Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hidden in Haggadot

With Passover fast approaching, our lab turned its attention to this important holiday. Noam Sienna joined the Artists' Lab to share his knowledge on the meaning hidden in medieval illuminated Haggadot. A talented calligrapher and illuminator, Noam pointed to his parents as a significant influence in his chosen direction.  His mother Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is an active feminist rabbi and writer. His father Baruch Browns-Sienna is a calligrapher who now works digitally. Noam grew up in a home filled with words and image.

Noam also was influenced by his professor Max Michael Epstein whose approach he supports and follows.  The approach says two things: 1) The makers of Jewish art were intentional in the choice of the images they used and 2) We need to bring an attitude of humility towards the art and consider what the original audience knew or saw that we might not know.

Most Haggadot have Biblical themed illustrations focused on the story of Exodus, often on full pages.  There are also images of the celebration of the Seder and the preparations for it. The third visual element often relates to the parts of the text, the four children or maror next to the blessing for it.  The Medieval Haggadot from before 1500 were luxury products, but were actively used as evidenced by wine stains and candle wax.

The Haggadot were written in Hebrew.  There were no translations until later and images were important as many did not read Hebrew.  Women were not educated as broadly so Haggadot for women were often heavy on the imagery. The Golden Haggadah was likely commissioned for a woman as it repeats an image of a woman throughout the Haggadah even when it is unexpected.

Noam pointed out a couple of interesting features in Haggadah images, some with meaning that we don't fully understand.  He showed one image of a seder with cats or dogs under the table. Both animals carry symbolism.

He also shared a image of the 1320 Golden Haggadah with the plague of frogs. This image is of Moses with his rod tapping a frog who in turn shoots out smaller frogs at the stand -in for Pharoah, the King of Spain.  Whomever was tormenting the Jews at that time became Pharoah in the Haggadah.  A little humor is hidden in this image.  The first frog is turned around, actually shooting frogs out of his behind.

There were often battles being waged with competing religious imagery. He first showed us an image of Mary, her infant and her older husband Joseph seated behind her on a donkey.  Contrasting with that is a similar image with a young Moses with his staff and a tree of life sprouting behind him. It is an image of potency. Behind him on a donkey is Zipporah with two infants. The subtext is this is a fruitful story unlike that of of Mary and Joseph.  There may have also been an element of masking, showing something familiar to Christian authorities who checked the manuscripts and had to approve them.

 Easter and Passover have visual links and the subtext in some Haggadot was that Easter is a mockery and perversion of Passover.  The process of making matzo is often shown to underscore there is no blood involved, an old trope often put forth by Christians of the time.

The more interesting elements are often hidden in the margins quite literally.  There Jews are often represented by hares, the subject of hare hunts, while inversions occur which show pigs or dogs serving the hares. The images above are from the Barcelona Haggadah at the British Museum.

The frequency of hare hunts in the Haggadah is attributed to the convergence of the German word for hare hunt with a mnemonic designed to remind us of the proper sequence of events when Pesach falls on a Saturday and Havdallah must be performed. The mneumonic YaKNeHaZ is an acronym  of the initial letters of five Hebrew words: yayin, kiddush, ner, havdalah, zeman.  It is a bit of whimsy that carries over to contemporary times, reflected in David Moss's Haggadah.

Moss used the eagle, a symbol for many countries, and in its claws places a rabbit. It is only in the last frame that the rabbit hops to safety.

Following Noam's presentation, Meryll led us in an exercise to think about how we would bring our creativity to our Seders this year.

We then welcomed several of the MCAD students from The People's Library.  The group began as a reading group and morphed into a student organized artist collective.  Their objective is to use art and education to address oppression in its many forms.

 They make use of exhibitions, community building, information sharing and knowledge building to accomplish their goals.

They have used screen prints to create signs for protests and put these skills to work with the eight words Robyn asked us to contribute on our work for our upcoming exhibition.  They took those words and made posters for each of us in a unique idea piece, personalized to our own community.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Always at Least Two

In these times of political turmoil, museums are faced with a question. How do they acknowledge that turmoil and the environment which many of us find disturbing, yet do it in a way that is appropriate and encourages dialogue. I recently returned from the conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums, where this question occupied center stage. Our local MIA has found a creative way to respond with their exhibit Resistance, Protest, Resilience.  The exhibit presents 60 photographs of protests and their accompanying movements both nationally and internationally.

The Artists' Lab met at the exhibition where Krista Pearson and Paige Dansinger led us through a series of thoughtful exercises as we digested the content and responded to it from our own experience. The exercises are based on Global Thinking Strategies and Project Zero.  We were asked to break into small groups, explore the gallery and select a photograph to which we responded.  We were then asked to consider the 3 Ys, 1) Why this topic matters to me? 2) Why might it matter to people around me? and 3) Why might it matter to the world?

A photo nearby caught my eye and I motioned to my group to join me.  In the center was a woman, obviously expressing displeasure to a group of men who appeared to be trying to figure out how to respond to her.  Some were laughing, others had their arms crossed over their bodies protectively. Most were young men, but one older gentleman out of Central Casting was looking askance.  I read the nearby text which reported that the photograph by Danny Lyon was in downtown Atlanta in 1963. Demonstrators were protesting segregation and unfair hiring practices while a mob began to abuse them with kicks and burning cigarettes. Note the young man in front holding a cigarette. Was he one of the attackers? A woman was walking by with a box of typing paper and bravely chose to confront the mob. Someone yelled, "If you feel that way, why don't you marry one of them?" She sat down and joined the demonstrators.

The question that confronted us was "Would we speak out?"  I thought about when I was preparing to attend the DC Women's March and read that you should record a phone number on your skin with a pen in case you got arrested.  My first thought was, "I'm not going to get arrested!" That was quickly followed by the thought, "What if I did? How would I feel about that?"  We live in our safe bubbles, but protest is not always safe.  At what point do we put ourselves at risk to support something in which we believe?

The woman in this picture had clearly made that choice. Her physical safety was somewhat protected by the snide "little lady" attitudes expressed by the smirks of some of the men. They were ill at ease with a woman confronting them, but hemmed in by society's expectations of how one treats a lady.  She was a white woman confronting white men, whether that restraint would be true for a black woman is more questionable. I liked her hand on her hip and the way she leaned forward, occupying her space. I would hope that I would be that brave, but am not sure if I would.  The men felt disempowered by her confrontation and tried to attack her verbally, but she was having none of that.  This image is about the power that one person can exert.

We also spoke of the photographer as witness. He was standing in the same spot we now stood when he took the picture. I wondered if the young man in the center smiling was responding to the camera. The photographer chose what to photograph and the perspective he wished to reflect.

When we looked at the broader world, we talked of the recent photograph of the Republican legislators around a conference table. This roomful of men were discussing the exclusion of  women's health care as a requirement in the recently defeated health care bill.  We noted that in many ways it hasn't changed much since the 1963 photo was taken. Men continue to hold the power and women need to continue to challenge.

We gathered as a group and shared our responses to the different selections. Jonathan  offered this pithy reminder courtesy of Ansel Adams who was asked why he never had people in his photographs. He responded that there are always at least two people, the photographer and the viewer.

Our second exercise was about beauty and truth.  We were asked to select a photograph and respond to these questions: 1) Can you find beauty in this story? 2. Can you find truth in it? 3) How might beauty reveal truth? 4) How might beauty conceal truth?

We found this one more difficult and struggled with how to define beauty. Was it a well constructed photograph? We were drawn to a photograph that was quite strong in terms of composition, but also puzzling.  We soon abandoned the questions, and instead considered how we evaluate it when we don't know the context.

The photo was titled "Demonstration Against War in Vietnam," seemingly straightforward, but less so when you realize it was taken in Beijing by French photographer Marc Riboud in the 1960s.

On the placards are images of Ho Chi Minh and Mao.  We assumed these were anti-American demonstrations. The partially cut off man in the corner, the man with the Mao hat in the middle echoing the image of Mao and the raised hand and open mouth of the third were powerful. The image rose in stair steps with a clear upward arc.  We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the story behind the image, only recalling bits and pieces of the history we had lived through.

It made me consider the fact that for each of these photographs, my first assessment was who were the good guys? Who were the bad guys? Often it was an assessment of who had power and who didn't. Race and gender were visual clues. Without a firm knowledge of the context, we were sometimes unsure in that assessment. Not knowing how to frame the image was unsettling. In these times of political turmoil we make much the same assessment, dividing the world into good guys and bad guys.

As we regrouped and discussed the different images selected, some talked of another photograph by Marc Riboud with a young woman holding a flower before soldiers. They asked the question of what if the woman was black or wearing a burkah. Just as in our original photograph, it would alter the perception of danger, the power dynamic.  Sometimes the story is not just about who is there, but who isn't and how that would change the story.

The process by which we interacted with the photographs added a dimension that we would not have experienced had we just walked through the show. The show runs through April 2nd.  Stop by, find a photo to consider and try these questions. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Transgressing the Law

Haleluyahs filled the room as our session began with a song. Drawn from  Psalm 148:1-6, these lyrics ended with an unusual line Chok natan v'lo ya'avor.   Chok natan means the law as given. V'la ya'avor, but it can't be transgressed.

Or as the link translates: He hath also established them for ever and ever; He hath made a decree which shall not be transgressed.  "What does that mean?" asked the rabbi.  In each of our sessions, I always look for the connection to our theme, my personal search for "find Outside-Inside", the "find Waldo" equivalent. Sometimes I have to dig a bit with the ah-ha only coming as I write. This seemed to address it up front, a discussion on boundary transgressions.

Rabbi Davis reminisced about when he was interviewed for his current post.  He was asked,"What is your Chok ya'avor." What is your bottom line?  What won't you do?

"Is there a time when it is OK to transgress the law?" he asked.

We replied...
   To save a life
   An issue of conscience
   When the law is wrong (eg. Jim Crow laws)
   To survive

He noted that there is a hierarchy of laws and Torah law has priority over rabbis' laws.  Additionally it is possible to violate a law intentionally, by accident, or because one didn't know that there was such a law. Circumstances can matter.

Having established that some transgressions may be acceptable despite Chok ya'avor, we moved into a discussion of Ruth, both her genealogy and geography. In the handout (Ruth1) we turned to Ruth 1:1-6.  In brief, Elimelech married Naomi and they had two sons, the sons married and then all of the men died leaving Naomi with her two daughters-in-law
Ruth and Orpah. Now the salient part of this is that both Ruth
and Orpah were Moabite women.

The Moabites, as their name implies, are descendants of Moab who was a child of Lot and his eldest daughter.  The Ammonites descended from Lot's incest with his younger daughter. We turned to Genesis 19:30-38 where we find that after Lot's wife turned to a pillar of salt and Sodom and  Gomorrah were destroyed, Lot and his daughters became cave dwellers, certain that they were the only ones left on earth. Out of that fear, his daughters sought to perpetuate the human race by laying with their father. You can find both the lands associated with the two sons, Moab and Ammon, on the maps of the region.

Where else do the Moabites appear? Well as the children of Israel traveled to Moab, the king of Moab was frightened of their large numbers.  He sought to have a curse put upon them Numbers 22:7.

God had cautioned the Israelites not to mess with either the Moabites (Deut: 2: 8-9) or the Ammonites as their land was to go to the descendants of Lot.

And then we come to Deut 23:4-7 
which instructs us that the Moabites and Ammonites cannot be admitted to the congregation of the Lord.  And why is this?  They weren't good hosts.  They failed to offer the Israelites food and drink when they traversed their land.  Even though the Israelites had plenty of manna, the test is not want, but hosting generously. In addition they went so far as to curse them which turned into a bit of a boomerang with God turning it into a blessing instead.  The punishment is quite harsh with ten generations suffering under this restriction.  And then lo and behold, along comes Ruth, a Moabite.  Not only is she a Moabite, but she ultimately becomes the great-grandmother of David. How does this come to pass after the Moabites are persona non-grata?

Rashi notes while a Moabite and Ammonite are banned, it says nothing of a Moabitess or an Ammonitess.  A more contemporary view is proposed by Lesleigh Stahlberg (Ruth2 handout) in which he considers this story as supporting the embrace of same-sex marriage over strict law abidance. The marriage of Ruth and Boaz, celebrated by the community and God, may mean that this is a biblical precedent for  "communal transgression of a law in the name of love."

The upshot of this discussion is that not all rules are written in stone, despite those two tablets that were. When they are and when they aren't was not always apparent.

Kathe Kollwitz - Woman With Dead Child 1903 (PD-Art-70)
Following this discussion Jan Rubenstein took us into an exploration of work by Kathe Kollwitz and Roger Shimomura.  Kollwitz focused on themes of hunger, poverty and war.  She was an expressionist and the first woman admitted to the Prussian Academy of Arts. Under the Nazis her work was banned and she was unable to exhibit.  War was a central experience in her life and her art, losing both a child and a grandchild to it.  She served as the moral conscience to Germany. Jan shared many of her woodcuts with several from her war series as well as etchings like the very powerful Woman With Dead Child where the woman's body merges with her child.  A museum of Kollwitz's work now exists in Berlin.

Roger Shimomura was born in 1939.  His family was moved from Seattle to the Japanese internment camps in Washington and Idaho and were there from 1941-43.  He was influenced by Warhol and a show recently ended at Augsburg College titled Mistaken Identity.  The name references the identity that was placed upon him, perceived as a non-American, despite being born an American.  A large assortment of his work can be found at the Greg Kucera Gallery. Some is cartoon-like while other work reflects traditional Japanese imagery with a twist that speaks to his experience.  I especially liked one of a young child on a tricycle, the age that he would have been during his internment. that says through barbed wire "Our American eyes, aslant like Kamikazi, blink in disbelief as barbed wire encircles and machine guns take aim."

Jan closed by offering us a source at MOMA if we would like more information on printmaking.

The last part of our session was led by Aaron Greenberg/Silver who currently has a show of papercuts that make use of words at the Tychman Shapiro Gallery.  Aaron grew up in New Jersey and lived in New York, but has been in Minneapolis for the past eight years. He has worked in watercolor, clay, prints, metal sculpture and for the past five years, papercuts. He prefers the ease and accessibility of this medium. Aaron shared a number of his works with us.  Often his inspiration comes from words that he hears in synagogue.  The show is up through March 26th.

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.