Jerusalem’s State of the Arts
This fall, Jerusalem’s Zion Square will be unrecognizable. The open plaza in the heart of Jerusalem that is often the site of demonstrations and vigils will be transformed into a lush, green grove. Some 50 trees will appear, planted in wooden boxes on wheels. Passers-by will be able to arrange the trees in configurations of their choice, pull up a bench and sit in the shade.
This temporary urban forest, called “Out of Zion,” is the work of artists from Muslala, a group devoted to urban renewal and creating art in public spaces. The project is part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, an annual showcase for local contemporary artistic expression.
“Zion Square is a space for protests, but it is also a space for dialogue,” said Season of Culture artistic director Itay Mautner. “We are interested in seeing what kind of sacred spaces and conversations emerge among the trees.”
People visit Jerusalem for many reasons. Traditionally, the Israeli capital has drawn spiritual seekers, history enthusiasts and those interested in the complexities of the Middle East. However, more recently, it has become a destination for increasing numbers of contemporary art lovers attracted by high-profile festivals like the Season of Culture, Manofim Contemporary Art Festival and the Jerusalem Biennale for contemporary Jewish art as well as opportunities to meet local artists one-on-one and appreciate their work.
Many Jerusalem artists, like most Israeli artists, do not define themselves as “Jewish artists.” Despite this, it is hard to deny the effect of the holiness of the city on artists living here.
While Tel Aviv remains the center of the Israeli visual art market, Jerusalem is becoming a hub for contemporary creative expression of all kinds, from performance art to street art to installations.
In the past, the Season of Culture took the form of a series of mini-events over the summer, focusing on a variety of artistic expressions, which were often not perceived by the public as part of one festival. This year’s Season of Culture is named after and will explore a single subject—mekudeshet (“sacredness,” in Hebrew)—in a condensed schedule of events taking place September 2 through September 24, during the intense three-week run-up to the High Holidays.
“Sacredness is at the core of so many of our problems, and also of so many solutions,” Mautner reflected. “It is the basic language spoken in our region.”
For Ram Ozeri, the founder of the Jerusalem Biennale, the notion of turning the religious city into a global focal point specifically for contemporary Jewish art is obvious.
“If Jerusalem is seen by the contemporary art world as peripheral, the world of contemporary Jewish art sees Jerusalem as the center,” Ozeri wrote in his introduction to the 2015 biennale’s catalog. What is clear to Ozeri, however, may be less so to many in the Israeli art world.
A disembodied lacy white wedding dress floated—suspended by helium balloons—above the walls of the Old City at the Tower of David Museum last fall. The haunting, headless bride, an installation titled Betrothed by Israeli artist Motti Mizrachi and inspired by Jewish folklore, signaled that the biennale was taking place (the next biennale will open in fall 2017). Over 150 Israeli and international artists exhibited their work in 10 different exhibitions held in seven different locations across the capital.
Contemporary Jewish art has long been a recognized field in North America among scholars, museums and artists. New York’s Jewish Art Salon and Jewish Artists Initiative of Southern California are two current examples of communities promoting the understanding and appreciation of contemporary Jewish art.
In Israel, artists have historically focused on trying to have their work seen as universal. “The concept of Jewish art is so foreign in Israel that even journalists with an allegedly Jewish or religious agenda paid no attention to the biennale,” said art critic David Sperber.
Ronen Eidelman, coeditor and founder of Erev Rav, a leading online art magazine in Israel, feels that highlighting the Jewish aspect of Israeli art is redundant.
“Can you talk about Israeliness without talking about Jewishness?” he asked.
Eidelman noted that those who call themselves “Jewish artists” tend to be religious American immigrants to Israel and suggested that there was a sociological issue at play, since they don’t have an “in” with the established Israeli art scene.
American-born, Jerusalem-based multimedia artist Andi Arnovitz, whose work has been shown around the world and is part of many private and public collections, takes issue with this approach. She unequivocally identifies as a Jewish artist.
“You need to separate between Judaica and art,” said Arnovitz, who is observant. “My art is about gender, religion and politics. My work is about points of conflict and tension within Judaism and the Jewish tradition, not dancing Hasidim.”
According to Arnovitz, there are many artists working as she does, with a Jewish lens cast on the world around them.
Arnovitz’s installation Exile, for example, which was displayed at the biennale, is composed of hundreds of small porcelain houses (some broken) encased in silk bags in the corner of a room. It is meant to provoke questions about what it feels like for the millions of refugees around the world to leave their ancestral homelands forever.
For another piece, My Worry Beads, the artist created over 350 oversized versions of the traditional worry beads, printed with words like “Terrorism,” “Militant Islam,” “White Sugar” and “Facial Hair.” Lashon HaRav—a play on lashon harah, meaning gossip, evil words and destructive language—is an arresting sculpture of hundreds of closely packed pink polymer clay and lacquer tongues wagging.
“Incitement comes in many forms. Very often, rather than uniting us, the language of today’s rabbis divides us,” the artist said in her description of the piece.
After she made aliyah in 1999, Arnovitz made pretty monoprints of Jerusalem. As time went on, she noted, she began to create works critical of the Israeli rabbinate’s role in religious life. Her focus shifted from landscapes to subjects like agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a Jewish religious divorce, or get) and what she sees as the rabbinate’s overemphasis on female modesty.
“As an immigrant, my art is fraught with the horror and disillusionment of living here,” she said. “I have been shocked, but I still care about this place. I’m not giving up on the system, but there is lots of work to do.”
A relatively new initiative provides support for women artists who live for the most part by the dictates of the religious system Arnovitz criticizes in her work. Studio of Her Own, founded six years ago as a way of helping Orthodox women artists get a foothold in the art world, is a unique cooperative. Initially, it offered entrepreneurship training in business skills to help artists establish careers. Over time, the initiative turned into a network of some 40 women artists—from sculptors such as Moriah Eder Plaksin to multimedia artists like Shulamit Etzion—working in Jerusalem and empowering one another.
All members of Studio of Her Own are art school graduates and are associated with religious Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Alon Shvut, Netanya and Ramat Gan. The group mounts at least two exhibitions a year in mainstream venues. In addition, it has secured a meeting and gallery space, a renovated former bomb shelter in Jerusalem’s Katamonim neighborhood that recently enjoyed a visit from Israeli First Lady Sara Netanyahu and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden.
“Identifying as religious is not an advantage in the Israeli art world,” said Heddy Abramowitz, a member of the group’s steering committee. “And it’s even harder for these women, because they come from a community and upbringing where art is not valued, where real art careers are not encouraged. These women are outsiders in their religious community and also in the art world, so they have created a community of their own.”
Although Studio of Her Own does not censor its exhibitions, a walk through “Women’s Work,” a recent show at the American Cultural Center in Jerusalem, reveals no nudity and is decidedly G-rated. For example, in Avigail Fried’s mixed-media Herzl Says, the figures are fully clothed.
A highlight of the exhibition was a painting titled Woman With a Pig by Renana Salmon. True to its title, a religious woman (her head covered with a scarf) is seen cradling a piglet as she would a baby; Salmon’s Girl was also part of the exhibition. Salmon grew up in the haredi city of Bnei Brak, left religion, and recently found her way back.
Other striking pieces included Bodyboat, a small multimedia installation by Etzion (modestly) depicting a paper boat “sailing” on parts of her body, and Dust Collector by Yehudis Marmatz. The latter was composed of cosmetics jars filled with dust she collected while cleaning her house between 2009 and 2013.
Despite the fact that Jerusalem is home to The Israel Museum, the country’s largest museum, and to Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Israel’s most prestigious art school, in the past the trend has been for young artists to leave the city for Tel Aviv, Berlin, London or New York.
That is no longer true today. Increasing numbers are not only staying, they are choosing, like Arnovitz, to come from abroad.
Sarah Zell Young, 27, arrived in Jerusalem in 2015 after completing undergraduate and graduate degrees in fine arts in the United States. “Being in Jerusalem feels right for nourishing my soul, and thus my art,” she said.
Her works also look at the connection between the personal and the religious. For example, in the digital mixed-media series “Parshat Metzora,” a print of soft sculpture and gouache on parchment deals with the Torah portion that describes a skin affliction or rash that infects the body and inanimate objects. In the work, Young herself is depicted blindfolded and ensnared by menacing root-like tentacles.
Young felt that when she was in the United States, her Jewish identity was fragmentary, that being Jewish was just a piece of who she was. “Now that I am here in Jerusalem, I confront my Judaism in my daily life,” she explained. “The environment is more charged and there’s a radical notion of hope.”
Solomon Souza, a 23-year-old expat from Britain, is also inspired by the energy of Jerusalem. However, Souza, who is religious, finds that paintings he does here are more public and less personal than ones he has made elsewhere. In fact, Souza’s art is so public that it can be seen all over the city’s Mahaneh Yehudah market. In the middle of the night, he has been spray-painting huge portraits of inspirational individuals (historical and contemporary) on the shutter doors of the market’s stalls. He’s been working for over a year on his “Shuk Gallery” and still has about half of the 360 shutters to cover.
It used to be that Mahaneh Yehudah was completely dead on Saturdays, but now residents and tourists stroll through it marveling at Souza’s vibrant street art depicting Golda Meir, Hannah Senesh, Menachem Begin, Henrietta Szold, Mahatma Gandhi and Daniel Pearl, to name just a few.
Jerusalem Season of Culture’s Mautner is inspired both by Jerusalem’s otherness and by its otherworldliness, and he is passionate about the art being made in the city. He admitted that creating and promoting contemporary art is easier to do in more modern, open cities. His goal, however, is not to turn Jerusalem into a New York, London or Tel Aviv.
“There is more depth, variety and interest here,” he said. “Jerusalem is the root of the root. Jerusalem’s lesson to us is that we can’t judge anything by its cover. It is a place of multiple identities and diversity that is inspiring.”
Art lovers from around the world who come to Israel’s capital quickly appreciate its sui generis nature. Rita Kersting, The Israel Museum’s contemporary art curator, arrived in Jerusalem four years ago from Germany. She credits the city’s attraction to its juxtaposition of old and new and combination of different religions, rites and rituals.
“There are such interesting artistic initiatives here,” she said. “It’s work to go up the mountain to Jerusalem, but it is well worth it.”