Leaving, returning to the national, personal body shown in new exhibit

Pairing between oil paintings of Palestinian artist Anisa Ashkar and prints of late Israeli master Moshe Gershuni gives birth to an engaging dialogue on form, color and a sense of belonging.

THE PAINTING ‘The Sea of Acre (above),’ created by Anisa Ashkar, is seen at the gallery alongside two prints by Moshe Gershuni. (photo credit: YOSSI TZABARI)
THE PAINTING ‘The Sea of Acre (above),’ created by Anisa Ashkar, is seen at the gallery alongside two prints by Moshe Gershuni.
(photo credit: YOSSI TZABARI)
"When Orit Mor, the curator, told me that she has this idea to present my works alongside those of Moshe Gershuni, I was taken by surprise. But it only took me a moment to understand what she was seeing, and more importantly, to feel it,” Anisa Ashkar explained to me in her idiosyncratic and poetic manner of speech when I asked her how she felt about the unusual coupling between her oil paintings and the prints of the late Israeli master, currently on view in a new duo exhibition titled “Body.”
Two works by Anisa Ashkar (The Inner Struggle I and II) from 2015, seen alongside a print by Moshe Gershuni. (Photo credit: Yossi Tzaburi)Two works by Anisa Ashkar (The Inner Struggle I and II) from 2015, seen alongside a print by Moshe Gershuni. (Photo credit: Yossi Tzaburi)
The shock that Ashkar felt upon receiving the suggestion from curator Orit Mor, the founder of the Lobby Art Space gallery where her works are now showcased in Tel Aviv, is understandable. One is hard-pressed to conjure an example of two artists who are as seemingly diametrically opposed to one another as Ashkar and Gershuni.
Ashkar, born in 1979, is a Palestinian multidisciplinary artist who grew up in the coastal town of Acre. Through her performance pieces, paintings, photography and installations that she has presented in Israel and overseas, she depicts the views and memories of her childhood and the traditional society she was raised in. In many of these creations, she criticizes and asks questions about gender constructs and national myths and identities.

A painting by Anisa Ashkar from 2016, titled Kua (i.e. Arabic for strength). (Photo credit: Yossi Tzabari)A painting by Anisa Ashkar from 2016, titled Kua (i.e. Arabic for strength). (Photo credit: Yossi Tzabari)
Her subtle castigation of societal norms is especially evident in her performances, namely in works like Barbur 24000 (2004), titled in reference to the address of her family home in Acre. In it, Ashkar bathed herself in milk in a cleansing process that unfolded before the eyes of the viewers, while reciting the rules of Muslim purity rituals in Arabic as an Israeli journalist simultaneously translated the words into Hebrew for the crowd. Another such resonant work, which Mor and artist and writer Avshalom Suliman reflected on in the text accompanying the exhibition, is Yummy, Yummy, Middle East (2017).
Ashkar carried out the performance during the opening night of her solo show “Black Gold,” which had been displayed at the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures in Beersheba. In this work, Ashkar transported the act of cleaning to a different arena – the sanitization of objects exterior to her body. She cleaned an oriental carpet with gallons of seawater that she brought from her hometown. She then covered dates with gold leaves, giving them to the audience as tokens. Using food and a decorative artifact like the rug, she blurred the lines between household items and fine art, posing queries about the transactional nature of artworks and personal memories.
Gershuni, meanwhile, was a revered Israeli creative icon during his lifetime. Taught in art schools to this day, he is considered emblematic of the postmodernist art that was created in Israel from the 1970s onwards. A conceptual painter and sculptor, Gershuni was born in Tel Aviv in 1936 and passed away three years ago at the age of 80, marking an end to a career that spanned decades and caused an ongoing uproar within the local artistic dialogue. He seemed to go against every single one of the tenets upon which the secular Jewish ethos was constructed.
ONE NEED only recall some of his most famous works to understand the political impact and bold statements they embodied; an obvious example that comes to mind is his controversial work from 1979, Who’s a Zionist and Who Isn’t. The artist wrote the statement in big, red block letters across the walls of the now-defunct Julie M. Gallery in Tel Aviv, tapping into a heated ideological debate that has only escalated since.
His paintings cast doubt on the sacred memory of the Holocaust and its victims, criticized the Israeli-Zionist agenda and merged between homosexual eroticism and grief. A perennial troublemaker, Gershuni was widely embraced by mainstream establishments but refused to accept some of the accolades they bestowed on him, most notably turning away the Israel Prize he was awarded in 2003 because he “is very sad to receive it [the award] under the political and culture conditions that exist nowadays in Israel.”
The juxtaposition of the two creators’ works brings to the fore more stylistic similarities than the superficial differences that can be pointed out when observing their personal histories and creative trajectories. Yes, there are indisputable personal contrasts between the two: One is Jewish while the other is Muslim; one is a gay man and the other is a woman; one is a creator who comes from an arguably repressed minority community and presents her work in the spaces of the predominantly Israeli art world, while the other is an Israeli-born artist who learned, taught and created within the national canon.
A juxtaposition between two different artists gives rise to a new dialogue about voluminous, rich painting. (Photo credit: Yossi Tzabari)A juxtaposition between two different artists gives rise to a new dialogue about voluminous, rich painting. (Photo credit: Yossi Tzabari)
Herein lies the attractive force of this show, which highlights how two artists’ works, despite their contrasts, can perpetuate together a conversation about matter, gesturality, language and longing. Or as Ashkar aptly put it as she stood by my side and pointed at the gallery wall: “There are connections between our works that are moving exactly because they are unpredictable but so intuitive.”
She was referring in particular to three specific works: a black and greenish-gold diptych by Gershuni, featuring an indexical imprint of his palm lying flat against the surface of the right side of the print’s lowest half, seen close to two small abstract paintings in black and gold that Ashkar dedicated to her mother and include her signature calligraphy statements in intricate Arabic lettering. “Here you can see remnants of my own hand, which freely manipulated the paint onto the paper,” Ashkar pointed out, adding that she created these works with the image of her mother’s large hands deeply rooted in her consciousness: “The hands that worked, cooked, fed and took care of me and all of my siblings,” she reminisced lovingly.
The dialectics of painting
Spending her days between Acre and her studio in central Tel Aviv, Ashkar shared with me that until all the works were hung on the gallery’s walls, she didn’t know how the marriage between her paintings and Gershuni’s prints would translate into the physical placement in the space. Compositions like the previous one stress the tension between her gentle and intuitive handiwork and Gershuni’s confident decision to leave a telltale sign of his own hand on the paper, in a masculine gesture that derives from the tradition of gestural abstraction that rose to prominence with Jackson Pollock in America of the 1950s.
While most of Ashkar’s paintings are enclosed by small wooden frames, Gershuni’s prints are placed flat against the gallery walls. This visual marker is the only cue that helps visitors distinguish between the two artists’ works, which otherwise appear to echo or complement one another upon closer inspection, as the collocation of their works, which initially seemed like a bizarre notion, is rendered almost innate.
Two aspects of Gershuni and Ashkar’s works illustrate the similarities in approach that they share: One obvious element is the tonality of the oeuvres themselves – Gershuni’s whirlpool of disturbed half-circles and broken lines in a print in hues of black and white is reverberated across a series of four works which Ashkar calls Liberty and Surrender, in which the painter’s motions cast erratic lines in oil that resemble tumbling mountains on the white cotton paper she had worked with. In another instance, Ashkar’s bursts of yellow, crimson and black that recur in several paintings correspond with Gershuni’s patches of color in the exact same shades, that spill across the paper to create amorphous, cloudy forms.
 Liberty and Surrender, 1, 2, 3, and 4_ A series of works by Anisa Ashkar, on view at the Lobby Gallery. (Photo credit: Yossi Tzabari) Liberty and Surrender, 1, 2, 3, and 4_ A series of works by Anisa Ashkar, on view at the Lobby Gallery. (Photo credit: Yossi Tzabari)
Toward the end of my visit, Ashkar, a personable artist who enjoys the ongoing conversation that her works inspire, had asked me to select one work which I like in particular and stand next to it. I chose The Sea of Acre, an abstract painting that boasts a patch of pale blue in its midst in a nod to the sea of the town where she was raised and still lives and works today. It is placed in the gallery among several bleak prints by Gershuni, two of which date back to a series from 1984 titled Kaddish, which was inspired by passages from the Jewish prayer usually uttered at funerals as the last words of separation from the deceased.
It is at that moment that I understood the second point of synchronicity that Ashkar and Gershuni share, placed as they are on two opposing poles of Israeli art history: Using written language and furtive, wild and fervent gestures to evoke abstract forms, the two had each created their own dialectic of painting that tells a story of a personal and national home they belong to and reject, one to which they ambivalently yearn to return.
Body is on view in the Lobby Art Space gallery at 6 Arlozorov Street, Tel Aviv until January 2.