Snapshot: 78 Artists Depict the 'Benevolent' Tree

Photographer Gustavo Sagorsky, who teaches of photography at Bezalel Academy of Arts, is one of the participants in an exhibit on the olive tree at the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery.

Tal Niv
Tal Niv
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Gustavo Sagorsky, “Sonia,” 1998-2014, from the exhibition “The Benevolent Tree,” Umm al- Fahm Art Gallery, opening Sept. 13.
Gustavo Sagorsky, “Sonia,” 1998-2014, from the exhibition “The Benevolent Tree,” Umm al- Fahm Art Gallery, opening Sept. 13.Credit: Courtesy of the artist
Tal Niv
Tal Niv

1. The anemones are real. The olive tree is real. The woman is real. The relationship is real. Gustavo Sagorsky, the photographer, and Sonia Sagorsky met in 1998 and he’s been taking her picture ever since. At home. On the bed. In the bath. Pregnant. In his studio. Documentary photographs in the nude. Her stomach is flat. Jeans. With their children. The sons. Two, in the living room at home. In close-up. Against a backdrop of a map of the world. He doesn’t serve her to the viewers to be consumed, eaten up, but looks at her the way one looks at a real person. Not like a prize, a trophy, not like a toy, not like his achievement. Or like “something” he has and others don’t.

“Sonia in the Valley of the Cross,” from March 2003, is a photograph taken by a person who is looking at his life partner at a certain stage in their partnership, not at the very beginning. And not so others will look at her as an object of stimulation – at her, period. As a separate, whole individual.

It is a particularly charming photograph, from the series that will be shown in the Jerusalem Artists’ House in October and will also appear in book form. Sagorsky, an Argentine-born (1975) teacher of photography at Bezalel Academy of Arts, Jerusalem-based, is expressive in a minor way. I think of Douglas Gordon’s bold, expressive, highly stimulating series about his home life, which I saw at the Tel Aviv Museum last year. His Israeli wife, her high heels, fish-net stockings. This is another kind of excellence. Sagorsky is tamed. On purpose. He does not try to describe Sonia as “worthy” to be desired by all men, every man. She is not, then, everywoman. I wish I could be looked at like this. I think of the dark, bad photos that were taken at night.

Its intentional romantic mistiness charms me. Its perspective, which becomes a secondary theme. The anemones in the front, magnified and red, the olive tree with its perforated trunk in the background, and between them Sonia, photographed from head to feet – not the opposite, not Cindy Sherman, not as in a painting by Courbet. Her eyes, not completely shut, are aware she is being photographed. She wears no makeup. Only a very small diamond earring. Loose sweater and jeans, half boots. Comfortable clothes, embracing, seemingly concealing her natural beauty.

Aner Gelem, “Monument,” 2012. Photo by Courtesy of the artist

2. And here she is, en face, in a later photo. Look at her like this and she is able to truly look back. Eyebrows arched. Gaze lucid. Hair disheveled, loose. Not dyed. Israel is concealed behind her. On the right is India; on the left, western Africa and the boot of Italy. She is the origin of the world.

3. Yet it’s the olive trees, the perforated trunk and not the anemones, that connect to an exhibition in which Sagorsky is now participating: “The Benevolent Tree,” which opens tomorrow at the Umm al-Fahm Art Gallery (curator: Daniel Kahana). Seventy-eight artists are showing works on the theme of the olive tree. Yes. A brilliant curatorial stroke. It’s not self-evident, but we can see that for Sagorsky, even in a photograph whose romanticized mistiness does not cloud its essential sharpness – “Beit Safafa,” from 2013 – the surroundings are important. The location of them. What is there to say? The olive is our tree in this place. For Sagorsky, looking at Sonia, for art, and for all the Israelis and the Palestinians altogether.

4. The gallery in Umm al-Fahm is showing mixed-media works, including photography. I’m looking now at a work by Aner Gelem, a 2012 Bezalel graduate. She has inserted the Washington Monument amid olive trees, across from the Kidron Valley. Clearly this is a symbol of cultural theft. I see the small American flags. I see the yellow-golden dome on the Temple Mount. An inspired pastiche – layers of cultural irony.

I’m reminded of a poem by Eli Eliyahu, who uses a direct style to describe his fundamental experience as a Mizrahi (a Jew of Middle Eastern descent). The poem appeared recently in the Hebrew version of Granta. I read it standing up in a bookstore, and what I thought was that there is no better time than now to curate an exhibition in Umm al-Fahm on the theme of the olive tree in Israeli art. Everything is falling apart here. Here is the poem, called "A Simple Thing":

Sagorsky, “Beit Safafa,” 2013. Photo by Courtesy of the artist

It’s not a simple thing – you don’t

make the clubs from olive branches. It’s not a simple

thing at all – you don’t build the walls from

Sagorsky, “Sonia,” 1998-2014, to be exhibited at the Jerusalem Artists’ House. Photo by Courtesy of the artist

the thrown stones. It’s not easily understood. Where the house

stood there is a mound of dust. And dust, after all, is where

we came from, so it is written. It is not a simple thing

to be in someone else’s shoes.

But sometimes it seems to you that you

really remember, the sheep,

the mosque,

the well.

(Translated by Ralph Mandel)

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