A Muslim Woman and a Gay Jewish Man Are the Perfect Couple in This Show

A new exhibition brings together the paintings of Anisa Ashkar, a female Muslim, and the late Moshe Gershuni, famous in part for his art’s homoeroticism

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Acre-born artist Anisa Ashkar, December 2020.
Acre-born artist Anisa Ashkar, December 2020.Credit: Uzi Tzur

Some combinations are experienced so intensely that we wonder how no one ever thought of them before. Such is the exhilarating and yet so-natural combination of the works of artists Anisa Ashkar and Moshe Gershuni. Curator Orit Mor mulled over this idea for a long time until she forged an asset that exceeds all expectations.

Ashkar, a female Muslim, and Gershuni (1936-2017), a male Jew famous in part for his works that include homoeroticism, ostensibly belong to different worlds, identities and generations. But in both their inner landscapes they bloom in black or colorful blossoms, expressing a pain that’s different yet shared.

Both artists imbibe from the Semitic space and take on the secular world while maintaining a mystical passion with which they collide and reconcile. Both wrap a religious cover around their personal pain, using a language of intimate "prayer."

Both come from a painful place of internal bleeding, the place of a minority (though different ones), creating art in the midst of a hostile majority that they amaze, tempt and win over. Both expand their internal world and work beyond the camp they belong to while remaining within the core of their art.

Upper right, two works by Anisa Ashkar honoring her mother, while at left is a 1996 diptych by Moshe Gershuni, including a handprint akin to Ashkar's palm, at Tel Aviv's Lobby Art Space, 2020.Credit: Uzi Tzur

With both Ashkar and Gershuni, you can’t distinguish between form and content, between their inner blaze and its realization in the language of art, with a material aspect always suffering the tension between the raw and the revealed. Both embody a constant strain between the abstract and the figurative (or a figurative art that arises from the abstract yet simultaneously retreats into it). All this is created through the connection between action and material, between imagination and mysticism.

Annihilation and creation

This tension arises from the biblical prohibition on the representation of figures and the sanctity of the word in Judaism and Islam, a tension between the image and the word as an essential component of the work, in the beauty of written Hebrew and Arabic, where the image and word retain their purpose and aren’t meant to illustrate or interpret each other. This is art embodying a yearning for unity and wholeness in areas of conflict, distrust or a lack of faith.

Both artists demonstrate an expressiveness that’s powerful yet restrained, formed by a wide emotional range and mental reserve. Both use black as a decisive component in which annihilation and creation become one, nothingness defining the path for what is; a black material into which residues of life have been ground in, with gold-yellow or the red of holiness used as a continuation or contrast.

Late Israeli artist Moshe Gershuni (1936-2017.)Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

The meeting between Ashkar and Gershuni isn’t forced or didactic, and the curating leaves them room to express themselves alongside each other. Ashkar’s works are framed, while Gershuni’s remain naked, and the symbiosis between the two confuses many visitors of the exhibition.

A highlight of this meeting are two works by Ashkar that contain the words “my beloved mother” – she rotates in her palm a mass of black paint, passing the touch of her mother’s hand to her body. The use of black to transmit a memory charges it with an unexpected layer of solemnity and pain, as a memory trying to wrap around a lump of gold that shines through a dark skin, distilling it like a beating mother’s heart, perhaps as a daughter’s umbilical cord that may or may not have been severed.

These two works surround a 1996 diptych by Gershuni consisting of prints of soft wax, a dry engraving, living acid and an electric pencil. (All of Gershuni’s works in this exhibition are large prints, but these are prints that, with their vitality and powerful material aspect, seem like originals, singing paeans to the artist.)

On the bottom right-hand side of the print is Gershuni’s black handprint, in a constant motion of sensation (just like Ashkar’s palm) that seems to hover over the work in which primordial life is being created by man and God. A line, crossing diagonally, is met by a full yet darkening moon that looks like a sample on a laboratory dish.

A 2016 work by Anisa Ashkar, as seen in the December 2020 exhibit with Moshe Gershuni's work at Tel Aviv's Lobby Art Space.Credit: Uzi Tzur

One of Ashkar’s most moving works in the exhibition is called “Power” – a word she uses to bolster herself during low times. It’s an anatomy that opens like a feminine body-flower, determined yet yielding, material yet refined.

From up close we can discern fans of capillaries passing across different patches of color, like a subdermal flow. Ashkar lays out a warm yellow that looks like petals, and a red-orange that resembles bleeding, splashing on the breastbone a spray of shiny black that flows onto the warm colors like a touch of death. She then kneads in a dark scarlet-like Bordeaux in acrylic and oil.

This work contains tension between a kaleidoscopic symmetry and a feminine-human violation of this symmetry, with the colors gaining power versus the black, which empowers them in return. It contains the simmering of a mother’s anxiety over the creation growing inside her, with the physical and emotional powers she possesses to face such angst.

Humanized heavenly bodies

This piece hangs separately, in a group of Gershuni prints from 1992, with Ashkar and Gershuni seeming to nourish and fertilize each other. The prints radiate beauty, containing, in a rhythmic lyricism, darkness pervading a yellow light, different from one print to another, changing forms.

In one it’s like an embryonic deposit in a womb, sending an umbilical cord nibbling at the edge of the light. Two red pupils peek through this light, like the traces of blood you might find in an egg yolk. The color red appears in other prints as a life-giving force.

More works by Ashkar and Gershuni at the exhibit.Credit: Uzi Tzur

A unique series in Ashkar’s work is the foursome on the dunes of Acre. Ashkar was born in this ancient, northern coastal city; it seems easy to decipher the paintings of her childhood landscape using a local code.

The painting is a landscape on an abstract set, with virtuosity tending toward calligraphy. I see in it black barbed-wire fences passing like wavelets from page to page, capturing wondrous fish of the soul, concentrated masses blazing with inner heat in a circle of humanized heavenly bodies.

These paintings capture the genius of Ashkar’s execution, a quick and almost solitary touch by the richness that lurks inside her, like the eternal fleeting aspect of Gershuni’s work.

In “The Sea of Acre,” Ashkar draws from a puddle-like patch of thin blue pigment, drawing a cross from a church tower over a black round vague patch from which tongues of black fire burst forth. From the azure, a pointed mosque crescent takes shape.

This work is a love song to Acre, surrounded by the dark prints of Gershuni, which seem like nocturnal paradises, oriental, including a diptych, two works, called “Kaddish – Exalted and Lauded.” The words of the Kaddish prayer in Gershuni’s hand are woven like a code in black images, containing falling stars.

Ashkar’s diptych “Inner Struggle” is moving in its beauty and power, touching a raw nerve of humankind’s existence as a creator amid the chaos and the loneliness, creating a reality unique to the artist.

In one part, a broken black skin resembles calligraphy that was erased and kneaded into stormy passions. Through the tears there’s a pale red, with scratched arteries of white showing a skin of cotton paper.

Another part features an inversion, and the oily shiny red overrides the black, with a spray of black stars that send tails of letters whose meaning gets lost in the struggle.

Anisa Ashkar and Moshe Gershuni - Body / Curator: Orit Mor / The Lobby Art Space in Tel Aviv, until December 19.

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