When God, Jesus, Allah were women: Online show of feminist, religious art

The exhibition, available in three languages, presents works by Jewish, Muslim, Druze and Christian artists who reflect on their relationship with freedom, physical presence and faith

ORTHODOX ISRAELI artist Nechama Golan’s photograph ‘Women’s Book’ (2000). (photo credit: Courtesy)
ORTHODOX ISRAELI artist Nechama Golan’s photograph ‘Women’s Book’ (2000).
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 A pair of delicate, manicured hands drawn in thin, black lines firmly grasp a thread and a needle. Moving to the sound of heavy, disturbed breaths, the hands are then seen as they use the historically feminine house-ware tools not to mend a hole in a ripped blouse or to sew on a button, as one would expect them to. Instead, they grip an elegant rose and puncture its center, pushing past its lush petals.
The rose has been violated, or as the title of the animation video work featuring this procedure suggests – it has been circumcised.
The creative piece in question, menacingly titled Circumcision, was created by Palestinian artist Yara Kassem Mahajena. It offers a poignant criticism of the circumcision ritual that many Muslim women still undergo on the cusp of adulthood, a practice forbidden by numerous Western countries, as it is considered to be violent genital mutilation.
In a video accompanying her work, Mahajena – who was born in 1993 in the northern Israeli village of Muawiya – says with a smile that she is “a lucky Muslim Arab female,” seeing as she herself never went through the horrid operation. “With my privilege,” the young artist asserts, “comes the responsibility to represent and show what other Muslim Arab women go through when they don’t have a voice. So I should be their voice.”
Mahajena’s harrowing work is one of various politically and socially engaged artworks currently on view in an online exhibition launched last week and named: “Body Text: Feminist Art in Diverse Religio-Cultural Spheres in Israel.”
In "504 Years Later"  Andi Arnovitz draws on an iconic artwork by Albrecht Durer to offer a critique on the ultra-Orthodox society. (The artist's collection/ Photographer: Avshalom Avital)In "504 Years Later" Andi Arnovitz draws on an iconic artwork by Albrecht Durer to offer a critique on the ultra-Orthodox society. (The artist's collection/ Photographer: Avshalom Avital)
The exhibition was curated by curator, art scholar and critic Dr. David Sperber and Nurit Jacobs-Yinon, an artist, curator, film director and producer. Together, the two selected paintings, installations, video works and photographs created by female artists who were raised in the three Abrahamic religions. The different works, Sperber  and Jacobs-Yinon claim in their curatorial text, are creations of “defiance and complex inversions that seek to subvert... hierarchies.”
Has such an endeavor to examine the relationship between women, feminism and religion not been attempted before? It certainly has. In literature, an avid example of the exploration of this topic can be found in the canonic book by US historian and sculptor Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman. In her research, the author alleged that both the Bible and its later adoption by Christians were male attempts to rewrite the story of human society by exchanging feminine symbolism with a masculine one.
The exhibition’s merit lies in its attempt to address this claim about the symbiosis between women, their art and their rejected or revered deities of choice in our day and age, some 45 years after Stone penned her book.
In fact, one can’t help but think of Stone’s oeuvre upon glancing at one of the works on view in the online exhibition. The piece, crafted by Jerusalem-based multidisciplinary artist Ruth Schreiber, is a grin-evoking contemporary manipulation on the iconic depiction of God extending his finger to that of Adam’s in the fresco The Creation of Adam, painted by Michaelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the start of the 16th century. Schreiber, a self-proclaimed feminist religious artist, replaced the bearded male God with a female one, all long tresses of gray hair and mature curves marking the outlines of her dress.
In "Untitled (The Female Side of God),'' Ruth Schreiber uses of the most well-known images in the history of art to reflect on a possible female-dominated theological narrative. (From the artist's collection)In "Untitled (The Female Side of God),'' Ruth Schreiber uses of the most well-known images in the history of art to reflect on a possible female-dominated theological narrative. (From the artist's collection)
Other artists participating in the exhibition don’t make do with demanding that the marginalized female body take center stage. Andi Arnovitz, a US-born but now Jerusalem-based artist who immigrated to Israel and chose to become an Orthodox Jew as an adult woman, opted like Schreiber to reference a classic artwork as the basis of her contemporary commentary. And like Mahajena, Arnovitz turned to her craft in order to criticize her own society.
She appropriated a painting from 1504 by German Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer, Adam and Eve, and transformed it into her own work by covering Eve’s naked body with hand-stitched green leaves, leaving only one eye poking out and meeting the viewer’s gaze.
Arnovitz says in the video presented with her work that she decided to create the piece 504 Years Later after she was horrified by the sight of ultra-Orthodox women and some of their young daughters walking around the neighborhood of Mea She'arim clad in black garments that cover them from head to toe, or as these women are dubbed in vernacular slang -- ''Taliban women."
The nexus of academia and visual arts
The virtual exhibition was launched in tandem with an international academic confab, the Tager International Conference on Feminism in the Abrahamic Religions. The symposium is hosted by the Rackman Center, operating within the Faculty of Law of Bar-Ilan University, and in conjunction with the Program for Gender Studies at Bar-Ilan University as well as the Center for the Study of Relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims of the Open University of Israel.
Sperber and Jacobs-Yinon readily admit that the combination between a scholarly conference and an art exhibition is not an obvious one, but they hope that the marriage between the two fields could inspire a new form of dialogue among artists as well as academics.
“In gender studies and feminism, I can find a lot of scholars understanding that activist and socially engaged art could actually create change. Academics could benefit a lot from exploring art,” Sperber tells The Jerusalem Post.
“It’s really interesting for me to see how the participants in the conference related to art, how they could be inspired by it,” he adds.
The collaboration with the Rackman Center, Jacobs-Yinon explains, began after she curated an exhibition called “Mamzerim: Labeled and Erased (2017),” a show that was presented in the Jerusalem Biennale.
“Mamzerim,” part of a trilogy of activist-artistic exhibitions, dealt with the representation of the stories of mamzers – Jewish religious law’s definition for children born from certain forbidden relationships or incest.
“When the Rackman Center decided to make a conference about feminism in the Abrahamic religions, they asked me to curate an exhibition that would be part of it, and of course I thought I should do it with David [Sperber].”
A still from a video work by Israeli artist Dafna Shalom, titled "Evening Prayer". (Courtesy of the artist)A still from a video work by Israeli artist Dafna Shalom, titled "Evening Prayer". (Courtesy of the artist)
Not regarding women as minorities
Sperber, who also heads the Curatorial Studies Program in Jerusalem’s Schechter Institutes, has explored the subject of feminist art and its Jewish visual manifestations throughout his career and is slated to soon publish a book on the issue. In 2012, he curated the show "Matronita: Jewish Feminist Art" at the Mishkan Museum of Art, Ein Harod, along with Dvora Lis. 
Asked whether the mere notion of grouping together several female artists and attempting to present their work as feminine isn’t anachronistic, he agrees that the idea of analyzing and brokering visual arts to the wider public through such prisms is problematic. “This was a big issue in this show and also when I curated “Matronita.” These are questions that always come up in my work: Do we regard women as minorities? Does this mean we are placing them in a ghetto, so to speak, or does this start a dialogue about the subject?”
The solution to the conundrum, Sperber agrees, cannot be found in strict labels. “From the beginning, we were thinking about art and not about labeling it in a specific way, be it religious or feminist.
“The labeling we do, in the Jewish world and here in Israel, between religious and secular, is not relevant anymore for most of the artists who don’t come from the Jewish world, mainly Christians, Palestinians and Muslim Arabs,” he reflects. “Maybe it’s similar to what we know in the masorti [i.e., traditional Jewish] world, where the notion of culture is not dichotomous. Like Hannan Abu-Hussein says in her video text: ‘I’m not religious, but this is part of my culture.’”
Sperber refers to the video texts, short interviews with each of the artists that appear on the exhibition’s website alongside the works and act as a form of visual curatorial interpretation.
Subtitles for these videos, as well as all of the information about the works on view, Jacobs-Yinon stresses, are available in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
The decision to present all content in three languages stemmed from a dialogue with the artists and the inclusive ideology that guided the two in preparing the project.
Hannan Abu-Hussein's installation, "Momentary Freedom" (2015), offers a stark criticism of the phenomenon of women's honor killings in the Arab society. (Artist's collection)Hannan Abu-Hussein's installation, "Momentary Freedom" (2015), offers a stark criticism of the phenomenon of women's honor killings in the Arab society. (Artist's collection)
“It was very important for us that all of them feel that they are part of something that they’re proud to be in,” she notes.
Abu-Hussein, a Palestinian creator and educator hailing from Umm el-Fahm, is presenting in the exhibition a documentation of the installation Momentary Freedom (2015), a work made of representations of machetes suspended in the air in protest over the death of countless Arab women who are murdered for desecrating their families’ honors.
In a candid moment during her video text, Abu-Hussein ponders her own motivation for creating this specific artwork and generally for choosing to be an artist.
“Maybe I consider creating art as a form of therapy or dialogue that I’m having with myself,” she theorizes.
And perhaps the same could be said of all women still trying to find a voice, within their art, their families, their prayers and their politics.
‘Body Text: Feminist Art in Diverse Religio-Cultural Spheres in Israel’ can be seen at https://art2021.rackmancenter.com. The exhibiting artists are: Hannan Abu-Hussein, Fatma Abu-Roumi, Raida Adon, Andi Arnovitz, Itzik Badash, Nechama Golan, Doris Hakim, Shula Keshet, Yara Kassem Mahajena, Ruth Schreiber, Yael Serlin, Dafna Shalom and Amira Ziyan.