levin. The gender divide-balance issue is also front and center. As you approach the display area, from one side, you are met by a white cloth canopy, at head, shoulder, chest level. The corporeal interface stretch is simply down to your vertical physical dimensions.
“Get under the cloth and put your head through the slit there,” I am instructed by Zadka. I comply and, at 1.85 m. tall, I find myself looking down on the whiteness below and around me, and with a sense of loftiness and of looking down on the world.
“The average height of men and women is different,” says Zadka, herself of above-average height. “We basically – physically – see the world from a different perspective.”
“The entry to the exhibition through the openings is a challenging task for viewers,” Levin notes. “The horizontal canvas, The White Field, sorts the visitors by height, hence inevitably by gender. The women are punished since their average height is 163 cm., [and this] prevents them from seeing what is going on at the top.”
Then again, the male of the species doesn’t entirely have things his own way. “The men, whose average height is 177 cm., can penetrate the upper sphere, but their gaze is also restricted,” Levin adds.
Art requires investment of elbow grease by the creator and, as such, it makes sense that the observer should also put in a bit of a shift. Slipping out of the gash in the fabric, I move in on Rosen’s intriguing installation, although I have to negotiate Gravel Route, distended pieces of string with bits of gravel threaded into them, which bars another point of entry to the installation. Finally, in the actually display area, I get to inspect the exhibits with their natural and humanmade materials, such as loofahs, rubber hand shapes, fabrics and straw.
“Knead Pain into Thin Air” references painful passages in Rosen’s own life, and the gender-based avenues are also touched upon through the textural offerings. It is an absorbing and emotive work.
THE WAY we relate to the more obscure sectors of Israeli society can suggest to artists fascinating lines of exploration. Mea She’arim and the haredi community in general have served as fertile stomping grounds across a range of disciplinary endeavor.
Ofir Barak certainly did his homework before putting together his “Through Time” photography exhibition and handsome book Mea Shearim: The Streets. “I spent three-and-a-half years there,” he says. “After a while I moved to a nearby apartment, so I could be on hand to catch some event as it happened.”
Barak did his best to achieve the requisite fly-on-the-wall perspective. To begin with he turned up with his cameras in his regular, secular-world threads but soon realized he needed to blend in more. “I didn’t put on a kippa, but I started to wear black pants and white shirts, like all the men there.”
That, and a keen observational eye, did the trick. “Through Time,” deftly curated by Daniel Tchetchik, offers more than intimate, finger-on-pulse glimpses into everyday life in the generally considered cloistered Jerusalem district. Barak had no prior knowledge of the haredi way of life, but he gradually immersed himself in the street-level dynamics and developed sensitivity to the nuances of what makes the locale and the locals tick.
“Through Time” is not just capturing momentous events in the community, which may not be covered by the media or, far worse, may be misrepresented or distorted. Barak certainly gets down to the nitty-gritty, and he captures some intimate moments which, ordinarily, your average haredi on the street may not choose to have documented and hung on a wall at Jerusalem Artists House, but Barak is palpably simpatico with his subjects, and there is nothing voyeuristic about the 50-plus monochromic print series.
Barak is also a master of light and shade equilibria, and embraces subtle compositional balances. A full landscape shot, for example, of an unbuilt plot with haredi figures dotted around the expanse, looking a little like Lowry matchstick characters, grabs your attention and keeps you riveted. The photograph was taken in the run-up to Passover, and the exhibition includes a number of ritual-related works, along with everyday scenes. The average secular visitor may well come away from “Through Time” with a revamped view of haredi life.
Marwa Abd Alkadr’s Sabbarah installation, curated by Gabriella Klein and Israel Rabinowitz as part of the Jerusalem Artists House ongoing Nidbach series, also sheds a little light on an ethnic group to which we do not generally have access. The Bedouin artist’s debut exhibition is designed to visually and conceptually convey something of the Bedouin mores and way of life. The show title comes from the Arabic word “sabr,” which means “cactus” but also implies endurance and perseverance.
The work features potted cacti which she arranged around her little yard in Rahat, to which she relocated following her arranged marriage. It was a way of staking out her own little patch in her new milieu, but she also subsequently gave the plants away to neighbors and relatives, as a way of nurturing relationships in previously alien surroundings. That sentiment is also echoed in the photographs of women, adding their own embroidery to their traditional clothing.
The current exhibitions close October 13.
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