Jerusalem artist turns tragedy into creativity

“Everything changed after my father died. I was 10, and we moved out of Har Nof. My family became not religious, but I continued to be religious for a few years after.”

Donna Musan Levi: ‘I wanted to create a fracture, like the split of the Tablets of the Law.’ (photo credit: MORAN GAMLIEL)
Donna Musan Levi: ‘I wanted to create a fracture, like the split of the Tablets of the Law.’
(photo credit: MORAN GAMLIEL)
There is perhaps nothing more “alive” than a dead parent. For some people, the loss of a mother or father, particularly during childhood, acts as sort of a game changer in life that they never quite get over. The death of a parent can trigger anything from changes in personality to whole new directions in life. For some people, the trauma of a mother or father prematurely dying can even trigger art.
Donna Musan Levi recently staged a solo exhibition at the Koresh Gallery in Jerusalem in which the presence of her father, dead almost 20 years, loomed large. Called “Hybridism,” this array of installations was about many things: Musan Levi’s father, her past, her emotional and intellectual present, her old and current attitudes toward religion, and her attempt to forge these elements together into sort of a workable modus vivendi.
Born in Jerusalem 29 years ago to a religious family in the religious Har Nof neighborhood, she recalls a childhood of religious observance, without affiliation with any specific group of ultra-Orthodox.
“It’s kind of in between, not a case of black and white,” she says. “My family was religious, but we were not a part of the haredi community that surrounded us. But we didn’t feel part of the community.”
Nonetheless, the family was observant and she, her brother and three sisters went to religious schools. Musan Levi’s father worked both as a kosher butcher and as a sofer, a scribe able to write Torah scrolls and mezuzot. And then her father died, and life as she knew it came suddenly to an end.
“Everything changed after my father died. I was 10, and we moved out of Har Nof. My family became not religious, but I continued to be religious for a few years after,” she says.
Musan Levi held onto her religious observance as long as she could, perhaps in homage to her father, or maybe to try to maintain a stronger connection to him.
“But then it just ended,” Musan Levi says. “I saw things differently, I guess.”
We have all heard the old saying that when one door in your life closes, another one opens somewhere else. As Musan Levi’s flame of religion flickered and died, an attraction to art grew constantly stronger.
“I was always interested in art,” she says. “Even growing up in Har Nof, that was always my thing. I loved to sculpt and paint. It was one of the things I was always sure about, even then. I never wanted to get into anything else. It was always that.”
She left home at the age of 18 and immediately went to work, not only to pay rent and buy groceries, but to pursue her dream. After four years of working here in Israel and, as she says, “the US, Canada, and places like that,” Musan Levi was able to enroll in Minshar School of Art in Tel Aviv. In the beginning, she wasn’t set on any style or métier, but during her first year she began to move away from painting and drawing, and settle on sculpture and installations.
“I began to see that these were my artistic language,” she says. She graduated two years ago, at the age of 27.
And although she has shown her work before, Musan Levi considers the recently displayed “Hybridism” to be her first serious solo exhibition.
“The pieces are connected,” she explains. “My critical feeling that I have now, and also what I felt about things when I was young, also the death of my father, all of these things are there. These are concrete images of my feelings about all of these things. The exhibition is about religion, but also about trying to reveal things suddenly. Religion to me is that sometimes you don’t see all of it. Sometimes you see half of it, or just a little bit.”
Musan Levi’s very much “alive” father looms large throughout the exhibition, particularly in an installation called Fossils. This is composed of scraps and pieces of things, esoteric objects and junk, that had belonged to her father, which she was able to find. Both this and the other installations are particularly noteworthy for their construction with objects that were already made and on hand. Chairs is made up of actual seats from a no-longer-used synagogue – long seats of attached wooden pews that the artist has cut in two.
“I wanted to create a fracture, like the split of the Tablets of the Law and the break between faith and disbelief,” she says. The component parts of Chandeliers,”which seem to resemble deformed dead geese, twist and wind upon itself, clutching with long arms.
Asked whether she considers the exhibition a success, Musan Levi laughs and says, “You know what? I’m really happy about the way it looked and the way it turned out. I worked really hard on it, more than a year, and I’m very happy with the outcome.”
The young artist seems to have learned, however, that just as there is a difference between “making music” and the “music industry,” “art” and the “art world” are not exactly the same.
“I have some mixed emotions about figuring out the art field, knowing exactly how it works, and dealing with it in a way that won’t completely drain me,” she says.
So what is next for Donna Musan Levi? She has resolved that rather than embarking on something new, her immediate plan is to restage “Hybridism” somewhere in Tel Aviv. Beyond that, she says, “I don’t know if I will continue working on those kinds of images. Because I understand that every couple of years, you change. Your art also changes, your interests change. So I really don’t know what will be my next exhibition.”
And finally, when I ask the question I pose to every single-minded, driven artist I have ever interviewed for The Jerusalem Post: “If an evil genie promised you a long healthy life, but one in which you were absolutely forbidden to create art, what would you do instead?” Musan Levi replies after a moment of silence, “I have no idea. I can’t even consider such a thing!”