The Women Behindby Naomi Lev
MUSEUM ON THE SEAM | JUNE 21 – DECEMBER 31, 2018
The Women Behind takes place in Jerusalem’s storied Museum On The Seam, a contemporary art museum which for reasons both global and local, including the museum’s history and location, exhibits art of a socio-political nature. Situated in the Musrara neighborhood, on the intersection of East and West Jerusalem, on one side is Jaffa Gate, where East Jerusalem begins, and on the other, the Mea Shearim neighborhood, known for the presence of ultra-orthodox Jews.
The building was built in 1932 by a Christian-Arab architect named Andoni Baramki, who was expelled along with his family during the Palestinian Nakba in 1948. The house was then turned into an Israeli military outpost and served as a passage between the two parts of the divided city of Jerusalem. Throughout the years, the Baramkis made efforts to regain ownership of their home, but all attempts were turned down by the Israeli courts. In 1981, the building was renovated, although it still carries the marks of the 1967 war on its façade (when Jerusalem was reunited), and in 1983 transformed into “Tourjmnan Post Museum” through the initiative of then mayor, Teddy Kollek with the support of Georg von Holtzbrinck of Germany. A permanent exhibition about tolerance and mutual understanding was mounted in 1999. Since 2005 the building has served as the home for Museum on the Seam, led by chief curator Raphie Etgar.1
It is important to have the history of this building in mind as one travels through the current exhibition curated by Etgar which features twenty-six mostly female artists from around the world whose work explores notions of confinement, imprisonment, and silence. In fact, in Hebrew "Klu'ot"—the title of the show—translates in female form as: imprisoned, confined, or caged. It is hard not to be unsettled by the use of these words to describe women’s status, and yet, we all recognize the disturbing reality of such a designation.
Before one has even entered the building, Etgar has chosen to raise questions rather than offer answers. On the building’s facade, a provocative truism recreated in 2018 by Jenny Holzer appears: “RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY,” which still seems radical roughly forty years after it was first displayed. Inside, Wage Gaps, (2016) a work by American artists Michele Pred, situated on the exhibition’s first floor, displays a range of purses on which the artist embroidered recent percentages of the wage gaps between American white males, and females. The numbers show that in 2016 Native American women earned 54% of what white males do in the U.S., African American women earn 64%, and white females earn 79% of what white male earn in the U.S.—obviously these differences are still relevant today.
On another wall, by the entrance, Yael Bartana’s neon light sculpture reads, “What if Women Ruled the World,” (2016), a rhetorical question that filters through some of the works on view. For instance, as I looked at Israeli artist Esther Naor’s There Wasn’t a Man, Woman, or Child I Could Lift a Finger For, (2014) which features a life-size naked female figure made of acrylic holding a life size bouy, or, How Far Would You Run With a Piece of Lead in Your Heart? (2014) where two female figures hold a stretcher, with Bartana’s question in mind, these figures became possible rulers of the world. Holding life saving props—a buoy and a stretcher—they are on a mission to rescue and support, rather than destroy. They could potentially represent the many natural disasters occurring in the world as well as the refugees crisis, offering relief, action, and empathy in the face of destruction and denial.
If one were to choose one central theme of the show it would be silence and its more active partner, silencing. Take American artist April Dauscha’s video Costudy of the Tongue (veiling) (2013) where the artist’s tongue is wrapped in lace and sticks out of her mouth for the duration of the video which is 2:28 minutes. Bound in lace which suggests grace and gentleness, her speech is restricted and it is difficult for her to breathe and swallow. Here a fabric of beauty and femininity restricts to the point of torture. Similarly, in Israeli artist’s Nelly Agassi’s Red Flame, (2004) the artist is seen smudging the red lipstick from her lips all over her face. The red lipstick now covering her face and hands, transforms into what look like blood stains. Here a stick of lipstick—a tool of capitalism and femininity—becomes a sign of its own subliminal violence.
A photograph by Japanese artist Ryoko Suzuki features her face tied with a bloody pig skin “to demonstrate and visualize the oppression of women in Japan.” Nearby we see Cyprus artist Andreas Poupoutsis’s photographic series titled Hidden Identities, (2011). The photos, composed of close-up portraits of women covered with white cloth, are a depiction of the “Taliban Women,” a secluded sect of orthodox Jewish women and young girls in Israel that cover themselves with black burka-like shawl from head to toe, so they are not seen as sexual entities. Here, we see one woman’s eyes and mouth shut tightly, and the other, in profile, with her mouth open as if she is screaming yet both are muted bound as they are by the fabric recalling Dauscha’s video Costudy of the Tongue (veiling). Similarly, fashion designer and artist Yvonne Quisumbing’s large oil paintings “Familiar Faces” (2018), investigate traditions of masking the female form found in women’s fashion in the West via fans, veils, hats, and more, and not just the Middle East. Figures are shown from chest up dressed in contemporary clothing. Their heads are fully wrapped so we are unable to see their faces. Quisumbing’s work raises questions about the fashion industry’s ethical as well as aesthetic codes present in all cultures and religions.
The image that seems most banal and perhaps most innocent is Guda Koster’s Red with white dots, (2012). In this photograph a woman-doll is wearing a red 1930s polka dot dress and red “Dorothy” shoes. Much like Yayoi Kusama’s body-altering psychedelic abstraction, the figure here holds a mini polka dot house, and her head is covered with a larger red polka dot house. We cannot see her face, eyes, mouth, ears, or expression. Her whole entity is to be consumed by the playful yet pristine house, a symbol of family and wholesomeness as it reflects on the woman’s role in the household.
The erasure of women’s emotional identity is addressed by Thomas Hirschhorn’s large scale Pixel-Collage titled Pixel-Collage no36 (2016) made of print, tape, and a transparent sheet. Inspired by a photograph of women and girls captured and tortured during the Bosnian War, this piece speaks to the 2008 United Nations resolution 1820 which states “rape as a weapon of war.” The photograph is pixelated so the women’s bodies’ and identities are concealed. The overall effect is one of devastating violence and obliteration.
Marie José Burki’s Exposure: Dawn (I-III) (1997), a 3-channel video shown in the museum’s lower level, recounts the story of three women prostitutes. In these videos three women are seen separately in red-zone district storefronts. They sit and wait silently, most likely, victims of sex trafficking, forced to work in prostitution against their will. As written in the work’s description: “. . . the profits from their exploitation and pimping reaches billions of dollars every year.”
In the exhibition’s catalogue, literary critic and poet Dr. Shira Stav discusses the case of Josef Fritzl who held his daughter, Elizabeth Fritzl, captive for twenty four years in Amstetten, Austria. The father assaulted and raped Elizabeth endlessly during her imprisonment where she was concealed in the basement of the family home, apparently unbeknownst to his wife Rosmarie. The abuse resulted in the birth of seven children, three of which remained captive alongside their mother until their release in 2008, one had died, and three others were raised by Fritzl and Rosmarie. Stav uses the story as an allegory of the connection between capitalism, patriarchy, religion, and the silencing of women. Her question: how can such an event take place in secrecy and in silence for so many years? “Absurdly, until the opening of the trial, the only voice which was heard loud and clear was the father’s, pleading for mercy in an attempt to eschew an imprisonment sentence. This chain of silence is an expression of two different kinds of silences: on the one hand, a silence which serves as an alibi concealing a well-kept secret. On the other hand, a silence which represents an inability to speak about the horrors, verging on an inability to speak at all. This silence also represents the huge difficulty to listen to the horror.”
The success, and yet sadness, of Women Behind, is how we are made to witness and listen to the various kinds of horror women experience daily; its most extreme being the brutality Elizabeth Fritzl endured. In this important, if devastating show, experiences of confinement and silence leak into the very seam embedded in the museum’s own history, location, and intersection of patriarchy and religion. The total effect is indescribable yet utterly true.
- As stated on the museum’s website: “The Museum is committed to examining the social reality within our regional conflict, to advancing dialogue in the face of discord and to encouraging social responsibility that is based on what we all have in common rather than what keeps us apart.” The museum was chosen by the New York Times as one of the twenty-nine most fascinating museums in the world, and by the National Geographic Society in 2010 as one of ten unique museums that features changing exhibitions dealing with the social seams in which we live.
is an art writer and curator based in Brooklyn, NY.