Through the Exposed Skin

No less than four group shows by women artists opened in Israel last month, underscoring the importance of the female presence on the local art scene.

No less than four group shows by women artists opened in Israel last month, underscoring the importance of the female presence on the local art scene.

"Everything Starts at Home," curated by Ariella Azoulay, with the works of 11 artists and 30 writers to mark the 15th birthday of the Comme Il Faut fashion house, is being held at the company's south Tel Aviv factory. The foyer of the Education Ministry offices in Tel Aviv's Yad Eliahu neighborhood is home to "Kria Mizrahit" (which can be translated as "Middle Eastern reading" and also alludes to a cross-legged sitting position as well as to "Middle Eastern rift"), curated by Shula Keshet, with the work of nine artists who define themselves as female artists of Jewish Middle Eastern origin (Mizrahiot).

At Be'er Sheva's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, women studying curatorship present the works of eight female figurative painters in "Matz'a Nashi / Women Who Paint."

"Treated Autobiography" is the name of an exhibition curated by Revital Ben-Asher Peretz at the Art Workshop at Ramat Eliahu, Rishon Letzion, showing the work of six female photographers.

At first glance, the only connection between the exhibitions is their appearing during the month of International Women's Day. But a closer look reveals a characteristic common to many contemporary female artists: an engagement with issues of personal and collective identity or with the cultural and political situation that draws on biographical elements and emphasizes the importance of artistic creation. For example, the six exhibitors in "Treated Autobiography" make use of photographs from their childhood photo albums as well as revealing texts dealing with their relationships with their parents. Many of the texts in "Everything Starts at Home" refer to children, parents and grandparents.

These exhibitions can be seen as another stage in a series of women's exhibitions created out of feminist awareness. The first of these was "The Feminine Presence," curated by Ellen Ginton at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1990, considered the first museum exhibition to deal with women's art in Israel through a contemporary feminist theoretical perspective.

Seventeen female artists took part in it, including Tamar Getter, Nurit David, Dganit Berest, Michal Ne'eman and Yehudith Levin, who until then had not defined their work as "feminine art." Ginton wrote in the exhibition catalog that such a categorization could seem to be unnecessary. Female artists in Israel were given recognition and had museum exhibitions in the past. As important an artist as Rafi Lavie, for example, pointed to the influence of Avivi Uri on his own work. But despite the recognition, there was no reference to female aspects of their work.

"Lavie is the teacher and educator of more than half of the exhibitors in this show, but he is also the main shaper of the local consensus that `there is no women's art,'`" Ginton wrote at the time. The female artists themselves were completely silent about the feminine element in their work and in essence denied its existence even though this aspect played a clear role in their work.

Ginton's pioneering exhibition was followed by others that were not necessarily women-only. But in recent years, so it seems, there have been changes in women's art in Israel. Feminist theory and criticism seems to have been internalized to a large degree, but is no longer the focus of the work. This makes room for art that is more emotional and connected to daily life. Many of the current exhibitions by female artists are very revealing and daring. Many of the shows deal with exposure bordering on confession: the exposure of childhood, of parent-child relationships and of parental anxiety. "These are very biographical works," Ginton says.

Public intimacy

Noa Zadka, for example, is currently holding an exhibition in her home. It shows the detritus of a few days holed up at home: personal objects, texts relating to her lovers, her weaknesses and her dreams. It also includes nude photographs and what appear to be bodily secretions. She invites visitors to discuss the exhibition with her over a cup of tea in the kitchen. In a rented apartment in Tel Aviv, Michal Spektor exhibits drawings and texts that confront the viewer with the charged, beautiful and touching relationship that the artist had with her mother, who died of cancer.

A change can also be seen in the works of Deganit Brest: In "The Feminine Presence," she displayed conceptual works that were difficult to interpret. About a year ago she exhibited the "Dreams" series at the Herzliya Museum of Art, which included photographs of women in her life. "Treated Autobiography" contains photographs of texts by Pessy Girsch that form a kind of diary describing her childhood memories and dreams. The text deals with questions of beauty and death in a different manner from the photographs of dead animals with which Girsch is associated.

The use of biography does not necessarily point to an abandonment of the political aspects of art. Often, the biographical element is a starting point for dealing with such issues. Miriam Cohen Bruck, for example, embroiders images of Palestinian towns and villages. One of the dresses she embroidered also symbolizes her experiences as a World War II refugee. In "White Land," Ariane Littman Cohen showed aerial photos in which large areas had been erased by order of the military censor, including a forest dedicated to her grandfather. Nurit Gur-Lavi (Karni) began painting refugee camps in the Gaza Strip after the death of her father, Yosef Karni, for whom the Karni checkpoint on the Gaza border is named.

The exhibition that wasn't

The most innovative work seems to be the province of two groups that are still on the margins of the Israeli art dialogue: female Mizrahi artists and female Arab artists. Both groups create works that deviate from the local norm, art with Middle Eastern motifs once considered decorative that deals with repressed heritage and history, and both groups were not part of the feminist revolution in Israeli art. But a comparison of the two groups, while natural, is problematic if only because the Jewish group has well-defined goals as well as the support of the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow movement, while the Arab group is merely the "flavor of the month" at an exhibition that never took place: "Self-Portrait, Palestinian Women's Art," curated by Tal Ben Zvi.

The exhibition was scheduled to open in October 2000, but the start of the intifada led to its cancellation. The exhibition catalogue was eventually published by Andalus. It presents a group of female Palestinian artists from both sides of the Green Line, most of whom are new to the Israeli art scene. Their art deals with the daily realities of a difficult political situation - not just the Israeli occupation, but also the oppression of women in Arab society. Ellen Ginton sees the catalog as the most important women's exhibition in recent years.

Trickling down slowly

Tal Ben-Zvi sees the exhibitors in "Kria Mizrahit" as representing the radical side of Israeli art. "In recent years, the emphasis in women's art in Israel has been on the female body as a field of action," she says. "In most of the works the engagement is with artistic subjects, and they don't touch upon real life and the class society. The Mizrahi artists are very different. They have a cultural-social agenda and they act and influence the field of art from outside as well."

"Kria Mizrahit" is a quiet, minimalist exhibition that includes objects, photographs and paintings hung on marble walls. The nine exhibitors took part about two years ago in an exhibition called "My Sister - Mizrahi Female Artists in Israel" held at the Jerusalem Artists House. Their activities and effects are trickling down slowly, and probably only a few people in the art world bothered to visit the unusual space in which they are exhibiting. These works, too, deal with the participants' biographies. Shuli Nachshon shows still pictures from a video work documenting her mother and two sisters at a mikveh [ritual bath]. Zaken constructed enlarged models of the symbols used on garment care tags out of wood and stockings. Many of the pieces deal with absence, the complex relationship to Arab heritage as an element of Mizrahi heritage, and with the erasure of the Mizrahi past by Ashkenazi culture. The exhibition contains nothing of the sophisticated atmosphere surrounding the works exhibited at Comme Il Faut - an atmosphere that is connected to an awareness of the language of international contemporary art - but it contains an attempt, perhaps naive, to create a language out of the heritage of the artists themselves.