Category Archives: Art

Underground Genesis

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OK, I’ll weigh in: I really, really like the new R. Crumb new version of Genesis.

When it was announced that the legendary underground comic book artist was going to take a crack at the Book of Genesis,  I’m sure that many expected it to be an exercise in post-modern Biblical irony. They needn’t have worried. Crumb has reimagined Genesis like nothing I’ve read/seen in a long, long time.

Some might quibble with his rendering of certain episodes (and I do), but I don’t think anyone can reasonably call this a novelty version. Crumb has definitely done his homework – and while he admits in his introduction that he does not regard the Bible as the word of God, he clearly has a healthy respect for its mythic power:

(The Bible) is a powerful text with layers of meaning that reach deep into our collective unconsciousness, our historical consciousness, if you will. It seems indeed to be an inspired work, but I believe that its power derives from its having been a collective endeavor that evolved and condensed over many generations before reaching the final fixed form as we know it during the “Babylonian Exile,” circa 600 BCE…

If my visual, literal interpretation of the Book if Genesis offends or outrages some readers, which seems inevitable considering that the text is revered by many people, all I can say in my defense is that I approached this as a straight illustration job, with no intention to ridicule or make visual jokes. That said, I know that you can’t please everybody.

Though it seems like an unlikely project for him, Crumb’s earthy, hyper-realistic style actually serves the Biblical narrative quite well. Many will undoubtedly regard his graphic representation to be reductionist or even idolatrous (the most obvious example being God rendered as a stern, old bearded man). I personally experienced his effort as “visual midrash” that has intellectual and emotional impact in virtually every panel.

There have been a number of worthwhile reviews of the Crumb Genesis. If you are interested in reading up on the critical reaction, I highly recommend Biblical scholar Robert Alter’s recent piece in The New Republic.

Banksy and the Art of Protest

I just read that the famed anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy is mounting his largest project to date: an unusual showcasing of his work at England’s  Bristol Museum. Although this particular project was legit, it still bears the hallmarks of Banksy’s trademark guerrilla approach:

He filled three stories of the building with his art in 36 hours under tight security, as only a few museum staff were aware of the shows’ imminent arrival.

His work is hidden among the museum’s usual exhibits and is split into different rooms, including installations, paintings and sculptures.

Reading this reminded me of another one of Banksy’s projects:  a series of amazing protest art he painted along Israel’s barrier wall a few years ago.  Scroll down to see some of the more well-known images he put up in Bethlehem.  Click the clip above to see the mysterious artist in action…

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The Ottomans: Gone But Not Forgotten

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Read an interesting article in the NY Times Saturday about the new $200 million museum opening in Athens. Apparently there is now hope in Greece that it will become the permanent home for the Parthenon Marbles – an ancient frieze from the Parthenon that was taken by the British in the early 19th century.

Toward the end of the article:

Greece retains only 36 of the 115 original panels from the Parthenon frieze, which depicts a procession in honor of the goddess Athena. Britain has long asserted that when (British Ambassador) Lord Elgin chiseled off the sculptures some 200 years ago, he was acting legally, since he had permission from Greece’s Ottoman rulers.

Ottoman law, Ottoman law…

Something about this sounded strangely familiar – then it hit me. Ottoman law has also been invoked in defense of a very different sort of theft: namely Israel’s nationalization of Palestinian land in the Occupied Territories.

From a 2005 B’tselem report:

The declaration of the territory as state land was grounded on a manipulative use of the Ottoman Land Law of 1858, which was absorbed in the British mandatory legislation, and later in Jordanian law. According to the 1858 law, the state may take possession of land that is not worked for three consecutive years. In accordance with the military legislation, through which the Ottoman Law was applied, the burden of proof was on the person contending that his parcel of land is not state land.

Who knew? It’s almost a hundred years since the Ottoman empire went under, but its legal genius is still appreciated more than ever…

Theater of Crisis in Israel/Palestine

It seems that two remarkable, powerfully self-reflective theater productions are currently being staged in the same little patch of land: “Gaza-Ramallah,” a Palestinian play produced by The Haya Theater in Ramallah; and “Bat-Yam-Tykocin,” staged jointly by The Habima Theater and the Contemporary Theater of Wroclaw in Tel Aviv.

For its part, “Gaza-Ramallah” appears to skewer Gazan and West Bank culture with equal opportunity satire. Interestingly, Palestinian actor/playwright Imad Farajin chooses not to dwell on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza but instead turns his sights on Gaza’s materialistic consumer culture. He seems to be just as unsparing in his portayal of Palestinian Authority corruption in the West Bank.  From an Amira Hass feature in Ha’aretz:

It is a culture where Palestinian businessmen, politicians, dialogue and research institution directors associate with Israeli counterparts and former senior military officers and the Shin Bet security service. A culture that allows a few individuals to accumulate wealth at the expense of the struggle against occupation. It is the “Oslo culture,” which has given peace, dialogue and coexistence a bad name.

“Bat-Yam-Tykocin” appears to be equally as emotionally/politically raw.  The pair of plays, written by an Israeli playwrignt and a Polish playwright respectively, is performed in Polish and Hebrew and takes head-on some of the common assumptions Jews and Poles harbor about the Holocaust.  The results seem to be, understandably enough, fairly challenging and painful – you can read more about the production in another newsy Ha’aretz piece.

I’m consistently struck by the ways theater can address the inner truths of complex issues in ways that far transcend media reports and history books. And I’m heartened that in the midst of this tragic crisis, there are still Palestinians and Jews who are ready to plumb their respective experiences with unflinching honesty…

The clip up top features “Bat Yam” in rehearsal; below you can see an excerpt from “Gaza-Ramallah.” (No subtitles, however – you may have to find an Arabic-speaking friend to translate).

Spertus Moves Back to the Edge

After their last edgy exhibition was shut down by the Chicago Federation, the Spertus Museum has come back undaunted with “Twisted Into Recognition: Cliches of Jews and Others.” Their latest offering, which comes from the Jewish Museums of Berlin and Vienna,

explores the ways images and objects that depict stereotypes are seen, perceived, and classified. Stereotypes and clichés are an integral part of our perception, shaping our image of ourselves and others as well as our sense of belonging to a distinct group or nation apart from others. Through their simplification, these characterizations may help us to overcome our fear of the unknown, but at the same time, serve as a breeding ground for racist ideologies.

Kudos to Spertus (and especially curator Rhoda Rosen) for continuing to offer probing and challenging explorations of the contemporary Jewish experience – and for refusing to be intimidated by those who are threatened by such.

For more on “Twisted,” check out this recent review in the Chicago Tribune.

Arab-Israeli Cultural Correspondence

The first exhibit of Arab-Israeli art to appear in Israel has just opened at the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem. Entitled “Correspondence,” it features the art of 13 Arab-Israeli artists who explore the cultural tensions inherent experienced by Palestinian citizens of Israel.

According to the Mayer’s description of the exhibit:

“Correspondence” attempts to reveal the dialogue between its own culture and the culture of the other, whether in politics, social affairs, fear and doubt or curiosity and the desire for knowledge. Some of these elements can provoke controversy while others may give rise to civilized, humane dialogue and correspondence. The exhibition expropriates some of the artists’ cultural assets, since he or she is here observed as being preoccupied with, angry at and influenced by the culture of an other in an age of Modernism, globalization and Zionism.

In a recent Forward article, the museum’s artistic director explained it in less academic terms:

“I thought the Israeli public should be aware of the problems and the subjects and try to understand what is bothering them and what they are dealing with,” said the artistic director of the Mayer Museum, Rachel Hasson. “Israeli Arabs are part of us, they are living among us, and not to exhibit their work is a way to ignore it. Some can write songs and poems, and a painter can put on a painting what he feels, and we should all know and acknowledge it.”

“Correspondence” certainly appears to be a powerful and provocative exhibit – kudos to the Mayer for taking it on. It runs through January 2009 – anyone who visits is encouraged to weigh in with reviews and reactions…

Death of a Palestinian Poet

Just read of the death of the prominent Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish in Houston following heart surgery. An incalculable loss for the Palestinian people and the world.

Speaking as an American Jew, Darwish’s poetry gave me an invaluable entry point into the Palestinian cultural soul. I do believe that in addition to his importance as the unofficial Palestinian poet laureate (he grappled publicly with the experience of his people’s exile long before it made the world headlines) he was an artist who transcended his own unique historical time and circumstance. Darwish was truly an artist whose art made a difference in the world.

It’s also important to note that while Darwish was fiercely devoted to his homeland and his cause, his poetry also opened up a significant place of connection between Palestinian and Israeli culture. Darwish himself expressed appreciation, for example, for the poetry of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai – and as recently as 2000, Israel’s then education minister, Yossi Sarid, proposed including some of Darwish’s poems in the Israeli high school curriculum.

Check out Global Voices for thoughts from the world blogosphere about Darwish’s legacy. Click here to read a sampling of his poetry.

Big Honors For “Exit Wounds”

I just read in Ha’aretz that Israeli artist/writer Rutu Modan’s “Exit Wounds,” has won the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for best graphic novel, apparently the highest award a graphic novel can receive in the US.

I’d say it’s a richly deserved honor. It’s a wonderfully drawn and multi-layered book; the plot focuses on a young Israeli cab driver’s search for his long lost father, who may or may not have been killed in a terrorist suicide bombing. “Exit Wounds” simultaneously reads as a detective story, a portrait of deeply scarred Israeli society and a poignant family drama. I enjoyed it thoroughly when I first read it last year and recommend it highly.

The Buckling of Spertus

Sad news for the Jewish community of Chicago, for Jews everywhere…

“Imaginary Coordinates,” an exhibit at the Spertus Museum has closed down due to pressure from the Jewish United Fund of Greater Chicago. “Coordinates” explored historical maps of Israel/Palestine not simply as navigational devices but as tools that can “manipulate an outcome” and serve as “products of memory and spiritual imagination.” This innovative and important exhibit incorporated artifacts and videos, and sought to expand the conventional notion of cartography as the only way to define borders. When first mounted, it was initially suspended, then tweaked. Now it’s no more.

Apparently, the Jewish Federation here believed that an intelligent examination of the cultural influences of politcal borderlines is tantamount to anti-Zionist propaganda. Even since the reworking, the JUF, which contributes roughly 11% of Spertus’ budget, has been laying heat on the museum to cease and desist. This past week, Spertus finally buckled.

JUF President Steven Nasatir was quoted in a newsy Chicago Trib piece thus:

Aspects of it were clearly anti-Israel. I was very surprised that a Jewish institution would put forward this exhibition. I was surprised and saddened by it.

No, I’d say intelligent exploration and provocative debate is precisely what belongs at a Jewish institution – regardless of what certain powerful minorities in our community might say. I’m particularly troubled by this patronizing attitude that the exhibit should not be viewed without the “appropriate context.” Whose context – the Jewish Federation’s? Isn’t that really the point: that it was this sort of bias that the exhibit was seeking to explore?

Offering Reconciliation

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I had the very good fortune yesterday to attend the final day of “Offering Reconciliation,”an art exhibit sponsored by The Parent’s Circle/Bereaved Families Forum – an important Israeli-Palestinian coexistence organization of which I have written before on this blog.

This exhibit, which has traveled extensively around the US and has been been shown at the World Bank and the UN, consists of 135 works of art created by prominent Palestinian and Israeli painters, sculptors, photographers and poets, offering their interpretations of reconciliation and hope for peace in the region. Starting from an initial model, a clay bowl called the “Bowl of Reconciliation,” these artists have created their own unique versions. The pieces represent the ideas of reconciliation, coexistence, pain, loss, fracture and fusion in amazingly different ways.

33498368.jpgThe bowls have gradually been auctioned off during the course of the exhibit and only a few remained on this final day. Inevitably, I fell in love with one and snapped it up for JRC. That’s it in the picture above, an exquisite piece entitled “Free-Dam” by Israeli photographer Tami Porat.

JRC members joined others who were walked through the exhibit by two members of the Parent’s Circle: Israeli Robi Damelin and Palestinian Ali Abu Awwad, both of whom have lost loved ones to Mideast violence. Robi and Ali (at right) now tour extensively with the Parent’s Circle to spread the message of non-violence and reconciliation. By the way, both of them are featured prominently the incredible documentary “Encounter Point” (a film I recommend you see right away…)