MATRONITA, Jewish Feminist Art at the Museum of Art, Ein Harod

1 Sep

Nechama Golan

Art Exhibition: Matronita-Jewish Feminist Art
Museum of Art, Ein Harod
Mishkan Le’Omanut
January 27 – April 1 2012

An exhibition of contemporary Jewish women’s art focusing on Feminist Jewish topics.

Matronita (Talmudic term for an important woman) will examine feminist consciousness in the Jewish world. The status of women in Judaism and the need to expand women’s spiritual, ritual, intellectual and political opportunities have become central issues in the Jewish world, generating debate and activism for the past 40 years. The works which will be presented in this show are born of that ferment.

The notion of transnational feminism was extended by the pivotal “Global Feminisms: New Directions in Contemporary Art” exhibition, curated by Linda Nochlin and Maura Reiley at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007. It put forward the idea that we cannot expect feminism to retain the same meaning and to operate the same way in different cultures. That exhibition examined women’s artworks against the background of the specific cultures in which they were created. The 80 women artists exhibited represented a very diverse spectrum of cultures and backgrounds. A knowledgeable appreciation of each artist’s milieu was crucial for understanding her work.

Our exhibition will present productions of religious feminist artists belonging to the Modern Orthodox community. These artists are informed by feminist art and gender discourse, but also by traditional Judaism. They belong to the Orthodox Judaism milieu and can be better appreciated against that background.

In general we can say that feminism is gradually becoming more accepted in Modern Orthodoxy, each community finding its own mode of accommodation. Here in Israel, feminist exhibitions only began to be organized in the 1990’s, making this arena a relatively new frontier.

Religious feminist art is an even later phenomenon and the resulting time-lag allows these artists to examine Jewish values in a new and critical manner.

Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov

Matronita blurs the binary distinction between the religious and the secular. The new term “post secularism” posits that secularism and religion are not autonomous concepts, but rather are interconnected notions that cannot be separated. Recently, various combinations of religion and secularism have also appeared in post modern Orthodox discourse.

The artists that we will exhibit in this show identify with post modern Orthodoxy and their works are connected to the kind of post secularism which resonates in the words of the sociologist Yehuda Shenhav: “to capture complicated connections between religion and secularism without substituting one for the other.” Their work belongs to the post-secular discourse which succeeds in capturing complex hybrids born of the encounter between religion and secularism.

Secular and religious artists take different approaches to Jewish tradition. Secularists question the value of the tradition and often reject it defiantly, while the new religious Jewish artists raise questions that reconstruct the tradition but do not reject it. Less progressive Orthodoxy treats ritual and tradition as part of an unquestioned way of life, while Modern Orthodoxy actively reexamines and recreates the tradition, placing it in a critical yet constructive light.

Jewish feminist art shares its themes with feminist art in general. Usually these are familiar subjects, such as power and oppression, body image, women as periphery, object-subject, blood and menstruation, body fluids, and so on. Feminist Jewish works deal with subjects unique to the Jewish experience: Niddah and immersion, hair covering, agunot, and women’s place in the Bet Knesset, and in the Bet Midrash. Recently, many artists have begun producing explicitly feminist Jewish ritual objects.

Many Orthodox Jewish women artists describe their art as “holy work”. In the Bet Knesset they must stand passively behind the mechitza, but art allows them to actively express their religious beliefs and their Jewish way of life. Their social and political critiques are in fact a visual midrash which combines traditional motifs with critical analysis in the hope of making an immediate and positive impact on their culture.

“Matronita” will show the work of radical and vibrant artists from America and Israel. We have chosen those artists who incorporate the dissonance between halacha and modernity in their world. Our research revealed that many of these artists create art reacting to or including Jewish texts written by males.

“The Liberation of G-d” by Helène Aylon. Photo featured from the installation at the Andy Warhol Museum of “My Neir Tamid: The Illuminated Pink Dash”

Many of these artists use words as weapons. The Jewish feminists appropriate texts taught them by their fathers and in many cases reread them for our times. They have added many questions marks. This exhibition will feature traditional Jewish texts that were once the exclusive property of the patriarchy but have now found their expression in women’s studies as well. Instead of abandoning the ancient Hebrew text for visual imagery that is entirely foreign to Judaism, these artists have laid claim to the text by turning it into a new and Jewish visual imagery.

The American artist Helene Aylon takes Hebrew and English versions of the Torah, and places a sheet of vellum over each page of text highlighting in pink those passages that are offensive to her humanist and feminist perspective, as well as highlighting the empty spaces where female presence has been omitted. The Israeli artist Nechama Golan creates a stiletto from copies of talmudic pages. Her work speaks of the objectification of women in the fashion world and points out the patriarchal stance on how a woman is “acquired” according to Jewish law. Their text based work reflects the reality of women’s experiences and women’s perspectives.

Matronita will invite the viewer to reflect on the complexities of the feminist Jewish experience as the artists work at reconciling faith and feminism.

Curators: David Sperber, Art Historian, Independent Curator
Dvora Liss, Judaica Curator, Museum of Art, Ein Harod

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