Report to AIDA from Susan Braunstein
Henry J. Leir Curator at the Jewish Museum in the City of New York
December 31, 2015
I am writing to express my deepest gratitude at ha
ving been invited to participate in AIDA’s tour of Israel for curators of decorative arts this past summer. On so many levels, the trip was incredibly beneficial and left a deep impression on me, from the artists we met and the museum directors and curators who took time to speak with us, to making the acquaintance of my fellow tour members, and experiencing the country of Israel itself. The breadth of what we were exposed to – fine arts, decorative arts, cultural performances, professional and student work, Israelis and Palestinians – made for a rich feast that I feel extraordinarily privileged to have been invited to.
Meeting the artists was a particular pleasure, as they were so thoughtful and articulate about their work and experience. So much of what we saw I found beautiful and well-crafted. Those that embodied social messages and implications were particularly moving to me, such as Dafna Kaffeman’s exquisite glass plants and insects from the Land of Israel that she combined with phrases ripped from the newspaper headlines to underscore her political views. Meeting Marcelle Klein and Shlomit Bauman of the Benyamini Contemporary Ceramics Center was eye-opening as I learned of the challenges of championing ceramic production in Israel. Their achievement with the center is impressive; I found out later that my Israeli cousin has been taking classes there for some time. Not to be missed was seeing the graduate works at the two craft schools, Bezalel and Shenkar; there was much that was accomplished and fresh. I was particularly drawn to those that referenced Jewish experience. At Shenkar, a young observant woman about to be married created a series of seven white textiles reflecting the days of purification a bride undergoes before her wedding. At Bezalel, an Ethiopian woman’s massive wool capes and coats evoked the sense of a portable home that she craved while walking from Ethiopia to Israel. Another project that really thought outside the box was by a textile student at Bezalel, who chose to create a set of ceramic dishes made from impressions of various parts of her body, thereby carrying the notion of covering the body in new and challenging directions.
I was struck how, in many instances, living in Israel and its political and economic history influenced the artists either overtly or subtly. The issue of whether, in our globalist age, one should refer to artists working in Israel as Israeli or Palestinian artists was raised a few times by our group. While perhaps distinct nomenclature for artists is inappropriate, it became clear to me that it was difficult to untangle the local influences from the global. Ilit Azoulay’s work was inspired by a kind of urban archaeology, in which she “excavated” objects that were used as filler in cement block walls during a period when Israel’s single cement factory could not keep up with making homes for incoming waves of refugees. Curator Iris Fishof showed us jewelry to be included in an upcoming exhibition, some of which dealt with issues of fear and war, including brooches that represented the exploding missiles of the recent Gaza war. Asad Azi’s autobiographical paintings necessarily included painful moments from his childhood growing up as a Palestinian under the occupation.
Indeed, I could not help but be forcefully struck by the realities of living in Israel and the divisions within the society. Although one is aware of it from abroad, it was not until we were traveling around that the conflicts and fissures that arose between Israeli and Arab, settler and urban dweller, ultra-Orthodox and more secular Jews became palpable, with everyone seemingly divided into their own enclaves. I am therefore particularly grateful to Aviva Ben-Sira for the diversity of the program she presented, which included Palestinian artists and a visit to the Umm el Fahum Gallery. That visit has already borne fruit: the Director Said Abu Shakra and program director Ruth Oppenheim came to the Jewish Museum in early November to discuss the possibility of showing their artists here in New York. And indeed, many of the people we met were working in their own ways to erase these divisions, creating little grace notes of hope. Michal Rovner’s work using Israeli and Palestinian stonemasons to build a house together no doubt made a small contribution to mutual understanding, as might Sigalit Landau’s next project to create a bridge in the Dead Sea between Israel, the Palestinian territory, and Jordan.
The often grueling schedule would have been difficult to maintain without the warmth, humor, passion, knowledge, and intelligence of my fellow travelers – Stefano Catalani, Elisabeth Agro, Juta Paige and Annie Carlani. I learned much from them about the current field of decorative arts, and we all shared in the woes of being experienced curators in a changing museum landscape. It was also instructive to me to hear what they found exciting about what we saw. There was a lot of laughter and much bonding over fantastic meals, each seeming more intensely delicious than the last. Who knew there were so many ways to prepare eggplant? Presiding over all of us was Aviva, who was magnificent in every way. The program she created truly reflected the vibrancy of art and culture in Israel. Everything was chosen with excellence and diversity in mind and really exposed us to the experience that is Israel in all its complexity. She kept us moving, on schedule, informed, and incredibly well-fed, lifting us up with her enthusiasm, humor, and sheer force of personality when our bodies and minds sagged.
Our meeting-filled days were punctuated by several truly outstanding social/cultural events. The dinner at Marcelle Klein’s home, packed with artists, curators, and art institute directors, was incredibly lively and informative. It was also moving to have a Shabbat experience as all of us said the blessings and sang in the Sabbath. The performance piece at the abandoned Arab village of Lifta, part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, was outstanding – descending a difficult rocky path we encountered different poignant stories of those who had lived there, bringing home the complex history of two populations - Arabs and Jews - trying to exist in one land. At one point, we came across young men and women swimming in a pool, and in their bathing suits and cut-off jeans, it was at first impossible to determine if they were Jewish or Arab, a reminder about the humanity that we all share. The Batsheva Dance company performance was riveting and powerful, adding another dimension to my appreciation of the Israeli cultural scene.
All these experiences left indelible memories that I will carry with me always. I hope that there will be opportunities in the future to work with some of the artists that I was introduced to, and I look forward to maintaining contact with my fellow travelers for advice and ideas. Thank you to AIDA for making this all possible.
Susan Braunstein, the Henry J. Leir Curator at the Jewish Museum in the City of New York, recently visited Israel as a participant in AIDA's 2015 Curator Trip.