Portrait of the Artist as a Headscarf-wearing Woman

Female artists from the religious community face innumerable barriers to joining the art world; one project in Jerusalem aims to give them a warm home and a push out of the nest.

The sailboat knitted in red wool, which appears to be chained to the hole-studded wooden board, isn't going anywhere. Of all the images in this exhibition by members of an art collective for female artists who are also observant Jews, it is this quasi-childish work by Reut Amrani that captures the yearning for art; the moment when the red boat froze, like a warning signal in the white frame, and an artist was born. The exhibition, at the Jerusalem House of Quality, closes tomorrow.

A decade after studying art at Emunah College in Jerusalem, the 35-year-old mother of three, who lives in Beit Shemesh, spoke with emotion to Tzipi Mizrahi, the force behind the collective, about her imaginary boat. "I want to escape from everything and do art," Amrani told Mizrahi.

It was because of the boat, Mizrahi says, that she accepted Amrani to the collective, whose Hebrew name, studio mi'shelakh, means "A Studio of Your Own." Its aim is to provide women artists at the start of their career, and much younger than Amrani, with the opportunity to work in a communal studio; a place that is mental as well as physical, because it obligates them to devote their time and energy to creative work.

"When she came she was thirsting to be an artist again," Mizrahi says. It was precisely that hunger that Mizrahi looked for in the artists. One can also see it in the very expressive, provocative face in the self-portrait of Julia Aronson, who studied at the Art Students League of New York and paints portraits in addition to working at a start-up.

Religious female artists - Appelbaum - May 29, 2011
Tomer Appelbaum

The studio's name was Mizrahi's idea, and as suggested by the play on Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" it points to a feminist agenda. As head of the art track in Ulpanat Tzvia in Ma'aleh Adumim, a religious girls' high school, Mizrahi - from whose head covering not a single hair is visible - was part of the revolution in art studies within Israel's religious education system. The Tzvia network to which the ulpana belongs is considered stricter and more insular than the state religious school system.

Art study was once banned in religious schools due to the resistance to art among religious Jews that is rooted in the prohibition against making "graven images." But around 10 years ago this wall began to crumble, mainly because rabbis came to realize that religious study is not suitable for everyone and that the therapeutic aspect of art could prevent certain students from leaving yeshiva and the world of religious observance. A few yeshivas began to offer art studies, and the trend spread to the ulpanot as well. Graduates of these tracks, especially female, began enrolling in art school.

Mizrahi, who has a bachelor's degree in art culture and a master's in musicology, expected the art scene to change as well, but only a few religious female art school graduates in Jerusalem tried to get their work displayed. Most of them were drawn into the expected route, in religious society, of marriage and children "At best they found work as art teachers, but most left," Mizrahi says. "I felt that I had deceived them. Although I opened the window to another world, in effect I exposed them to a reality that doesn't really exist for them as yet.

"Being an artist in our community is inconceivable," Mizrahi continues. "The national religious public has undergone a revolution in recent years and is represented in other spheres of art: on the Army Radio playlist, in movies and television. Art, especially the visual arts, are a neglected field. The question that girls who studied art asked in my time, and are largely still asking, is 'What will you do with it?' That, after all, is a bitter fate," she adds ironically. "Loneliness, remaining single, heaven forfend."

In order to investigate why there are no religious female artists, Mizrahi enrolled in Bar-Ilan University's Ph.D. program in gender studies. She also considered examining the new language of art created by the few women artists who were involved in the scene, and whom, she says, "actually succeeded in creating images from within these social and consciousness limitations."

She met with several art-school graduates, visiting them at home and hearing how they worked at kitchen table between 2 A.M. and 4 A.M., while their children were asleep. Some were between pregnancies, with a nursing infant, living in a too-small apartment and coping with too many financial problems.

"I encountered tremendous heartache," Mizrahi says. "I encountered frustration, an inability to actualize the creative world. They were trapped in a web of constraints." Mizrahi switched her Ph.D. study track to Gender in the Field, and eventually founded the women's studio collective. A Studio of Your Own is also part of her academic research. The project was earned awards from the New Israel Fund prize and from Bar-Ilan's gender studies department. Now she is considering expanding the project to female artists who are new immigrants or living outside Israel's main cities, in places from which "it is harder for them to break out and succeed."

Two years

Mizrahi sought to pique the ambition of the young women by giving them studio space for a period of two years, together with the professional support of working religiously observant female artists. MATI, the Jerusalem Business Development Center, put together a course designed to give them the tools to promote themselves to collectors and gallery owners. Emunah, the women's organization of the National Religious Party, provided financial support.

Mizrahi found 30 graduates from Emunah College and Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and suggested they apply to the new program. An all-women admissions committee, consisting of one academic and three religiously observant artists, chose nine of the applicants. The city's youth development department found them studio space, in a facility for at-risk children, in exchange for providing artistic guidance to teenaged girls at the institution.

Most of the artists are Bezalel graduates, with a smaller number who studied at Emunah. Miriam Vilner, who graduates this spring from Bezalel's animation program, paints figures drawn from ancient and controversial Jewish traditions related to magic, fears and passions.

"She draws her inspiration from ancient Jewish books of magic, from legends, from the visual world of amulets and ancient Jewish art, and from questions regarding the enigmatic place of women in the Jewish religion and in the national history," says Irena Gordon, curator of the House of Quality exhibition.

Shulamit Etzion, a graduate of both Emunah and Bezalel (ceramic and glass design ) is 32. Her single status in religious society is a major theme in her work. In the exhibition she is showing a dismantled female body: Arms emerge from the wall, a tiny sailboat (another boat ) between them; a sloping porcelain belly with a red light flashing in its navel, as if to say, "Your time is up." On the bellow is the same tiny origami boat, patterned with the word ravaka ("spinster" ).

Inherent conflict

At the opening of the exhibition, on the Thursday before last, Etzion was hesitant about having her picture taken under another piece of hers: a square piece of Torah parchment that she worked and pierced. It looks like silk paper with a dark red stain in the middle. Gordon says there is an inherent conflict in the very fact of a religiously observant Jewish woman creating art. "There's a contradiction between the studies and the tools you are given for going out into the world, and the harsh reality waiting for you when you get there. "Women are forced to make concessions," Etzion says.

Gordon points to the place of women in the kitchen as a source of subversion, which is evident in the motif of utensils that appears in the works of Renana Lavi and Moria Eder Plaksin. Both are graduates of Bezalel's ceramic and glass design program, and both have exhibited their senior projects in other venues: Lavi at Tel Aviv's Eretz Israel Museum; Eder Plaksin at Tel Aviv's Contemporary by Golconda Gallery and at the Fresh Paint Contemporary Art Fair. The latter is to exhibit her work at London's Victoria and Albert Museum in London later this year.

In the current exhibition, Lavi shows a glass tablecloth that Mizrahi understands as the "glass ceiling" preventing woman from progressing past a certain level. "This is the Shabbat tablecloth and the cloth on the table at home where they work because they have no studio," she explains. Lavi etched images of her children and her husband on glasses and bottles using glass spray, alluding to shadow theater and perhaps even to dark fairy tales.

Eder Plaksin shows a set of Wedgwood-style dishes, in blue with white relief designs from the world of kitsch. At close range the figures turn out to be Leonardo DiCaprio and his recent ex, the Israeli model-actress Bar Refaeli. One dish features small figures representing paparazzi. "I tried to think, what replaces Greek mythology in a generation where the news changes every half hour and the Internet determines the agenda," she explains. "Bar Refaeli is only an example." Another series on the same subject features medals using the same technique, again with Refaeli and DiCaprio - but also the figure of Eder Plaksin herself, in a headscarf.

In the religious world, says Gordon, "There is no genuine confrontation with the plastic arts, because of the prohibitions and the taboo on visual imagery and figures. But these things have long been a type of excuse, and are motivated by all kinds of conventions."

But apparently these artists also face exclusion from the nonreligious art world. The influential art historian and critic Gideon Ofrat rejected, years ago, the idea of religious and right-wing art. He explained angrily that art and religious faith are inherently contradictory things, and demonstrated how the religious world, because of its agenda and the art dictated by it, has not been able to create complex images that can compete in the realm of art.

Others have made the same claim. Mizrahi has no doubt that these artists can bypass this issue because they don't feel obligated to create religious art, an attitude that she encourages. "They'll go far," she says.