Raphie Etgar has made threats before, but this time he’s made “good” on it. Last Friday, Etgar – whose surname suitably translates as “challenge” – presented his latest curatorial offering at the Museum on the Seam – which, sadly, is also his last.
The 73-year-old stood at the helm of the remarkable situation he founded for over 20 years, frequently struggling to balance the books as the financial assistance equilibrium threatened to bring him, and the museum, to their knees.
Etgar’s swansong is called “Life/ Still Life/ Land” and, true to the museum’s enduring sociopolitical purview, takes a sober and unblinking look at the acerbic side of society here, highlighting actual and potential flashpoints between the diverse elements that make up the human landscape in Israel and the territories.
The artist roster, for a change, is exclusively local this time and, Etgar points out, with good reason.
“The idea is to take articles and materials that can be found in our environs, and to use them to examine ourselves and then, together, to look at the possible interpretation in the context of Israel. That is why I called the exhibition Life/ Still Life/ Land.”
I wondered if the prevalence of ready-made artifacts and the general detritus of everyday life had an ecological aspect to it. Over the past couple of decades Etgar has rolled out his fair share of displays with decidedly environmental intent. However, this time out the idea is to shine a light on some fundaments of life and basic survival hereabouts.
“The things that exist ensue from the premise that we surround ourselves with particular objects. That is a sort of existential statement,” he posits.
That, he suggests, can also be inferred by the objects we don’t see, or simply are not to be found in certain circumstances.
“Look at this picture of the Arab worker, as it were sitting in the air,” he says, indicating a striking oil painting by Palestinian artist Fouad Agbaria, which at first glance appears to be just a well-crafted portrait of a sitting figure – that is until you note the absence of some essential physical underpinning.
“The fact that the Arab worker does not have a seat is a sign that he doesn’t have anything to sit on. This is a critical viewpoint of what is missing in general, and that his village is missing.”
AS WE have come to expect from Etgar and the cultural vehicle he has guided for all these years, there is plenty of social and political criticism across the current showing. Some of the exhibits have been around for a while and, hence, address more general pervading issues. And there are works that were produced more recently, and refer to current pressing aspects of life, including the pandemic and the long-running protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu within spitting distance of his official residence.
Yael Bartana’s darkly comedic Undertaker triptych accommodates both the aforementioned.
“Her figures put one in mind of the demonstrations at Balfour Street,” Etgar muses. “They are three beautiful images that hint at the aesthetics behind the action. But there is also a very substantial message in there. On the one hand you have a society that walked around with masks on its face for a whole year, but on the other hand it is a sort of protest by those who were involved in the demonstrations, that they needed to hide their faces because they were wary of being punished by the [political] regime.”
The expression of political dissent, and the authorities’ street level handling thereof, is transmitted in stark manner in a six-pierce work, with the no-nonsense title of Forever Stained, by Zev Engelmayer with troubling vignettes of police strong-arm intervention at anti-Netanyahu demonstrations. The thinly veiled criticism of the national powers comes across in blatant tongue-in-cheek fever form in a satirical work by Elie Cardozo Tenenbaum and Dan Fishbein that goes by the nifty moniker of BB B.C. The bust of Netanyahu, placed close to the Engelmayer series, portrays our long-serving political leader as a Roman emperor. But, rather than glorying Netanyahu, there is an oxymoronic dig at the latter’s seeming omnipotence.
“It is a sort of cynical look at the Roman military commander,” Etgar explains. “The statue is made of cheap plastic that you can duplicate endlessly if you so wish. On the other hand, it is reminiscent of the statues of the Roman leaders in the Coliseum, who were regarded as untouchable.”
The complementary, equal-and-opposite balancing act is evident at various junctures throughout the exhibition. There often seems to be a subplot, which may be clearly inferred in the work or may need a little digging, a second or third glance, to take in. There are also some chilling creations that leave you with an acute sense of discomfort, as befitting a museum – and its recently retired chief curator – which has never held back when it comes to making strident statements on the lay of the land in this part of the world, and elsewhere.
Vered Aharanovitch’s statue of a young girl certainly hits home in no uncertain terms. From afar it looks like a fetching figure of young blond-haired lass wearing a pretty polka-dotted pink dress. Yes, you do see that her face is covered with some black substance, but the appalling message only starts to filter through when you get close enough to catch the facial expression, which conveys an admixture of resoluteness and fear.
“Take a look behind,” Etgar prompts. I did and recoiled as I espied just what it is the girl is holding behind her back. And then I discerned the military decorations and other adornments, some excruciatingly corporeal, and it all added up. That’s what you get when trusting innocence meets domineering – generally male – physical force. That, and some of the other exhibits, are not for the fainthearted.
There are several video works too, none more disquieting, if not downright shocking, than that of Amal Mattar which, almost literally, gives you a slap in the face.
“It is a very tough work to take,” says Etgar somewhat superfluously as we hear and see the results of her masochistic treatment. “It is violent and arouses a lot of thought about violence in our society against women.”
Sadly, that is, increasingly, a hot topic in the media, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdowns, with couples and families cooped up within their own four walls for long stretches.
Andi Arnovitz’s Lilith’s Nightmare installation is also highly pertinent.
“That is definitely shocking. It is a response to all the reports of rabbis sexually abusing children,” says Etgar as we look at Arnovitz’s creation comprising a blood-red crib. “All of this [exhibition] is a call to take a look at what is going on here, and suggest that it might be a good idea to have a rethink.”
DOES ETGAR think that the visitor may come away from “Life/ Still Life/ Land” with some degree of optimism?
“I really hope not,” he retorts in his trademark directness. He prefers to shake us up, with the hope that the resultant food for thought might get us to reconsider how we live with each other, and take responsibility for our actions, in terms of the ecology and, of course, getting on between us – Jews and Arabs, secular and religious Jews, and anyone betwixt.
As we met shortly before the exhibition – his final one he insists, although it is hard to imagine Etgar sitting around twiddling his thumbs, even if he is well past official retirement age – it was a good opportunity to try to sum up the septuagenarian Jerusalemite’s take on what he has witnessed in these here parts over the past seven decades, basically since the get go of the State of Israel.
It takes emotional and mental strength, resoluteness and probably a good dosage of stubbornness to keep on brandishing his lance – to borrow from a quixotic metaphor – and railing against perceived injustice across political, social and other domains. Etgar believes there is plenty more dirty work to be done.
“It doesn’t help to look around you, and you see all the problems and challenges, and you say ‘OK, everything is fine because there are some positive aspects to life.’ That doesn’t fix anything. Look at the work by Amal [Mattar]. She experienced abuse herself, and you feel that form the video.”
There’s no escaping it.
“It is not coincidence that women are now fighting more energetically than ever for their rights. And you have to show that. You can’t just say that there are women sitting in Dizengoff Center drinking coffee with their friends so all is well with the world. So what!” he exclaims.
As fired up as he continues to be about doing his damnedest to right the wrongs he sees around him, he has tended to do so via his chosen profession rather than getting out there on the street.
“We have to examine the role of art, which has guided me throughout all the years I have been here at the museum. That has what I have tried to do ever since the museum opened in August 1999. I came up with the idea 27 years ago but it took a while before we found this building and refurbished it.”
Indeed the structure, which is physically located on “the seam” between haredi and secular Jewish Jerusalem, and the Old City, intentionally and poignantly still bears the scars of the War of Independence when it was right on the frontline between the nascent State of Israel and the Jordanian army.
Catching Etgar on the seam of leaving his long-held, and beloved, position as chief curator, artistic director and founder-manager of the museum led to some reflective chat, but as ever, he was keeping his discerning eyes firmly on the future too.
“I hope the museum maintains a similar approach to art and the world in the future,” he says. “This has always been more than just a museum that exhibits works of art. Over the years we have gathered lots of friends, who believe in this path.
“Their support is precious although, of course, we could do with some financial help too. But I think I’ve done my bit.”
He certainly has.