Women’s leadership

The ‘Fantastic Reality’ exhibition includes a brief story of Jill & Joe Biden, a bomb-shelter gallery and a breastfeeding artist

GERMANY-BASED Palestinian artist Nasrin Abu Baker’s ‘Woman, Cactus, Fish Red Crescent’ treads a fine line between Eastern and Western mindsets, and feminine and masculine sensibilities. (photo credit: DANIEL RACHAMIM)
GERMANY-BASED Palestinian artist Nasrin Abu Baker’s ‘Woman, Cactus, Fish Red Crescent’ treads a fine line between Eastern and Western mindsets, and feminine and masculine sensibilities.
(photo credit: DANIEL RACHAMIM)
Whichever way you look at it, incredibly, in 2020 it is still a man’s world. It boggles the mind to think that in this modern seemingly broad-minded world of ours with, for example, all sorts of gender – or non-gender – categories, single-sex marriages etc., by and large women still struggle far harder than their male counterparts to land an executive rank in some organization, or achieve equal footing when it comes to monetary rewards for sporting achievements.

So what does it take for a woman to get to any kind of leadership position? Or how about just plain-old speaking her mind and being listened to? That conundrum becomes even more challenging when the female figure in question comes from a conservative-leaning background.

That is the case with the majority of the 26 female artists – Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze – who took part in the Women’s Leadership in Culture program initiated by Yeala Hazut Yanuka and Zipi Mizrachi, and which took place in 2018 and 2019 under the auspices of the US Embassy in Israel.

“Zipi and Yaela are both alumni of a US Embassy exchange program,” notes Alison Brown, assistant-cultural attaché, US Embassy Jerusalem. “Their outstanding Women’s Leadership in Culture initiative won the US Department of State’s worldwide Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund competition, due to its contribution to promoting US government priorities in Israel, building bridges between Jews and Arabs, and empowering women and minorities to contribute fully to the country’s economy and culture.”
The project, naturally, yielded a slew of arresting artistic creations which, to date, have been shown to the public in Lod and also at Beit Hageffen in Haifa. Now Jerusalemites can grab an eyeful of some of the fruits of the challenging and formative ground covered by the artists in the Fantastic Reality exhibition, curated by Natalie Peselev Stern, currently being housed at the Studio of Her Own art center for religious women artists, on Kaf Tet B'November Street.
The center was founded 10 years ago by Mizrachi, who also serves as center director, and is supported by the Jerusalem Foundation and the Genesis Prize Foundation.

If you are not familiar with the center, I would strongly suggest you get yourself over there – naturally in keeping with whatever lockdown or other Purple Badge constraints are in force at the time. For starters, the building itself is a wonder to behold. It was built by a wealthy Arab Jerusalemite by the name of Salman more than a century ago.

Following the War of Independence it became the home and studio space of Pinchas Litvinovsky, a Russian painter who came to Palestine in 1919 at the behest of Boris Schatz whom he befriended in Russia. Schatz persuaded Litvinovsky, who became a leading light of the international arts scene, to come to Jerusalem to attend the Bezalel Art School Schatz had recently established.

Architecturally, the art center premises incorporate numerous Arabic elements, but Litvinovsky’s spirit, and even some of his personal paraphernalia, have a strong presence on the inside too, three-and-a-half decades after his passing. Another intriguing local historical footnote is that the assistant of the one of the British High Commissioners here was a tenant of the aforesaid Arab owner.

The Fantastic Reality exhibition certainly moved into august surroundings that demanded some deft rudder manipulating by Peselev Stern.

“This is the hearth Litvinovsky installed when he moved in here,” Mizrachi explains, indicating an impressive work of red brick that takes up the whole of a wall of one of the rooms. “He also installed a sauna,” she adds. Both spots have been suitably incorporated into the show.

MUCH OF the fireplace facility is taken up by an eye-catching and thought-provoking installation by Moria Eder Plaksin called Teuna (Fully Charged). As the work fuses ceramic receptacles with cellphone charger cables and plugs, the title is pretty self-explanatory.

Eder Plaksin posits that baggage, or loads, of a personal nature are inherent to both kinds of objects: the technological and earthy, more natural artifacts.

“Anything can be charged. I can take a lump of clay and put in on the potter’s wheel and charge it with my own feelings and understanding.” That, she says, can help us reflect on the way we conduct ourselves in varying circumstances, and how the things and people around us leave their imprint on our thoughts, feelings and actions.

“We can look at, for example, at a work of pottery and consider what motivates us to behave in a certain way. We have to take a step back and consider what suits us and what is not appropriate for us at any given moment.”

The 36 year old Lod-based multi-disciplinary artist has a history of creating surprising interfaces between materials and objects of very different ilks. That generally entails marrying traditional and new materials which, she says, “raises questions regarding contemporary culture and technological development.” Eder Plaksin’s oxymoronic approach to the substances and objects she coaxes into her evolving artistic idiom exudes energies and elicits responses that echo the eyebrow-raising rejoinder she evokes from art consumers across the globe.

“I have been doing this for quite a few years now,” she notes. “I had a work which combines Wedgewood porcelain vessels with plastic Coca Cola bottles.” That struck a chord across geographic and cultural borders. “It has been exhibited all over the world, for over 10 years, including at the Victoria and Albert Museum [in London].” The coalescing of seemingly contrasting artistically created objects with common or garden materials not only affords an intriguing added value, it also draws the public into her developmental dialogue. Some might see Teuna as a left-field line on where we are at in terms of technological advances, and how far we are distancing ourselves from Mother Earth, which also leaves us with a somewhat incongruous material encounter.

In fact, Eder Plaksin says there is an even deeper, and darker, subtext to the piece in question.

“My starting point for this was the aesthetics of the cables. We have become so accustomed to seeing cables all over the place. The human brain has reached a point whereby it represses that. There is something violent in this aesthetic. So I tried to present that in a different way. It is all a matter of perspective.” Eder Plaksin is also painfully aware of the disdain with which cultural and artistic endeavors are treated in certain quarters, including by some of the powers-that-be with their political hands on the country’s purse strings. She feels that her output, at least, is accessible across the board, and that there is no high-falutin’ intent in her artistic mix. “I think people can connect with this, and with the exhibition as a whole. You don’t have to be an art critic to get something from it. And I think it leaves you with some food for thought.” Eder Plaksin has been a member of the Studio of Her Own group since its inception in 2010. The cooperative, which was created to support young religious women artists in Jerusalem, has done the rounds since it began operating out of a bomb shelter in the Katamonim neighborhood.

“Yes, we moved around quite a lot, and worked from all sorts of spaces in Jerusalem,” Mizrachi notes. Less than chic surroundings notwithstanding, the program attracted some attention from lofty circles. “A few years ago, when Joe Biden was vice president, he came to Israel and his wife wanted to see a cultural organization while she was here,” she continues. “Mrs. Biden chose us. It was quite funny, seeing her with her security people and all that in our bomb shelter gallery,” Mizrachi chuckles. “And one of the artists had given birth a month earlier, and she had to nurse her baby, with Mrs. Biden and her whole entourage hanging around. That was funny.” Presumably the Biden visit, infant-feeding requisites regardless, did the Hazut Yanuka-Mizrachi initiative no harm either.

THE WOMEN’S Leadership in Culture program featured monthly gatherings, of the 26 artists, in Lod, Haifa and Jerusalem. Part of the thinking behind the activity was to empower the participants and to allow them to express their thoughts and feelings. The motley makeup of the groups sometimes made for widely-divergent views and heated discussion.

“There were Arabs and Jews, religious and not so religious women, settlers, all kinds,” says Nasrin Abu Baker, a Muslim who hails from the Galilee.

Abu Baker has a couple of works in the Fantastic Reality exhibition. They are striking paintings that, similar to Eder Plaksin’s ethos, convey a binary line of thinking, although Abu Baker’s dual-stratified output references very different emotional and cerebral fields.

Both exhibits clearly feed off the interface between Eastern and Western cultures. Woman, Cactus, Fish Red Crescent – the title basically spells out the figurative content of the acrylic painting – conveys intercultural messages aplenty.

“The figure with the fish, I think is sturdy and a bit grotesque,” Abu Baker says. That is not hard to catch, but there is also a degree of tenderness there too, as the character treads across prickly cactus leaves as she cradles the outsized fish.

The artist says she has been searching for her identity since the word go, and she is continuing along her path of self-discovery currently as a master’s degree student in Leipzig, Germany. Now in her forties, and quite a few years after completing a BA at Beit Berl College, Abu Baker says she is grateful for the opportunity to return to an academic environment, and also to feed off different cultural and social vibes.

“There is more focus on the individual in Leipzig, and less of the collective in Germany as a whole,” she observes. “I have my own issues to address – social, female, political aspects, all that is built in – but the presentation of all that is different.” Abu Baker comes across as a strong character who over the years has made a habit of challenging accepted wisdom, on political, social and gender role-related matters. She says the Women’s Leadership in Culture program was an instructive time for her and, basically, ran along similar lines to the creative continuum.

“There were arguments between the participants [of the leadership program], but we didn’t meet up to agree on everything.” It took a little while for the dust to settle. “I was a bit apprehensive at first, and I had all these clichés to deal with, but we learned to be respectful of each other, without pretense.” Sounds like a good foundation for creative pursuits too.

Peselev Stern says she and the artists embrace the balance between dispute and commonality.

“Fantastic Reality is an exploration of the participating artists’ escapism into fantasy from a stance of strength and determination. This is a turning point at which reality must reinvent itself to enable cautious hope, if only slight hope, and imbue it with vitality.” There is plenty of all the aforementioned across the exhibits, their textures, cultural and personal intent, and the artists’ drive to get their heartfelt message across come what may.

The project, naturally, yielded a slew of arresting artistic creations which, to date, have been shown to the public in Lod and also at Beit Hageffen in Haifa. Now Jerusalemites can grab an eyeful of some of the fruits of the challenging and formative ground covered by the artists in the Fantastic Reality exhibition, curated by Natalie Peselev Stern, currently being housed at the Studio of Her Own art center for religious women artists, on Kaf Tet B'November Street.
The center was founded 10 years ago by Mizrachi, who also serves as center director, and is supported by the Jerusalem Foundation and the Genesis Prize Foundation

Fantastic Reality closes on October 30. More information: studioofherown.com/en/studio-of-her-own-womens-art-center/