What’s in a picture?

Plenty, at Musrara’s Naggar School of Art.

Almonds on a table top conjure up the sights and scents of generations gone by. (photo credit: IDAN RACHAMIM)
Almonds on a table top conjure up the sights and scents of generations gone by.
(photo credit: IDAN RACHAMIM)
As the postmodern art world marches relentlessly toward the unknown, constantly seeking out new forms of expression, it can set the pulse racing to ponder the ostensibly limitless options that await the artist.
It seems that all one has to do is reach out in any direction, grab something and incorporate it into some new creation.
Then again, the virtual universe tends toward the ethereal side, which can lead one to some floundering about and, possibly, a loss of focus on concrete ideas and raw materials.
The definition of “raw materials” has changed radically as the Internet-based cosmos has grown, so for those who still get a warm feeling from the tactile, it is comforting to see young artists referencing, and working with, actual printed photographs.
The results of some of that endeavor can be currently witnessed at the Musrara Naggar School of Art, in the “Disorder of Things” exhibition – one of several shows currently up and running under the aegis of the school, both at the institution itself, and at Beit Canada down the road.
Michal BarOr’s work is a captivating case in point. Like the other exhibits in “Disorder of Things,” it uses items from the photographic process as raw material for creating a photographic work of art.
Naturally, the base works come from a very different era. BarOr’s The Bird features an archeological find from the early 20th century. The fetching ceramic object in the original black-and-white print was shot by a member of the British Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF), Irishborn R.A. Stewart Macalister. However, as we see from BarOr’s presentation, the Irishman, not content just to document the fascinating find as is, mischievously embellished the ornithological creation with some plumage.
Thus, The Bird takes the original archeological treasure a step forward, to yet another rendition of the centuries-old artifact. BarOr encountered the original photograph in the PEF archives in London and says, “I haven’t been able to get it off my mind. Something in it intrigued me.”
She notes that the PEF research “aimed to create a link between the physical land of Palestine and the Bible. Archeology was one of the main tools of this enterprise, as it supplied material evidence that could transform the biblical stories into historical facts.”
As curator Yael Messer explains, BarOr and the other contributors to “Disorder of Things” – Ronit Porat, Sirah Foighel-Brutmann and Eitan Efrat – are part of a significant school of thought in the global artistic community that culls items from archival repositories and breathes new, contemporary, life into them.
“These artists explore the relationship between photographs, their context and presentation,” says Messer.
“The fundamental parameters of photography as an artistic medium are mediated and receive new contexts and dimensions through the artists’ various uses of photography as a material and a platform for action. In each of the works, the artists take/borrow/appropriate photographs by artists other than themselves in order to weave narratives that move along an axis, ranging between private and collective histories.”
FOIGHEL-BRUTMANN and Efrat take that endeavor a step further with a 29-minute movie called Printed Matter, comprising a technological crossover format of 16-mm. film and HD video. The film references the work of Foighel-Brutmann’s late father, journalist Andre Brutmann, a freelance press photographer who covered the Middle East for local newspapers, as well as for international, mostly European, print media.
In Printed Matter, the artists explore the interface between private lives and contemporary geopolitics. Brutmann’s vast body of documentary work offers a visual chronicle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and incorporates familiar images of civil dissent, violence, funeral grieving and political oratory on both sides of the Green Line.
The professional-political items segued into the private domain when, after the day’s work was done, after becoming in a dad in the early 1980s, Brutmann would turn his camera on his family.
Printed Matter proffers a charming array of contact sheets that include shots of historic events, such as the first and second intifadas and the Rabin assassination, alongside his daughter’s birth. Instead of using formatted captions, the filmmakers opt for off-the-cuff vocal commentary Brutmann’s partner and freelance journalist Hanne Foighel, who reminisces about the past. Printed Matter takes its viewers on a revelatory excursion into the intimacies of political history and the politics of intimate lives.
“The artists take photographs they did not take themselves and they infuse them with new meanings and narratives, but also challenge the mechanism that exists between the photographer and his or her subject, and the way we relate to the photograph,” says Messer.
“There are many artists today who are exploring the balance of power in the field of photography and how we can recalibrate our relationship with it.”
THE “GOLD Black White” exhibition also offers a new perspective on works from the past, and packs some sociopolitical punch.
The creations of the nine contributors to the show will probably ring a loud clanging bell for anyone who has been living here for 30 years or more and has followed developments in the Ashkenazi-Sephardic makeup of Israeli society.
The Musrara school is the perfect venue for holding such an exhibition, as the Black Panther protest movement sprouted from the neighborhood in the early 1970s, with first-generation Israeli Sephardim venting their spleen on the political leaders of the day.
“Gold Black White,” curated by Itzik Harush, comprises works by first-, second- and third-generation offspring of olim from Arab countries. There are some ostensibly fun items in there, such as a shot of a bunch of soccer players with 1980s hairdos and sports kit, and there is an evocative print of a Yemenite Jew taken in Jerusalem in 1925.
One of the more thought-provoking works features instantly recognizable footage of the 1948 declaration of the state, but with commentary by a woman with a distinct Moroccan accent. While the predominantly Ashkenazi VIPs take their place at the then-home of the Tel Aviv Museum to witness David Ben-Gurion make the historic proclamation, we hear the familiar words in an unfamiliar brogue.
While art is, by definition, meant to get us to sit up and take note, one wonders whether tampering with such an iconic national occasion may ruffle a few feathers in certain quarters.
“[Artist] Braham Ohana and I asked the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which stores the national film archives, for the original files, but when they heard what we wanted to do with them they were a bit reluctant,” says Harush with a touch of understatement.
It is surprising – and not a little disappointing – to hear that, even a generation or two later, traces of social imbalances persist in this cultural melting pot of ours.
“The artist was not born in this country, but I know from my grandparents – who are Moroccan and Kurdish – about the discrimination,” Harush notes.
“I think there is still discrimination in certain places, and particularly in the world of art.”
There are some stirring works in “Gold Black White” that feed off a sense of nostalgia, possibly an ongoing search for roots – including items that address the topic of cultural baggage and identity in the wider sense.
The exhibitions close on May 10. For more information: www.musrara.org/