On the A Tale of a Woman and a Robe Exhibition

A Tale of a Woman and a Robe: The name of the exhibition hints at tales and legends, entire worlds of attire and metamorphosis, miracles and piety. The waters of the mikveh (ritual bath) are, however, a mirror shattering before us. They reflect for us a woman's body seeking to pass through the impenetrable membrane of the Jewish religion, and which in order to permeate these blocked cells – it must be exposed, naked and bare. It must take upon itself, in an act simultaneously both symbolic and practical, multiple systems of patriarchal humiliation.

Are both the secular and religious worlds capable of accommodating this exhibition with all its implications?

Feminism here is considered a given. The A Tale of a Woman and a Robe exhibition succeeds in rising above the routine feminist protest through the presentation of the female subject as a victim, the aspect of the genderized body subject to the overseeing gaze. The exhibition serves as a fascinating platform for discussion at the center of which stands the relationship between 'exterior' and 'interior'.

It would seem that this exhibition places a distinct contrast vis-à-vis the superb Matronita: Jewish Feminist Art Exhibition that was recently displayed at the Ein Hod Museum (curators: David Sperber and Dvora Liss). While Matronita sought to spread a tapestry of representations and topics associated with the cross-point between feminism, gender and religion, and incorporated a large number of art types, the current exhibition strives to read this abundance of issues from an observation of a single event, an extreme scenario from which a range of issues emerge and are deciphered.

It would seem that this immersion into the public domain is the main tactic of the exhibition. The exhibition seeks to occupy the endpoint at which the maximal modesty that the halakhah (Jewish religious laws) wishes to create, and which seeks expression in the women's conversion, meets its paradoxical outcome – a complete eroticism of the holy. The exhibition offers for precise examination a halakhic process which concludes in an absurd: a theatrical erotic-voyeuristic production which bears, eventually, disturbing similarities to well-known pornographic practices. The exhibition formalizes the substantive place in which patriarchy collapses into itself and creates a performance of authorized male voyeurism. In so doing, out of the never-ending attempt to export sexuality out of the world – the entire world becomes the subject for a libidinal burden.

The artists participating in the exhibition are observant Jews. This is no 'provocation' or 'incitement'. It is neither sanctimoniousness nor boisterousness. This exhibition utilizes its own tools in order to create a new blend between the fabric of life in which the artists live and art, gender, private and public visibility. This is not a tale told to the secular about 'the horrors of religion'. This is an internal discourse undertaken candidly, in broad daylight, within the confines of a house called The Artists House. The religious artists feel at home in this house. They feel at home in the mikveh. The merger of worlds brings forth the intolerable points of difficulty, the grating points of friction. Shimon Pinto's delicate oil paintings are replete with transcendence. Hila Karabelnikov-Paz's detailed collages are penetrative and glimpse inwards into the very body, and the Nurit Jacobs-Yinon's profound and spectacular video works offer no respite. The three artists whose works are on display at the exhibition are extraordinary, all mature and well-developed in their respective fields. Behind each is a rich resumé of works (most recently: the solo exhibition of Hila Karabelnikov-Paz at the Yaffa Braverman Sheraton Beach Gallery, Shimon Pinto's solo exhibition – There is no Distant Place – at the Florentin 45 Gallery, and Nurit Jacobs Yinon's documentary film Covenant). Their teaming-up succeeds in creating a loaded and fascinating expanse.

The exhibition presents a brilliant use of the gallery, of the non-commercial display space as a distinctly individual district of the public domain, a place under the constant scrutiny of a critical eye which observes the well-dressed rabbis watching the woman convert immersing in and surfacing from the water, wrapped in a robe, physically and emotionally naked. The artistic portfolio includes: video, collage, oil painting, signaling the non-submission to the intransient signposts of the halakhah.

The immersion in the mikveh which the visitors of the exhibition undergo is one into publicity and not into intimacy; that same maximal intimacy of a person with his body – and through his body, with the divine – which the mikveh seeks to create, a gathering point for the purifying spiritual energy.

The rabbis are presented in the gallery as interviewees, as participants in artistic practice known as 'video work'. This is a new sensitivity blossoming from the younger generation, no longer willing to neglect the 'secular' language of the plastic arts. The closed hermetic space of the mikveh becomes a perforated enclosure: we glimpse at the manner in which the halakhah is etched in the female body, through the representative mask of art. The expanse of the gallery becomes a mikveh, and the questions scream out from the walls.

Dr. Ketzia Alon is a lecturer in art and literature at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. She previously served as the Head of the Gender Studies Program at the Beit Berl College, edited the Hakivun Mizrach periodical and served as curator at the Zemack Contemporary Art Gallery. Her recently published book Oriental Israeli Poetics deals with Oriental Poetry.