Art after motherhood

Religious women artists who have delayed the creative side of their careers are exhibiting in Tel Aviv.

Religious jewish art (photo credit: AVNER BAR HAMA)
Religious jewish art
(photo credit: AVNER BAR HAMA)
A common view of religious women, among secular Israelis, is that they are probably too busy bringing up their children and taking care of the housework to bother with “extracurricular” activities. That idea is, of course, very much a generalization – and becoming increasingly outmoded.
When one looks at the works that make up the “Borders” art exhibition – which is due to open at the Office Gallery in Tel Aviv on October 28 and run until November 14 – it becomes immediately apparent that women in the religious sector are making great strides in artistic and cultural matters.
“There is increasing awareness in the religious community of the desire to create art and to exhibit works,” says “Borders” curator Avner Bar Hama, himself a noted religious multidisciplinary artist.
“This didn’t happen 10 or 15 years ago.”
It seems that the catalyst for this new openness comes from the education community.
“There are two colleges in Israel that train art teachers – Talpiot College in Tel Aviv and Emuna College in Jerusalem,” he continues. “These programs produce art teachers, but of course, the students also study the various fields of art. When they graduate, these women, who are religious, usually become good teachers and good mothers, but the business of creating art falls by the wayside.
They use all the skills and knowledge they acquire over the four years of study to teach, but not really for making art themselves.”
Bar Hama himself served as department head of Emuna College for 20 years, and decided a while back to grab the bull by the horns.
“I set up a master class, and I contacted all the [female religious] graduates of Emuna and places like [the Bezalel School of Art and Design], and I used the master class to teach them to engage in contemporary art. Some of them are excellent realist artists but do not have much to do with contemporary art, and that’s a pity. Contemporary art engages more in expression and making statements, and less with portraying reality.
The master class has produced quite a few artists who are now active in contemporary art.”
That is evident from the works that will be on display at the Office Gallery next week. There is a wide range of subjects, artistic formats and subtopics within the theme of borders. Political minefields are not sidestepped: A work by Ruth Ariel, for example, unabashedly highlights the West Bank as a clearly separate entity, in various shades of green and brown/orange, in a map of the region.
Two of the more emotive items in the show are by Devora Nachum-Sarig.
One, called simply Untitled, is a basic house shape made of barbed wire. In the exhibition catalogue, Nachum-Sarig explains that the work relates to her relationship with the world around her as a former battered wife who is now rebuilding her life with her second husband: “The boundary [with the world] was trampled many times and I felt like an object, and despite the years that have passed, and even though I have rehabilitated myself since then, the pain is still there simmering. So I wanted to show that there is a fence between me and the world, and that I will decide when to open it.”
Her other work is an animal trap shaped like a house.
It also appears that the religious women artists are not afraid to touch on areas – and artifacts – that might be considered taboo in Orthodox circles. Ofra Kirschenbaum’s Bishvil Hashvil (For the Path) features what looks like an extract from a Torah scroll, with strips of parchment or cloth stuck to the scroll-like base in a maze shape, and a text written over it.
“The works are special, and the artists convey strong messages through them,” notes Bar Hama. “It is quite surprising that women from the religious community are willing to expose themselves, both artistically and also in terms of the message they want to put out.”
At the end of the day, of course, that is what the whole exhibition is about.
“I chose the subject of borders because I was interested to see how far borders can stretch,” says the curator. “There are all sorts of borders. I just gave the artists a launching pad, and they took the topic wherever they wanted.”
Michal Halevy’s work Besha’at Hane’ila – meaning “At Closing Time” or “At the Time of the Ne’ila Prayer Service” – is made of plaster, wiring and cloth, and examines the position and role of women in Orthodox synagogue services.
“I ask myself to what extent women envelop themselves within the border, internalize the partition,” notes Halevy, “how much they accept their place at the back, as part of their identity, possibly as an ideology, at a time when the number of women’s prayer services is increasing, but women still sit at the back of the bus on mehadrin routes [gender- separated bus lines].”
Several artists have opted to examine the interface between local flora and Jewish sources. Racheli Stern’s Whisper and Amulet is based on the icon of the pomegranate.
“The pomegranate is a fruit whereby most of its process of growth straddles the border between fruit and flower,” notes Stern. “The boundary between its state as a flower or a fruit is unclear most of the time. And, unlike other fruits, the flower of the pomegranate does not wither and die when the fruit grows. It continues to flower until it turns into the crown of the pomegranate we all know so well.”
She took her inspiration for the work from a verse in the Song of Songs, which reads: “Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with choice fruits.”
While many commentators place the verse in an erotic context, Stern follows the interpretation of Rashi, who understood “your plants” to refer to a barren land. The artist sees “an orchard of pomegranates” as conveying the idea of the fruit as a symbol of life, fertility and abundance – even in a barren land.
Bar Hama is greatly encouraged by the works, and by the artists’ eagerness to put their creations out there.
“There are some wonderful works and some bold statements [in the ‘Borders’ exhibition]. It is quite surprising that, in the religious community, women are willing to expose themselves, both artistically and in a very meaningful way, each in her own way. But, of course, I called the exhibition ‘Borders’ so it was natural for the artists to try and see how far they could go.”
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