Breaking artistic barriers

‘Thou Shalt Not’ – A provocative new exhibition at Jerusalem’s Museum on the Seam

The artist Andi Arnovitz’s interpretation of ‘Adam and Eve’ (photo credit: ANDI ARNOVITZ)
The artist Andi Arnovitz’s interpretation of ‘Adam and Eve’
(photo credit: ANDI ARNOVITZ)
The screen is filled with a semi-transparent, golden Hebrew alphabet. Behind the letters, a woman’s face appears. As the video commences, the woman’s lips begin to kiss each letter as lovingly as a young boy kissing the words of the Torah when introduced to the letters on his first day in the traditional heder (classroom).
For the young boy, the letters are coated with honey, telling him that the words of Torah are sweet. Here, by contrast, the “honey” is transformed into a sensuality as though torn from the pages of the Song of Songs. More surprisingly, this video is high art, the work of an anonymous Haredi woman who is rewriting the traditional relationship of holy letters and the masculine hierarchy behind it.
The video, titled “Kiss” (from the reading /writing series), is one of a wide range of works currently on display at the Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem.
Raphie Etgar, the founder and director of the museum, is in awe of the boldness of the Haredi women who constitute many of the religious artists on display.
“They have begun to emerge from their box and to express their opposition to things that annoy them. For a start, there is the halachic issue as regards their status. In a society that is so masochistic, theirs is a protest against the whole community.
The contemporary world that surrounds them permits women to take part in religious life in ways that didn’t exist in the past.
“This is happening not only in the world of art. I hear of more and more lectures, meetings and activities of women concerning these issues. In another video, a woman is depicted as struggling to break out of her defined self. Our exhibit shows how we are breaking through a barrier to allow women to protest through art.”
The secular Etgar is very sympathetic to these women’s issues and praises these artists who are having to struggle so much in order to exist as artists. “The woman who created the ‘Kiss’ video, which is blatantly sexual, asked to be anonymous because her family is still in Mea She’arim; she doesn't want to hurt her family by association.”
Etgar himself is a fighter, a kicker against convention, someone who gave up a lucrative career as one of Israel’s leading graphic artists to open and run the anti-establishment art gallery in the middle of the holy city. Located on the old border between east and west Jerusalem, hence the name, the gallery is located in a restored building that was used in the War of Independence by the Israeli army to defend this edge of the city and there are bullet holes to prove it.
Now, after 20 years, and facing imminent closure – “The non-Jewish Germans who supported us until now have gone – are still relevant to the world around him, and perhaps even more so.
The exhibit “Thou Shalt Not” with its obvious reference to the Ten Commandments brings together religious and secular artists for the first time in an attempt to find a common language in visual art. Is it any coincidence that Etgar’s name is the Hebrew word for challenge? “The museum,” he tells The Jerusalem Report, “sits at the edge of Mea She’arim.
For 20 years, we have shown exhibits here of how humankind ruins nature, animals and other human beings. But our neighbors never entered; the subjects were just not to their taste. I hope that this time religious people, especially our immediate neighbors, will come.
“There are tremendous divisions between the religious community and the wider world. I have tried to bring together artists from both worlds here under the rubric “Art and Belief” (in Hebrew, it sounds much more striking ‒ Omanut and Emuna). The exhibition focuses on the reciprocal relationship between the two. The division between the religious and secular Israelis is a bit like the division between Israelis and the Palestinians. They, too, are different sectors of the whole.”
Behind Etgar's controversial exhibit lies a deeper, historical situation: “Christianity invested a great deal in art so that their communities could understand the scriptures. But Judaism banned such representation based on the Biblical command ‘Thou shalt not make any graven image...,’” he says.
“As a result, we don't have a tradition of masks, of Commedia dell’arte, of sculptures or carnivals (which included masks and sculptures); we have no tradition of graphic culture. Michelangelo painted God Himself but for Judaism the visual is full of danger.
The wife of Lot looks back at Sodom and Gomorra, only to be turned into a pillar of salt. We are forbidden to look. So, when these religious artists search for a way to find a language with which to address the issues that confront them, they have no tradition on which to fall back.
“The symbolism and the iconography used by the secular world of art eventually came into Judaism when Jews began searching for roots among its own traditions and found none. This is especially true over the last 200 years, although mostly among assimilated Jews,” says Etgar. “But more recently there has been an outpouring of real contemporary art among religious Jews. I’m not talking about pretty pictures of the Temple, or of Jerusalem, that’s alright for the tourist trade, but rather of contemporary art forms, which are very critical of the current situation.”
One of the artists, Andi Arnovitz, originally from the US but now part of the modern-Orthodox community of Jerusalem, is a full-time artist working in prints, ceramics, paper and sculptures. Two of her works on display here point to the very issues to which Etgar refers.
One of them “improves” a famous Dürer painting of Adam and Eve by adding a bowdlerized “religious” version of the painting (on a high-definition print) as a conventional Orthodox Jew might depict it, with Eve completely covered with large leaves (cut out and stuck on by the artist) allowing just one eye to peek out critically at the world.
A second piece is a box of tongues done in polymer clay, with the fecund title “Lashon HaRav.” This is a delightful play on words that works well visually, too, although here it contains a striking ambiguity. The title is a play on the well-known Hebrew phrase lashon hara, which means, in current lingo, bad-mouthing, and is considered one of the worst sins a Jew can perpetrate. Here, the phrase has been deftly turned to mean “the speech of the many,” or alternatively “the speech of the rabbi.”
The multiplicity of the tongues is an indication of the different and varied opinions that intrude on any rabbinic discussion or, more generally, that which takes place in a public debate on any issue. Furthermore, it emphasizes talking rather than listening, which is the essence of Jewish practice (“Shema Yisrael...”) and could be a criticism of the noise level in Israel’s daily life.
As for those Haredi artists who don’t want to be named, Etgar accepts this philosophically.
“The main thing is that they show their work and that others from their community come and see it. Here is proof of an awakening among the very religious about art, even though there is a fear about what they can and cannot do. There is still pressure against them to express the freedom that they need as artists.”
Israelis who have seen the local TV series “Shtisl” will appreciate this. The series explores the life of a young Mea She’arim teacher (Akiva Shtisl is his name), who is drawn to the life of art. The series shows the tremendous pressures that are brought to bear on him to give up his “fantasy” life.
Etgar invited the producer of this popular series to give a talk about the issues raised in the drama. “The museum was packed and it became clear that there is a tremendous interest in the subject,” he says.
Yael Burstein is one of the secular artists whom Etgar chose to represent the other side of the equation. He selected one of her many sculptures by which she has gained an international reputation.
Yet, even here there is something of a religious dimension.
“My sculpture of a mask,” explains Burstein to The Report, “is to indicate that art can also be a façade. This is not a mask to mask, hence there is another sculptured face behind this outer one.”
The suggestion in her work is that there is inevitably another reality behind the surface reality. “To this extent, my art points to a ‘religious’ sensitivity, although not of the halachic kind. Rather, the sense of another hidden reality behind the outward, everyday one. Art is spirit that exists independently.”
Another religious artist is Ken Goldman. A multimedia artist, he is represented here by an electronically powered sculptured arm that replicates the worshiper's beating of his/her chest in the routine prayer of confession. Caustically entitled “Confession (Viduy) Machine,” the sculptured fist continuously beats away at an imagined body. Goldman explains to The Report, the juxtaposition of confession and machine. “Do we say our confessions daily in a mechanical way, out of rote, or is there something deeper going on?” he says.
Did he not think that his work was too humorous for serious art? “I use humor to overcome the hardships that I experience and I believe that is a good Jewish tradition.
There’s a kind of slapstick humor, which is funny, until you start to look into it,” he says.
Goldman came to Israel in 1985 with a Bnei Akiva group and settled with them on Kibbutz Shluchot, where he has been a fish farmer and camp director. His controversial art is now exhibited in Israel and abroad and (perhaps to underline his humor) he has even feminized his name to appear in an all-women’s show.
“Creating art,” he writes on his website “provides me with the opportunity to explore, test and express my connection, commitment, frustration, as well as love of Judaism. I see my art as a vehicle for promoting dialogue, a catalyst for provoking people into reevaluating their preconceptions, a medium for breaking down stereotypes and an opportunity for people of all walks of life to connect with their religion, culture and history.”
The current exhibition includes sculptures, videos, photographs, animation and a very comprehensive catalog, not only with all the works and an appreciation of them, but also articles covering the issues raised by the art.
Etgar explains, “It was important for me to have a rabbi’s opinion printed in the catalog as well as a religious, female academic to express her opinion.
“We're not selling popular stuff. It's much easier to sell pizza. Our message is not one that caresses you. Here, in our museum, you will see and hear things that are not so sympathetic.
Maybe you'll leave our exhibition with an elevated feeling – if not immediately, then later,” he says.
Another video shows the controversial process of becoming a convert, where a Beit Din (rabbinical court) of three men view a woman dipping naked in a ritual bath (mikveh). Opposite the video there are filmed responses by three rabbinic authorities explaining this peculiar custom, trying to justify it, on the one hand, and, on the other, expressing embarrassment at such a phenomenon.
Another of the secular artists, Shmuel Ackerman, depicts a palette with a difference.
He transforms this universal art object into a Jewish one ‒ instead of the usual hole for the artist’s thumb, he has cut out a Star of David. This makes it difficult and painful to place on one’s hand. Etgar tried. “I put my thumb in it and it hurt. Such is the difficulty of a Jewish hand putting itself in the wider community of artists.”
The exhibit shows the work of 30 artists.
“While some of the artists are from abroad, all have a strong Jewish identity and this was important for me. I wanted this to be an encounter within Judaism,” Etgar says. “There are artists from Mea She’arim and they have become our good friends. Even the most extreme of them – the Natorei Karta – were part of the group. They checked us as vigorously as we checked them. By way of art.”
Another innovation Etgar introduced in this show was its opening.
“There was no first night in the usual sense. We opened on a number of occasions when about 40 people came each time and received a guided tour. Otherwise, an “opening night” is chaotic, more social than artistic.”
As for the future of the gallery, he is less optimistic.
“The new generation doesn’t feel the same responsibility for supporting our work.”
Etgar is desperately looking for new donors to save this unique gallery, voted one of the top 10 in the world, from closure.
Perhaps the prayers of his religious artists will help him. If so, they have to by the end of this year, when the current exhibition is scheduled to close.