This Woman Is Turning Jerusalem Into an Open-air Art Studio

Elise Bernhardt is on a mission: for visiting artists to fall in love with Jerusalem the way she did – warts and all

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Participants in the Jerusalem International Fellows program weaving at the Bloomfield Science Museum.
Participants in the Jerusalem International Fellows program weaving at the Bloomfield Science Museum.Credit: Oded Antman
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The visiting artists were wondering where their studios in Jerusalem would be located. Elise Bernhardt, the founder and director of their program, had some surprising news. “There are no studios,” she told them. “The city will be your studio.”

Ten weeks later, the participants in this first-of-its-kind cultural program – four women who hail from different countries – unanimously agree: It was a brilliant idea.

“This is not about sitting in a studio,” says Bernhardt, the initiator of the Jerusalem International Fellows program. “This is about getting out there, creating networks and engaging with locals.”

Their studio – that is, Jerusalem – was unable to provide these women with the peace and quiet artists so often seek. Quite the opposite, in fact. During their stay, tensions reached a boiling point, threatening to erupt into an all-out war. Clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians spread from the Temple Mount to Damascus Gate, and from there to other parts of the city. Tensions escalated yet again over the weekend, during the funeral of prominent Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh, from which scenes of police beating mourners were broadcast throughout the world.

This, then, was the background noise these women heard over the past two-and-a-half months as they went about their creative endeavors.

Elise Bernhardt, seated on the right, says that "This is about getting out there, creating networks and engaging with locals.”Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Sophia Borges, a visual artist from Brazil, is being hosted by the Idbaa School of the Arts in Sheikh Jarrah, an East Jerusalem neighborhood that has been a major focus of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Vibha Galhotra, a conceptual artist from India, is being hosted by Muslala, a nonprofit artistic organization whose founders came from the neighborhood of Musrara, situated on the border of the eastern and western parts of the city; Claudia Lavista, a choreographer and dancer from Mexico, is being hosted by the c.a.t.a.m.o.n. dance group in West Jerusalem; and Anna Lublina, an interdisciplinary performer from the United States, is being hosted by the Bloomfield Science Museum, also in the western part of the city. For all four women selected for this pilot program, this has been a first trip to Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem International Fellows program is the brainchild of Bernhardt, the former director of the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Culture. It started out several years ago as the American Academy in Jerusalem, a program that brought American artists and performers to the Israeli capital, where they were hosted by Jewish organizations based in the western part of the city.

Bernhardt decided to switch it up a bit this year. Instead of focusing exclusively on Americans, this year’s cohort includes representatives from other countries as well. But perhaps the most significant change is that this year the hosting organizations are on both the western, largely Jewish and eastern, largely Arab sides of the city.

In the 1980s, Bernhardt founded Dancing in the Streets, an organization that produced free public dance performances. Her experiences there, she says, inspired the concept behind the latest iteration of the Jerusalem fellows program.

“We worked in places where there was a lot of conflict, mainly racial conflict, and one of our goals was to get people to cross borders,” she says. “It was based on the same that artists performers need to be out there, rather than confined in studios.”

Jerusalem International Fellow Sophia Borges, a visual artist from Sao Paulo, Brazil, taking photos with some of the students she mentored at the Ibdaa School of the Arts in Sheikh Jarrah.Credit: Oded Antman

And why Jerusalem? “I am madly in love with this city,” she says. “My objective is for these artists to fall in love with it as well – warts and all.”

Anna Lublina weaving at Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem.Credit: Oded Antman

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