Manning the Art

'Shelo Asani Isha,' currently on display at the Musrara School of Art, opens an intriguing discussion about gender roles.

Mata Gradstein’s ‘XXY’ video work poses graphic inter-gender issues (photo credit: MATAN GRADSTEIN)
Mata Gradstein’s ‘XXY’ video work poses graphic inter-gender issues
(photo credit: MATAN GRADSTEIN)
In these postmodern times, nay post-New Age days, we guys should be embracing the woman inside us, which, we are told, is part and parcel of our individual makeup.
That goes for creative pursuits, too.
The arts have traditionally been dominated by men, but can we call their output “masculine art” per se? That is a moot point, but the idea that art has a gender at all is intriguingly addressed at an exhibition currently on display at the Musrara School of Art – formally, and somewhat wordily, known as the Naggar Multidisciplinary School of Art and Society.
The show’s Hebrew title, Shelo Asani Isha, seems to be of the titillating ilk, and references one of the primary blessings of the shaharit morning service, in which men thank God for not making them a woman. While starting their day by reciting the words shelo asani isha (for not making me a woman) apparently makes all observant Jewish males misogynists or, at least, chauvinists, there are various interpretations of the prayerbook text. One suggests that the blessing is simply a reflection of the male’s inherent insecurity, that he is unable to celebrate what he is, rather he only notes what he isn’t. Meanwhile, in the corresponding female blessing, women thank God for making them as they are, in other words an affirmation of their existence, and gratitude for what women have been apportioned.
Be that as it may, the Shelo Asani Isha layout offers all kinds of takes on the role of the man in 21st-century Western society and a broad spread of how the modern male views himself. Curator Itzik Harush admits that the titular choice was designed to pique interest. After all, that’s the verbal store window of any venture.
“Yes, it’s a sort of provocation, but a mild one,” he notes with a smile “But it’s also about looking for the masculine element in art.”
Considering that approximately 99% of noted artists over the centuries have been men – which, surely, is the result of patriarchal societal bias – Harush’s premise seems to be redundant. However, the curator says the exhibition is simply putting the issue out there and that observers can make up their own minds as they take in the visual and subtext content of the works. Shelo Asani Isha is, suitably, a purely masculine endeavor and only includes creations by men, all of whom are either students or on the teaching staff of the Musrara institution.
“There are those who believe that, in order to create, you have to connect with your feminine side,” he continues.
“But that may not be the case. Look at Saron. He works off his masculine side.”
The latter is Saron Paz, head of the school’s New Media Department, who went for a corporeal approach to get his point across, literally. His photographic pairing features a clearly masculine, and hirsute, forearm and a derivative thereof. Paz is also willing to get down and dirty, and to suffer for his art. One frame has a roughly delineated heart-shaped item liberally sprinkled with long dark hairs.
The other shows a forearm with a design imprinted on it.
The latter was achieved by placing a mold onto the arm and applying a large amount of pressure to it, to make the necessary impression on the subject’s limb. The second shot involved Paz undergoing quite a lot of physical discomfort and, despite the curator’s observation regarding the artist’s masculine-oriented ethos, in fact it appears that Paz was trying to get a handle on the corresponding gender side of things. The heart-shaped item is made of wax, which Paz heated and poured into mold, and which he used to perform the depilatory process.
“It really hurt,” he says, allowing himself something of a self-deprecatory chuckle, “and it burned for a couple of hours afterwards. This is what women go through, on a regular basis. Until relatively recently I didn’t even know that women pluck their eyebrows. We [men] know that world exists, but we don’t witness, or experience, it ourselves.”
It gave him insight into some of the discrepancies between the appearance-enhancing routines of the two sexes. He also used the creative process as an opportunity to challenge his perceived manly attributes.
“I used a woman’s practice to check out my own borders, to see whether I would be capable of plucking my own hair and to turn it into something aesthetic.”
Paz notes that the gender demarcation lines are continually blurring, in terms of what is considered aesthetically acceptable. Indeed, there are increasing numbers of women who, for example, opt to keep their armpits in their natural hirsute state.
“And there are men who shave their legs, and go for the more feminine look,” Paz observes. “That’s a sort of reverse idea, of women removing hair to differentiate themselves from men, and now men are going for this [feminine] look.
Paz also feels there is a deeper, fundamental sensibility to the male-female standoff.
“This is really an expression of our [men’s] jealousy, that we can’t do the real thing – we are unable to give birth. We try to touch the real thing, through all kinds of practices and things, but we just can’t do it.”
At least men can produce works of art, and Shelo Asani Isha offers plenty to enjoy and ponder. The monochrome shot by Musrara school director Avi Sabag of a bunch of naked religious men in the legendary subterranean mikve (ritual bath) of the Ari, next to the ancient Jewish cemetery in Safed, taken over 20 years ago, provides a throwback slot in the otherwise largely contemporary presentation.
Tohar Lev Jacobson’s color photograph of what appears to be an alpha male specimen displaying a softer side to his makeup shows a bristle-faced man carrying a picnic table in one hand, and a baby carrier in the other. We get another delightful blast from the past with a charming black-and-white shot of a swimming trunks-clad youngster, in an unmistakable pugilistic pose, taken in Libya in the 1940s. While the lad’s demeanor may seem to convey an air of physically challenging business, there is something almost effeminate about his figure and wiry hairstyle of the day.
The no-person’s-land twilight zone is, perhaps, posited most strikingly with Matan Gradstein’s short XXY video, which shows the artist daubing himself with lipstick in front of a less-than-pristine bathroom mirror and then proceeding to try to divest himself of the presumably unwanted cosmetic addition. The gender divide tightrope is repeatedly trodden as Gradstein continues to energetically apply and wipe the lip gloss.
All told, the exhibition takes in works by 11 artists, and there is nary a cliché on display. All the exhibitors have clearly given their output plenty of thought, and leave the visitor with food for thought.
“Some people asked why there aren’t pictures here of soldiers – they are the quintessential male Israeli image – or maybe of something to do with soccer, but I didn’t want to go for the expected,” says Harush. “I didn’t want kitsch. I wanted to explore.”
Shelo Asani Isha closes on May 18. For more information: