In the accompanying text for artist Roey Heifetz’s new exhibition at the Ticho House in Jerusalem, curator Timna Seligman still refers to the artist as a man. Several months ago, however, Heifetz began referring to herself in the feminine, even though she herself sometimes gets confused.
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The semantic gender shift is the latest stage of the process Heifetz has been undergoing in recent years.
Two years ago, he – now she – began adopting what she calls a feminine appearance. She has been dressing as a woman except for when she lectures on Jewish and queer history in Berlin. She still dresses and conducts herself as a man in front of her students – but Heifetz adds that this will change soon, too.
The 13 large portraits in “Victoria,” which runs until March 23 at the off-site facility of the Israel Museum, are depictions of women, none of whose outward appearances are aesthetically pleasing in the classic sense of the term. Heifetz’s women look disturbed and threatening; they are emaciated; their faces are lined with wrinkles and their skin pocked with beauty marks.
Heifetz circulates among them wearing a fancy red dress, and her hair is also dyed bright red. She enjoys being more attractive than the figures she draws, but – as will soon become apparent – the link between the artist and her subjects is a very close one.
Heifetz was born in Jerusalem 38 years ago, the middle child of three. She received her BA at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, where her artistic preferences made her feel like an outsider: She worked mainly with sketches and was hugely influenced by art nouveau, while that style was considered conservative and uninteresting at the time at Bezalel, she recounts.
In 2005, she completed her degree and went to the United States to escape Israel’s judgmental artistic turmoil. Upon her return a year later, Heifetz decided to return to Bezalel for a master’s degree and to repair her ties with the art school. In 2009, she finished her master’s degree and had her work exhibited at the Haifa Museum of Art and the Noga Gallery in Tel Aviv. She also held a joint project with the Kav 16 gallery in Tel Aviv, curated by Sally Haftel Naveh.
As part of the Kav 16 project, Heifetz spent a day every week at a hair salon, sketching portraits of its customers. Looking back on the experience, the artist says this was an important moment in the process of her changing gender identity.
“The first signs of femininity in me surfaced in there,” said Heifetz. “It was Purim and the salon put makeup on me and dressed me as a woman, creating a whole fantastic world for me.”
When the project ended, Heifetz once more felt the need to flee the turmoil of Israel. She went to Berlin for the Künstlerhaus Bethanien artist-in-residence program. The choice of the German capital was also the product of her interest in history – in particular, the life of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a German-Jewish physician and sexologist who developed the theory of the existence of a “third sex.”
It was Hirschfeld who performed the first documented gender reassignment operation. In 1919, he established the Institute of Sexual Research, the first of its kind. “He was the first to allow for cross-dressers, transgender people, transvestites and transsexual individuals, and he himself was a cross-dresser,” Heifetz said.
Alienation from gay community
“He was also the first to advocate forcibly outing people from the closet and he outed members of the German parliament. On the night of the book burnings in 1933, the Nazis set his institute on fire. He was in France at the time and didn’t return to Germany,” added Heifetz.
For Heifetz, her own time in Berlin was an opportunity to explore the gender question in greater depth. She began going out in the evening in a dress and to define herself as a woman. The step created new, unexpected difficulties for Heifetz, including alienation from the gay community that had previously been her home.
When asked why she voluntarily chose such a complicated step, Heifetz replied: “That’s the question – whether it was voluntary on my part. I think being transgender is not exactly being either here nor there. I feel like a transgender woman and not a straight woman. The transformation fascinates me. I may never entirely be a woman. The process that a transgender woman goes through is with regard to the world. It’s theater. People observe, look and react all the time. I still look like a man going around in women’s clothing.”
Although Heifetz’s Jerusalem exhibition is a one-woman show – an indication of acceptance and faith on the part of Israel’s artistic mainstream – she still feels she lacks a supportive community in Israel, and that her work is not properly accepted and understood. She was particularly hurt that none of her teachers at Bezalel came to the opening last year.
Her visit to Israel ahead of the exhibition created a stir, she said. “On the street, they call me a transvestite and spit on the sidewalk. They think that if I am transgender, I must work in prostitution. People who meet me – at all kinds of events – ask me straight away if I’ll be having surgery and taking hormones. I think the physical process of the change is fascinating. I look at it for hours on YouTube, but the world does not react well. The world is very conservative and has become even more,” said Heifetz.
During her visit to Israel, Heifetz and her male partner lived in Tel Aviv but she went to Jerusalem on almost a daily basis. She made most of the trips by bus, dressed in glittery clothing and heavily made up. Some passersby at the main bus station in Jerusalem struggled with her appearance, but Heifetz said she actually prefers such overt reactions.
“The head-on collision of my appearance in Jerusalem is stronger than in Tel Aviv – and that makes me feel stronger. In Tel Aviv, people are seemingly liberal, accepting of everything, so they won’t look me in the eye, and then there’s really no interaction,” she said. “In Jerusalem, the look is very poisonous and aggressive, but at least it says ‘You exist.’ You’re not just something else in some imaginary, liberal, abstract cloud.”
Heifetz’s experiences with conservative attitudes and overt reactions are very visible in her sketches, she said. Even before her gender transformation, the women she had been sketching were already alluding to what would take place in the future.
“I was really becoming my sketches. I completely understand people who have difficulty with my work, because it’s both off-putting and appealing, and that’s what I like about it,” said Heifetz. “And suddenly, through people’s reactions, you become your own work. I see that people react to me on the train as people react to my work in the studio.”
The sketches also document Heifetz’s major fears. For example, for years she was incapable of drawing sexual organs and breasts, because she said she hadn’t managed to contend with these parts of the body. One of the drawings that reflects her fear is “Frau L.,” a large work hung in the middle of the space, which is also the site of the beginning of a future project about transsexual individuals who have regretted the physical changes they have made. Heifetz wants to bring the issue out into the open through her drawings, even though she knows it will create opposition in the transgender community.
“Within the community, it is currently important to show something very beautiful and complete, and I understand why – but I’m not there. Saying that I was born in the wrong body does not sum up everything I am feeling, and carrying out the change is also not my approach. It can’t be that there are only one or two routes to take. The gender spectrum is very broad, but people don’t want to talk about it. They feel threatened,” she said. “I don’t see myself as brave, but I can’t allow myself not to enjoy what the world makes possible for me. I don’t think I will return to a masculine appearance, but that could happen. There’s no way of knowing what will happen down the line.”
Another fear reflected in Heifetz’s drawings is that of getting old. She acknowledges feelings of misogyny and a slight horror at the sight of older women, so she draws them. “I’m stressed by the fact that I’m undergoing an accelerated maturation process. I actually never had my youth as a girl. I started my femininity at the age of 38. It’s rather psychotic. I’m afraid of the figure of the infantile older woman – like in the movies – who is uber-sexy, uber-feminine. On the other hand, such women have the most charm,” she said.
The next stage in her change, Heifetz said, will include adding the name Victoria to Roey. In the past, she was against such a change, but has been persuaded that just the name “Roey” alone is too confusing.
“There are a lot of trans people who erase the past, burn photographs, steer clear of friends, but I am terribly nostalgic,” said Heifetz. But I also understand the need for a separate identity. At the moment, it’s at the stage of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s all right that this split exists now, and my work also shows this. After all, it’s for the sake of this split that we have come together here.”