Wednesday, March 1, 2017

A Prophet's Life

An appalling and horrible thing has come to pass in the land. There is prophesy in the service of falsehood.Wicked men have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit... they do not seek justice. They do not defend the just cause of the poor.

Hmm,  lies, fat cats and a blind eye to the poor.  "Is this modern day commentary?" some mused. In fact it dates back to 625 CE and our friend the prophet Jeremiah (5:27-31) as he tried to get the people of Judah to pay attention. Some things never go out of style.

Our discussion focused on this prophet who was first selected by God when he was a child.  God promised that he would put his words in Jeremiah's mouth and sent him out to convince the people of Judah to mend their ways. (Jeremiah 1:1-19) He offered to spare them if he could find a man who sought truth, an unsuccessful effort.  The people who survived were exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon. Jeremiah then wrote a letter to their new abode offering some hope and encouraging them to live their lives, build houses, marry and have children in peace and prosperity. If all goes well in seventy years God will bring you back. And by the way, don't believe those lying diviners. (Jeremiah 29:1-14)

We turned our attention to the poetry and allegory found in Jeremiah's language. His language is simple, clear and direct with easily understood symbolism. (As a cistern welleth with her waters, so she welleth with her wickedness) He makes use of opposites, the rhetorical question and parallel structure. It resembles what we would call spoken word poetry today and stays with you like an ear worm.(Jeremiah Ch 5,6)

Allegory is found in several sections, but let's take a look at one of them, the potter (Jeremiah 18:1-12) who marring a pot merely remakes it to another one. God notes that he is the potter, we are the clay and we best hope we aren't flawed or some remaking will occur. Jeremiah also makes use of a bit of performance art. At the behest of God, he wears a yoke around his neck as he urges rulers to submit to the yoke of the Babylon ruler. (Jeremiah Ch 27, Ch 28) It made me recall the female college student who carried a mattress around campus to protest a sexual assault.

Jeremiah didn't fare well with his message. The people decided to ignore him and "smite him with the tongue"  (Jeremiah 18:18-23) then he was whipped and placed in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:1-2).  Finally he was placed in a cistern to die only to be saved by the ultimate outsider, a black eunuch (Jeremiah 38:1-28).

Being Jeremiah was not easy.  He never married, had no children and saw something that nobody else seemed to think was wrong. He was often turned upon as that unpleasant messenger. Speaking up brings him abuse and yet not speaking up is challenging also.  In Jeremiah 20:7-18 he begins by bemoaning this dilemma and then once again allies himself with God.

A prophet's life is not an easy one.  He is always the outsider. (Jeremiah Handout)

Meryll concluded by asking if we as artists express our anger, dismay, moral outrage and visions of the future in our art.  This was an appropriate lead-in to the second half of our session which was led by Phil Rosenbloom and focused on an artist who did just that. Phil had recently attended a show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art of work by Emily Jacir, a Palestinian artist. Her documentary work Where We Come From asks Palestinians around the world to answer a question.  " If I could do anything for you anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?"     The responses are often poignant, even more so the more mundane the activity that is now not available to them. 

Her responses included:

Climb Mount Carmel in Haifa and look at the Mediterranean

Go to Haifa and play soccer with the first Palestinian boy you find.

Plant some pomegranate tree seeds in Palestine. My parents came from a village called Dhinebeh near Tulkarm. When I was growing up we would spend the spend the summertime at my grandparents' house there (when we could get visas). I remember the orchards all around the house, the orange trees and the pomeganate trees.

Jacir then performs their request for them providing a photograph of this effort, an actual crossing of boundaries as part of her concept.  In doing this she completes the circuit, making a human connection.  Her project was inspired by the question asked at airports, "Are you carrying anything that someone has given you?"

As I researched her work after the lab I ran across an interesting discussion about a sign that the museum posted (see below). Some objected to their posting of it.  It struck me as fairly innocent and an acknowledgement that there were competing views, perhaps a disclaimer that the views of the artist do not necessarily represent those of the museum.

SFMOMA is committed to exhibiting and acquiring works by local, national and international artists that represent a diversity of viewpoints and positions. Works of art can engender valuable discussion about a range of topics including those that are difficult and contested, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Additional information about Emily Jacir’s Where We Come From, including a list of frequently asked questions, is available at the information desk in the Haas Atrium.

We each read one of the selections and then discussed our reactions.  Many were touched by the human aspect of the project, some disturbed. There were also those who felt manipulated.  We all respond to the lives and stories of individuals, but these were presented without context, designed to sway public opinion without presenting facts.  The use of the word exile felt charged when used by those who were not born there.  Some felt that this was more documentation than artistic. 

As I listened to this discussion I found myself thinking of a contrasting narrative, when I first learned of the 800,000-1,000,000 Jews who were forced to leave Arab lands leaving everything behind.  I had attended a film on their experience and was confused and shocked. How did this fact escape the narrative?  Since then I have read of the individual experiences of Arab Jews forced from their home, no less poignant than Jacir's work. A contrasting narrative of their memories of their one-time home would have caused this to present a fuller picture on the experience of relocations driven by political upheaval, two sides of the same coin, but presumably not the message the artist was going for. Because they were absorbed within the Israeli population, rather than used as a political football, they receive far less copy.

We concluded by noting that this can best be extrapolated to reflect the experience of those who are other, regardless of the source or politics.

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