Jerusalem Censored This Israeli’s Nude Art, Then Denied It. ‘Soon They’ll Say There Was Never an Exhibit’

After the Jerusalem Municipality told Israeli artist Sara Benninga it would not display her art, which includes nude figures, in a municipal gallery, they denied censoring her. Now she wants to warn against shutting these conversations down

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Sara Benninga. 'It was a completely delusional response.'
Sara Benninga. 'It was a completely delusional response.'Credit: Michal Fattal

Artist Sara Benninga is weathering an emotional tempest. Late last month, her exhibition “Krovot” was scheduled to open in the Beita Gallery on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem – her lifelong home. The exhibition, curated by Avital Wexler, included eight large paintings by Benninga, as well as statues from concrete and wood by sculptor Rachel Rotenberg. But the Beita exhibition did not open.

Two days before the scheduled opening, Benninga received a message from the Jerusalem municipality’s culture department. It said that her exhibition could not be displayed at Beita Jerusalem, a municipal art gallery owned by city hall – because her works included nudity.

If there wasn’t artistic intervention and censorship, then what was their reason?

Sara Benninga

A painting by Benninga currently on display at the Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem.Credit: Michal Fattal

The next day, Benninga, Wexler and Rotenberg received an invitation from the curatorial staff and management of the Museum on the Seam, a private museum in the capital that receives little public funding, to move the exhibition there. It opened earlier this month, and spans the entire second floor of the museum.

Like everywhere in Jerusalem, this location is explosive, too. It is close to the Green Line and Haredi and Arab neighborhoods. But unlike municipal galleries, entrance to the Museum on the Seam costs money, and it is less accessible that Beita, which is near the Mahaneh Yehuda market.

A few weeks ago, a group of 160 artists sent a letter to Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon and Ariela Rejwan, the head of the city’s Culture, Society, and Sports Administration and deputy director general. The artists wrote they were protesting the city’s intervention in the content of the exhibition, and that they would refrain from exhibiting their work at the city’s municipal galleries unless officials apologized for their decision to censor “Krovot,” and declared it would no longer interfere in the content of exhibitions.

In response, Leon denied any connection to the incident, and a statement from his bureau said that the culture department was responsible for the process. Rejwan’s response to the artists’ letter was also surprising. Benninga recalls the wording of the message the municipality sent her about cancelling the exhibition, but Rejwan claimed in her response that “your letter is puzzling, as there was no artistic intervention or censorship. I will be happy examine the details of the incident.”

“It was a completely delusional response,” Benninga told Haaretz in an interview conducted at the Museum on the Seam. “They could have said, ‘we made a mistake.’ They could have gotten out of it. But to say nothing happened? To deny it completely? It’s a very strange response. How can you say such a thing?”

She adds, “Would I like to know what happened from their perspective? In my view it’s the most terrible way in which censorship works. It’s an attempt to erase the dialogue, to expunge the issue. Next they’ll say there wasn’t an exhibition. If there wasn’t artistic intervention and censorship, then what was their reason?”

Sara Benninga.Credit: Michal Fattal

To anyone following the Jerusalem municipality’s policy in recent years toward frictions in secular-ultra-Orthodox relations, this denial is unsurprising. In cases of a potential clash between the communities, the municipality usually sweeps them under the rug until they disappear from public discourse. About two years ago, for example, photographer Alma Machness-Kass’ street exhibition, which included photographs of female soccer players, was vandalized. The city paid for the photos to be reprinted, but refrained from making any moral statements against vandalizing images of women.

“If the city has so much power and can shut down an exhibition so quickly, why don’t they work on catching people who damage pictures of women in public? Or Lehava members?” Beninga asks, referring to the far-right anti-miscegenation group. “It seems they’re smart when it comes to doing what’s easy. Our exhibition wasn’t a provocation. It didn’t display paintings of nudes facing the street – the goal was art.”

When asked whether she things the new government has any influence on the decision, she says, “That’s one of the assumptions. Jerusalem’s municipal council is ultra-Orthodox, the government is rightist, religious, un-feminine – it certainly can be related.” She adds, “On that note, keep in mind that Miri Regev, as culture minister, started this trend in which public funds belong to the minister. What’s that about? We all pay municipal fees and taxes. It’s not the minister’s money and it doesn’t belong to the municipal clerks. It’s public money, and no one has the right to intervene in artistic decisions.”

The decision to censor the exhibition led to numerous responses from members of the cultural sphere, heads of institutions and Jerusalem residents. The president of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Adi Stern, and his deputy Liat Brix Etgar, wrote a letter to the women of the city’s culture department, expressing concern over the decision to censor works of art and not to open the exhibition at Beita Gallery.

“Public galleries must remain an open space for diversified art, meeting and discussion, while maintaining excellence and respect for their work,” they wrote, suggesting a public discussion on the issue.

Benninga, who teaches at Bezalel and is a consultant for the school’s ultra-Orthodox branch, expounds on the letter: “Bezalel is also worried. The academy is now moving into a transparent glass building. It’s not like they’re going to deliberately hang nude paintings facing the municipality, but of course there will be all sorts of content. Are they going to start saying, ‘this is okay and this isn’t’? What does censoring an exhibition convey to students in the city? Who will want to stay in the city?”

And what keeps you here?

“I live here and I’m not budging. My family’s here. My studio is here. I have small children. I teach in the city and love it.”

A disciplined gaze

Apart from short trips for academic reasons, Benninga, 39, has lived in Jerusalem all her life. She currently works in a studio in the Baka neighborhood, lectures at Tel Aviv University and the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design on art history and researches art history in pre-modern eras. She completed her degrees at the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Bezalel, and over the years has displayed work in dozens of solo and group exhibitions nationwide.

The women in Benninga’s paintings are not portrayed realistically, but are suggested. Some of the figures are flat, displayed as a stain, and some in an outline. “As an art researcher and a former dancer, Benninga leans on old art traditions, but does so with contemporary, sometimes blatant directness,” writes Wexler in the text accompanying the exhibition. “The influences of the backgrounds and compositions of Matisse are perceptible in her drawings, as is that of the shapes of Gauguin’s figures.”

The text continues, “Manet’s famous painting ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe’ shows two nude women beside two dressed men at a picnic; the closer woman looks directly at the viewer. Benninga seeks to examine the goings-on in the garden of pleasures in its version as an exclusive feminine space. She excludes the men and turns the women’s gaze inward into the space in which they are present. By doing so, she grants the women freedom, and perhaps even to herself as a creator, from a male presence, from the accepted beauty standard, from surplus knowledge and from the need to be liked by the viewer.”

Benninga uses oil paint, acrylics, pigment and spray paint, combined with the cotton or linen color of the canvas. She works with drawing, sketching and printing media and integrates repeating patterns, large stains of color and brush strokes and oil-paint markers. In other paintings, Benninga uses a wild color palette.
The women she paints, using a nude model, are free from a disciplined gaze. “Throughout history, nude women were painted by men from a masculine point of view. I wanted to free women from the masculine point of view. It’s not a painting that should sexually arouse the artist’s patron. My women are ugly, clumsy. I give feminine pleasure legitimacy, not in a provocative way. We teach girls to close their legs and sit nicely, while a man can sit with his legs open. I want to train women that it’s okay to sit in any way they find comfortable.”

Instead of normalizing nudity, she believes that the municipality took this mission a step backward. “Censorship actually stems from the increased desire of those who can’t overcome their urges.”

This kind of incident, she says, seals various communities further into their own spaces. She herself is secular, while curator Wexler and the artist Rotenberg who is exhibiting in the show alongside her are religious. In the interview, she repeatedly stresses that this was a missed opportunity for a dialogue with the religious and ultra-Orthodox communities.

“There were Haredim who said, ‘why is the municipality is speaking in our name?’ Who is the municipality that it represents all the ultra-Orthodox? The ultra-Orthodox are a diverse society. Haredim didn’t complain about the exhibition; it was secular people who decided to take it down and in the end, they’re the ones who are under fire. I wouldn’t have minded if Haredim had held a demonstration outside the gallery. Let them open this up for discussion. It’s not as if there was provocative or inflammatory content on display – but they shut down the discussion before it even began.”

Benninga adds that her anger stems in part from the fact that the curator, Wexler, took pains not to display the nude paintings facing the street, but rather “hid them,” and even put up a sign that “warns” viewers about their content. “Anyone who didn’t want to didn’t have to enter; it was explained in the sign that there are images of bodies in the exhibition. That’s as respectful as can be. Coming and seeing it was a suggestion – no one was required to encounter anything difficult or beyond their personal boundaries. It’s not like the exhibition includes some wild violation of the bodily space.

“I think that culture is oxygen for life,” she adds. “It’s a reflection of reality. And we need to defend its existence. It will always be here. Culture is something fluid, and it changes in accordance with the environment. The municipal galleries might display Judaica, but the question is whether that’s what we want them to show. Culture can be fertile ground for discussion, but any attempt at silencing is dangerous to our culture and life in this city.”

Another one of Benninga's paintings.Credit: Shai Halevi

How did the teachers at the Haredi branch of Bezalel, where you teach, react?

“When the whole thing started, I wrote to Rivka” – Vardi, the head of the Haredi branch of Bezalel. “I wanted advice or support, for her to know that this is happening, and I explained the situation to her. She didn’t give me an answer, she said that it’s complicated.”

What do you think about the way Bezalel is adapting art to the ultra-Orthodox?

“I wouldn’t define it that way. It’s not adapting art to the Haredim. There is a whole society that is trying to open up to contemporary art. It is their first time entering into this discourse. I believe, even though this is a group of girls who are different from me, that the ones who are coming to study at Bezalel are girls who are looking for more. Girls who are coming from a traditional society, and I think we need to learn about them, and little by little they’ll open up.”

Sculptor Rachel Rotenberg, whose art is presented alongside Benninga's in the exhibitionCredit: Courtesy of Rachel Rotenberg.

Is it not a problem that parts of art history are being erased?

“Studying at Bezalel is a sort of entrance. We don’t attack them straightaway with the most difficult content. It’s like how, when we do activities in [Arab-majority] East Jerusalem, we don’t go in a tank top. I want to be part of a dialogue. I’m sure, and I know that within Haredi society itself, there’s criticism of the Haredi branch of Bezalel. I think this is a start. And if a graduate of the branch wants to focus on topics of the human body, she’ll have to fill in the gaps. We’re all filling in the gaps, all the time. Offering the opportunity gives them an entrance. If there’s no bridge and we attack straightaway, then they definitely won’t learn anything.”

The blacklist

Though many people in Jerusalem came out against the municipality’s move, many artists and curators who work in Jerusalem are still afraid to make their voices heard. Behind the scenes, they say that the municipality, which controls the city budget, may use it to harm them.

“Most of the exhibition spaces in Jerusalem are public. Almost all the artistic and cultural events are supported by the municipality, and people are afraid to be blacklisted,” says one artist, who prefers to remain anonymous.

In the wake of the outcry, the municipality’s Hitorerut opposition caucus submitted a motion to establish a committee to “oversee and define all municipal galleries, and determine what content is permissible and worthy of displaying in each of them. This committee will define clear working procedures between the professional level at the municipality, the artists and the curators. In addition, the committee will clearly define for which audience each of the galleries is intended.”

In response to the move by Hotorerut, municipal council member Yochanan Vyzman of the Agudat Yisrael party, who represents the Gur Hasidim, sent a letter to Mayor Moshe Leon. According to the municipal plan, he wrote, the gallery was intended to be used by the Writers’ House Association, the Hebrew writers’ association in Israel. Therefore, the Beita Jerusalem’s gallery operations contradict the municipal plan’s specifications, and it should be restored to its original purpose – that is, the gallery should be closed.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon.Credit: Emil Salman

The Beita gallery, it should be noted, was established on a plot of land that is part of a private project – the Saidoff Houses. The official description of the project does indicate that the area is intended for the Writers’ House, but there are no stipulations beyond that. Last month, the city council, headed by Leon, rejected the Hitorerut proposal.

In response, Hitorerut chairman and city councilman Adir Schwarz released a statement: “Leon’s coalition stops at nothing and uses every means at its disposal to hurt the Zionist population in Jerusalem. After the exhibition was moved from its location at the very last minute, contrary to what had been agreed, we are now witnessing an attempt to shut down the gallery entirely. All this, alongside other moves, has only one goal, and that is to exclude from Jerusalem the secular, national-religious and traditional population. I am once again calling upon all the other elected representatives in Jerusalem who identify with this public to join us in our struggle for our home.”

The Jerusalem municipality responded: “Because it was understood at city hall that the exhibition includes content that may harm the delicate environmental fabric in which the Beita gallery is located, it was suggested to the artist to think together on an appropriate solution. She preferred, defiantly, to refuse any option for her own reasons.

“Multiple suggestions were proposed, some which even included moving the exhibition to a different municipal gallery, changing the opening hours and more. All of these were refused by the artist.” The statement continues, “There were never any objections raised concerning the nature of the art in the exhibition.” Benninga stressed that she was not presented with alternatives, save for changing the paintings shown in the exhibition.

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