Jerusalem’s Art Shelter Gallery is probably the only social art gallery of its kind to operate in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. Noa Lea Cohn, the gallery’s director and curator, is quite sure of this: “There was a similar one in Brooklyn but it closed. Let’s say chances are there isn’t another one like it.”
The gallery, located in the center of the Mekor Baruch neighborhood in Jerusalem, was founded as an outlet for artists who came to realize they don’t have to choose between art and religion, Cohn explains.
It was established by newly religious public figures such as (former famed actor) Uri Zohar, Mordechai Arnon and the late Yitzhak (Ika) Yisraeli, for whom the gallery was named.
“They paved the way to opening the first gallery in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, giving art lessons to men and women separately, at a time when this community had no place to study art in a manner compatible with its values.”
Cohn joined during a Haredi renaissance, “largely due to these newly-religious people, who served as cultural agents bridging the two worlds, enabling the community to express itself in art.”
Cohn grew up in Netanya and came to art by chance. “I moved to Jerusalem after completing national service to study at a religious college. It was unusual then for a woman to devote time to religious studies. I believed it was my mission, but I ended up at Emunah College of Art. I saw it as a hint from above, showing me my destiny.”
She is 42, married with five children, and in addition to her work at the gallery is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish art at Bar-Ilan University.
When did you realize curating ultra-Orthodox art was your thing?
“After a few years studying art history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem I felt that in fact there was no artistic expression of where I came from, that I didn’t see myself on museum walls. I started looking for secular artists who had embraced religion four or five years ago as part of my Ph.D. research for my and realized I wouldn’t find my material in libraries. I began around and found this gallery. I discovered it was established by newly-religious people and I started volunteering as a curator. I became an active researcher.”
She quickly corrects the impression that the gallery is exclusively for ultra-Orthodox artists. Cohn exhibits the work of artists of all stripes, although the content must conform to standards appropriate for an Orthodox gallery.
“It’s important to expose the Haredi community to quality art, and it’s important that this is mediated with sensitivity,” she explains. Doesn’t art by its nature require freedom and absence of restrictions? She doesn’t believe so.
“As human creatures we live within boundaries and parameters, and I believe restrictions create something unique. The question is whether we understand what they were meant for and whether we are sensitive to the quality they create within ourselves.”
Cohn doesn’t define the religious affiliation of artists whose work is displayed in the gallery. “There are all kinds, I don’t subject them to a close examination.” It’s precisely modern art, she emphasizes, which enables the ultra-Orthodox worldview to better express itself. “The minute that art liberated itself from religion, Orthodox people could consume it more easily, partly because modern art does not go into areas which are sacred to other religions.”
And yet, notes Cohn, due to the rules of the art world Orthodox Jews tend to stay away.
“The question arises of whether we want to establish a parallel stream or to enter an existing field and create our own niche. This question is still being considered and things should become clearer soon. There are many shades of Haredi society and people on the inside know the nuances. They keep moving, with their fingers on the pulse.”
Cohn curates more than 10 exhibitions a year at Art Selter Gallery. They include “Popthodox/Black Humor” which was shown at the Jerusalem Biennale, a solo exhibition by Sarah Fuchs Asheri, who began showing her work at the age of 77; an exhibition by Hila Karbelnikov and “The Hidden Face,” portraits painted by Chana Goldberg from family photographs taken before the Holocaust.
The gallery is now holding its annual sale.
“I help artists promote their work and once a year I hold this kind of exhibition in order to help them to obtain exposure, to earn a living and to learn the rules of the game,” Cohn says.
What kind of people visit the gallery?
“All kinds; the novelty is that Haredim can come and consume art that suits its worldview. As a teacher in religious schools, I can’t send my students to every exhibition [in museums or other galleries]. I can send Orthodox art students to Art Shelter knowing it displays great art that respects their beliefs. There aren’t many galleries that sign off on this kind of position as part of their agenda without sacrificing quality and creativity. The limitations definitely pose a challenge.”
On the upper floor of the Jerusalem Theater, just outside Henry Crown Auditorium, there is a surprising exhibition called “Haredi-made: Product Design in the Haredi Community.” It includes the work of male and female artists and consisting of objects that are on the border between design and art.
The exhibition, which opened during Design Week and which continues through July 7, was initiated by Cohn. It’s likely that some of the artists stand out in the context of the communities in which they were raised.
One such artist is Marcelle Tehila Bitton, a graduate of a program for Haredim at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.
“I’m the daughter and granddaughter of women who married at 18,” Bitton says with a smile to explain why at 25 she is still single. “The matchmaker wrote that I was a recalcitrant match since I was picky and an artist.”
In a work called “Bride” she addresses her personal status, hanging on a wall items that single women bring to gladden brides at their weddings. They include candy, a white parasol and balloons. “The Hands Are Free,” meanwhile, is a white wig stand with a head scarf into which a cellphone has been inserted, as if to leave the wearer’s hands free for housework.
In a similar context is a work by Aniam Dery. Called “Omdot Betzipiot” (“meeting expectations” in Hebrew, but also something like “the pillowcases stand up), it consists of vertically placed pillow or challah covers. Cohn explains that Dery addresses the status and familial expectations of women in Haredi society.
Other works criticize daily practices that characterize Haredi society, by manipulating certain objects. Thus, for example, “The Way of Torah” by David Cohen shows a bookstand for reading, on which there is a pillow that looks like a book. “Oneg Shabbat” by Moran Asraf refers to the separate scouring pads found in the kitchens of kashrut-observant homes, one for meat dishes and one for dairy. Asraf made a Shabbat tablecloth from the pads, a choice that raises questions of gender and traditional role divisions in an Orthodox home.
“Haredi-made” includes a “religious bookshelf” created by the gallery. This includes objects that relate to sacred books found in every Haredi home. For example there are large pieces of popcorn, a metal tub and a box for donations. Some of the objects have explanatory labels or barcodes for scanning with a smartphone, which lead to videos edited by artist Hodaya Toledano. These explain the significance attached to each item in the Orthodox community, “one which far exceeds its functional purpose” says Cohn. “The items serve partly for separation, distinguishing and protecting boundaries.”
In addition to “Haredi-made,” Cohn is leading other projects outside the gallery. One is called “Grafidos” and will be placed in the Mekor Barukh neighborhood. “I reached the conclusion that we could change the way the neighborhood looks” she says. “We located five excellent ultra-Orthodox graffiti artists, we received some funds from the Jerusalem Foundation and from Mifal Hapayis, the national lottery, and we’re setting out, with each artist contributing his own approach.” The project will be launched the day after Sukkot and the artists will make their drawings with the help of the neighborhood’s children. “In the future, the place will be an art tourist destination in Jerusalem” concludes Cohn optimistically.
The gallery is supported by the Ministry of Culture and Sport, but is struggling with recent budget cuts. “It’s important that the city expands its support, both financially and physically” she says. “We need a large and appropriate location, just like any regular gallery. That way we’ll be able to consolidate our extensive operations, which fulfill the cultural needs of a large segment of Jerusalem’s residents, which doesn’t yet have galleries which speak its language. The gallery has just started a dialogue with the Culture Ministry to find an operating budget for its growing activities and for one-time events such as place-making (an activity which changes the municipal landscape, N.R) in Haredi neighborhoods, as well as for setting up a designated space for ultra-Orthodox artists. Preparations are already under way for the centenary of Mekor Barukh, with the participation of local residents. We’re looking for the right way to connect the Haredi community with the art world.