Jerusalem art comes out

The Orthodox homosexual and lesbian community is on display at a provocative exhibition.

gay art (photo credit: Courtesy)
gay art
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It's safe to say that no one pays too much attention to an artist's sexual preferences these days. Similarly, holding an exhibition of works by religious artists doesn't always set the public's imagination on fire. However, try combining homosexuality with religiosity, and you are more than likely to get some kind of response from the public. Last Tuesday the "Out of the Sacred Closet - Beauty, Belief and Identity" exhibition opened at the Hadassah Art Gallery. The exhibition comprises 14 works by homosexual and lesbian artists, all of whom come from a religious background. The opening was attended by some 250 people and, in the intervening week, the event has sparked something of a media storm with widespread coverage in this country and, to date, has also attracted the interest of reporters from Holland, Spain and the United States. Ofra Zucker, who curated the exhibition, makes no bones about the marketing intent. "We looked for a name that we thought would pique people's interest and get them to come to the exhibition," she says. "There are so many artists with works to show, and we looked for something that would be a bit provocative and also convey the general idea behind the works." The Hebrew title is even more suggestive. Literally translated, the first part of the name, "Yotzim Me'aron Hakodesh," means "Coming out of the Holy Ark" - a clever play on words that gets the message across in no uncertain terms. "That describes the artists' declaration of their sexuality, as well as the religious content - the Holy Ark," Zucker explains. "That's what the exhibition is based on. The artists here want to show there is no clash between their sexual preference and their religious upbringing." Avi Rose certainly has no problem combining the two. In 2006, New York-born, Toronto-bred Rose, a doctor of psychology by academic training and now a Jerusalem-based purveyor of Jewish education, and his British partner became the first homosexual couple to be recognized as such by the Interior Ministry. "My father is a rabbi and I have three brothers who are rabbis, and they have all been very supportive of me," says Rose, who has two paintings in the exhibition. His works offer a new angle on classic Zionist posters of yesteryear. In one of his paintings, for example, the original image of a benign Zionist man nurturing an adoring youngster's nascent pioneering spirit has been replaced by two male adults with a youth in a similar adulatory pose. "That conveys the idea of a male couple having a family," explains Rose. But while Rose has enjoyed the support of his family, that isn't always the case. "There are a lot of homosexuals and lesbians who go through a lot of suffering because of their sexual identity," says Dina Berman, a member of the Bat Kol Jerusalem-based center for religious lesbians, who has several works in the exhibition. "That's why some of the artists preferred to exhibit their works anonymously." "I haven't even met some of the artists," adds Zucker. "Normally, when I curate an exhibition, I spend time and get to know the artist first. But that wasn't possible with all of them this time. Some of them didn't even attend the opening." Still, the very fact that the exhibition is taking place at all, and in Jerusalem of all places, indicates that the lot of the local LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) community has improved over the years. "You know, my husband and I would not be recognized as a married couple in New York or London," Rose states simply. "That's got to mean something. I think, despite its image and all the religious and historic importance here, Jerusalem makes room for all strange permutations of people. I honestly don't feel, today, it is much of a challenge being gay and living in Jerusalem." While some of the works convey a sense of struggle - either with identity or with social acceptance - the general sense is one of muted protest, if at all. There is a fascinating prescient piece exhibited by 35-year-old film director, producer and photographer Abigail Sperber that includes two photographs of herself and her brother when they were small children. In one picture the siblings are shown in their normal clothes; in the other, they have swapped their clothing and their hairstyle. The photos were taken by Sperber's religious mother when, naturally, she would have had no idea of her daughter's eventual sexual identity. Above them is another photograph, taken by Sperber, depicting the fingers of a hand pointing forlornly upward, in sharp focus in the foreground, with a fuzzy image of a woman's prostrate body in the background. "The pictures of Abigail and her brother switching identity are amazing," says Rose. "It's almost weird how her mother captured something no one - probably not even Abigail - knew would happen so many years later. And the photo with the hand is very powerful. There's a lot of pain in there." Sperber is a founding member of Bat Kol. Angst - and the sexual and religious leanings of the exhibitors - apart, there really isn't anything too shocking about "Out of the Sacred Closet." If, for example, you bear in mind such socially challenging artistic endeavors as actor Leonard Nimoy's renowned and reviled Shekhina project, which shows women in various states of nudity with tefillin and talitot wrapped around them, the shock factor of "Out of the Sacred Closet" pales. Says Rose, "I think some of the Israeli press were a bit disappointed that we haven't been too controversial. I think they would have liked to see, say, two guys with tefillin making out. The foreign press get it, but I think the Israeli press are looking for something juicier." To date, the exhibition has attracted a wide range of response. An article about it on the Ynet Web site has, thus far, elicited close to 200 comments ranging from "this is an abomination," "disgusting" and reminders of the prohibition in the Torah against sexual activity between two males, to "well done" and expressions of passive tolerance of homosexuality in general. Some have also opined that knowing the artists' sexual preference may color the way the observer relates to the works of art. Rose feels the two go hand in hand. "I want to be taken seriously as an artist, but in this case the art serves another purpose, which is to highlight this particular issue. I think art has always been not just for art's sake but also to challenge society. If I can have an image of two men staring at each other lovingly and that is in some way provocative only because it's two men, then it's a really big statement about how far we haven't come." Zucker, for her part, feels the message is getting across. "About a third of the people who came to the opening were from the religious sector - including some who have become secular. A third came from Bat Kol and [Jerusalem-based gay Orthodox group] Hevruta [part of the Open House], and another third I'd call straight secular. One of the artists, who preferred not to be identified with her work and comes from the haredi community, came to the opening with her parents. That was wonderful to see. In contrast to other exhibitions, which are judged solely on the quality of the work, I'd say this exhibition is judged half on the basis of the exhibits and half because of the sexual identity of the artists. I think it's very important to make that point. This is a gallery that serves all sectors of the community. That's our job." "Out of the Sacred Closet - Beauty, Belief and Identity" is open from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. through April 26 at the Hadassah Art Gallery at Rehov Dor Dor Vedorshav 7A. For more information, call 561-9165 or visit