Tel Aviv Art Show Shines Spotlight on the Rejects of the Zionist Consensus

An exhibition documents the uprooting of Yemenite Jews from their farm on Lake Kinneret early in the last century, and honors Rachel, the iconic poet who, ill with tuberculosis, was also expelled from the area.

Works by Leor Grady.
Uzi Tzur

The episode of the settlement and uprooting of Yemenite Jews from their Kinneret farm adheres to the base of the Zionist project like a bitter root, from which sprouted the sour fruit of ethnic discrimination. The immigrants, who settled on the shores of Lake Kinneret in 1912, about a year before the people of Kvutzat Kinneret set up a kibbutz there, lived and worked under disgraceful conditions – they were not even allowed to bury their dead in the kibbutz cemetery. In 1930, the Yemenite group was expelled following a lengthy struggle with the Kvutzat’s residents, who didn’t want them as neighbors, and in the face of the Zionist leadership’s indifference to their suffering. They moved to Kfar Marmorek to become housemaids, nannies and menial workers in adjacent Rehovot (of which Kfar Marmorek is now part). In a bizarre coincidence, the iconic poet Rachel (Rachel Bluwstein, 1890-1931), who contracted tuberculosis, was also forced to leave the shores of the Kinneret and end her life in the city.

In his exhibition “Natural Worker,” currently showing at Hakibbutz Israeli Art Gallery in Tel Aviv (curator: Yael Keini), Leor Grady has extended the Yemenite narrative to include Rachel and other rejects of the Zionist consensus. From this socio-historical event Grady has extracted pure gold, both from the beauty of the artwork itself and from its intelligent and effective mounting in the gallery space.

Hanging solitary on a wall, as a prologue, is a floor-washing rag that Grady has dipped in gold, as though it were an object polished and sanctified by agony until it became a relic. A side niche contains a trinity of similar rags whose edges alone have been immersed in gold. One then confronts the principal works of the exhibition, which is amorphous, its links amenable to diverse connections.

The works lean along the whole length of a gallery wall, from light to darkness, emitting a sense of transience, wandering and uprooting, beginning or end, as parts of a memory not yet coalesced. They consist of dozens of canvases of different sizes that have retained their rawness, with framed literary works between them. This amalgam of texts is done in Torah-scribe letters embroidered on the canvases with gold thread, the same meticulous craft carried out for purposes of sanctity by Yemenite women.

Between these embroidered texts Grady has inserted visual images of Lake Kinneret, like the Molten Sea in the ancient Temple, transforming the inland sea from the secular Zionist ethos into the religious holiness of the Kinneret Yemenites who infuriated the pioneer settlers. In gold-embroidered letters, the artist reproduces appeals sent by the Yemenite settlers to the authorities.

A work by Leor Grady.
Leor Grady

“Shalom to his eminence the head of the Zionist Executive,” one such letter begins. “We, the wretched, miserable unfortunates on whom none have mercy and none help, who cry out but are not answered [] We beg and implore you, sir, to show mercy and have pity on the wretched Yemenites of Kinneret and accept our request – namely we request you, sir, to make us part of the budget this year. Peace unto you and peace unto your house and peace unto all that is yours.”

A common fate

What did the recipient of this missive think as he read it? Did he consider it a sign of submission and fawning? Grady redeems the text from the recesses of archival oblivion and illuminates its pain-tinged beauty. And as a kind of mobile monument, Grady has embroidered the dates 1912/1930 in the heart of a handkerchief and stained most of it in gold, like body fluids absorbed into a shroud. The handkerchief, with its open folds, is enshrined behind glass and wood, like a holy relic. The artist has also embroidered words by Rachel in gold thread on a canvas partially covered by another canvas on which he has laminated a Kinneret of gold overflowing its shores: “This is how I am: quiet as lake water,” she wrote. And beyond the handicraft and the gold-thread embroidery, the familiar words seem to be a prayer, and a tacit tie is forged between the letter of the Kinneret Yemenites and a poem by Rachel: the common fate of the rejected.

A two-channel video work, “Eye and Heart,” is on view in the gallery’s darkened inner space, one image opposite the other. Beyond the language of Yemenite dance, Grady dramatizes the motif of the acceptance, assimilation and “whitening” of traditional Yemenite dance in local culture, notable through the “Yemenite step” that entered Israeli folk dance. A thread of erotic sensuality runs through the two video works, between dancer and drummer, and between the dancers and their inner being.

Grady’s exhibition at Hakibbutz Gallery is akin to the closing of a circle, a late atonement, not without courage. But the sad irony is that precisely in the gallery’s jubilee year, the kibbutz movement is threatening to close it. There is no other gallery in which the geological and archaeological layers of Israeli art across the generations can be felt as vividly as here. The gallery lent a voice to artists, content, outcries and protests that others could not give or did not want to give. Some argue that the gallery does not show enough kibbutz artists. But it has long since become the honorary ambassador of the kibbutz movement to the whole of Israeli society. Are “privatization” and “extension” all that will remain of the rich kibbutz heritage?

“Natural Worker,” Hakibbutz Israeli Art Gallery, 25 Dov Hoz Street, Tel Aviv, (03) 523-2533; Mon.-Thurs. 11.00-15.00, 16.00-1800; Fri. and holiday eves 11.00-14.00; closes Feb. 4