Singing the ‘Song of Deb­o­rah’

Artist An­ge­lika Sher ex­plores her daugh­ter’s ex­pe­ri­ence in the IDF

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By ARIEL DO­MINIQUE HENDELMAN

An­ge­lika Sher grew up in Lithua­nia, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time. As i w t was not known for be­ing a haven of artis­tic or spir­i­tual nour­ish­ment; Sher grew up with the back­drop of pro­le­tariat dic­ta­tor­ship and athe­ism. In Vilna, where Sher’s fam­ily lived, syn­a­gogues were rou­tinely de­stroyed, yet the Chris­tian cler­i­cal ar­chi­tec­ture re­mains to this day. Sher em­i­grated to Is­rael in 1990, dur­ing the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the USSR.

“Lithua­nia had be­come in­creas­ingly na­tion­al­is­tic as it was fight­ing for in­de­pen­dence,” Sher re­calls. “I came to Is­rael to be with my Jewish fam­ily, to feel warmth and ex­pe­ri­ence free­dom.”

Sher set­tled into her new Is­raeli life and, as she puts it, was striv­ing to sur­vive in a cap­i­tal­ist world. She be­gan study­ing ra­di­og­ra­phy in univer­sity, but af­ter giv­ing birth to her first child, Deb­o­rah, Sher tran­si­tioned from cap­tur­ing the im­ages of in­ner or­gans to pho­tograph­ing the ex­te­rior world. It was a rather nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion. In­te­grat­ing into the Is­raeli art scene, Sher found it to be rather open, al­though some gal­lerists tended to look for a con­tin­u­a­tion of purely Is­raeli di­a­logue in art and strug­gled to ac­cept that im­mi­grants could make their unique im­pact as well, with their own points of view and sto­ries to tell.

Sher’s new­est ex­hi­bi­tion, on dis­play until the end of De­cem­ber at the Zemack Con­tem­po­rary Art Gallery in Tel Aviv, is a per­fect ex­am­ple of this, where she drew in­spi­ra­tion from her daugh­ter’s ex­pe­ri­ence in the IDF.

“The in­ten­sity of men­tal and emo­tional stress around Deb­o­rah’s mo­bi­liza­tion was so pow­er­ful, that it was ac­com­pa­ny­ing me per­ma­nently, re­gard­less of what I did,” Sher says. “This led to a strong sym­bio­sis with my daugh­ter. My del­i­cate and frag­ile baby was trans­formed by the uni­form and the ranks. My pride in her be­came in­ter­twined with anx­i­ety. I never in­vent a theme for my art, I al­ways take full ad­van­tage of my daily ex­pe­ri­ence.”

This is not the first time that Sher has drawn on Deb­o­rah for artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion; past bod­ies of work have also fo­cused on her. From one se­ries to the next, Sher has both fol­lowed and ob­served her daugh­ter grow­ing up. This has en­abled her to re­live child­hood and ado­les­cence anew, or at least vi­car­i­ously. But there is also a sep­a­ra­tion; at Deb­o­rah’s age, Sher was in Lithua­nia dream­ing of meeting a charm­ing young man. She was not dressed in army green fa­tigues, car­ry­ing an M-16. The pho­to­graphs that com­prise “Song of Deb­o­rah” re­flect this paradox: the in­ti­macy of the mother/daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship with the ac­com­pa­ny­ing es­trange­ment born of in­ter-gen­er­a­tional as well as cul­tural di­vides.

Sher’s pho­to­graphs are bold, provoca­tive and beau­ti­ful. They are also bound to and re­belling against the Euro­pean art and Chris­tian iconog­ra­phy that she was sur­rounded by grow­ing up. Trip­tych takes af­ter the five canon­i­cal poses of Maria in the Rus­sian Or­tho­dox Church. Maria is orig­i­nally shown in prayer, but in Sher’s pho­to­graph, five scenes de­pict fe­male soldiers and dogs against a blue sky.

“The sol­dier fig­ure, whose hands are raised to pro­tect, or per­haps sur­ren­der­ing, is a hor­ri­fy­ing al­lu­sion to a famous pho­to­graph of a Jewish boy in the ghetto. The sol­dier wears a mil­i­tary iden­ti­fi­ca­tion disk around her neck, which is evoca­tive of the icons worn by de­vout Chris­tians. The sol­dier’s hand is dec­o­rated with a tat­too of a rose – one of Je­sus’ sym­bols – sur­rounded by the in­scrip­tion, ‘Ac­cept my­self un­con­di­tion­ally,’ (a quote from the IDF oath). The ‘Maria Or­nate’ here is flanked by two archangels: Michael (the mil­i­tary com­man­der) and Gabriel (the voice of the Cre­ator). Orig­i­nally, both are de­picted as the same per­son, dressed in dif­fer­ent clothes. In the pho­to­graph, they are por­trayed by a young woman of con­scrip­tion age. Like Gabriel, she is tough-look­ing: dressed in Gothic

clothes, her head shaved, and her ear­lobes gouged. But when she as­sumes the ap­pear­ance of Michael, she looks like a thin and frail girl, dressed in an IDF uni­form that is too big for her, and the tough ap­pear­ance has all but gone.”

An­other pho­to­graph, Pi­eta, bor­rows from one of the most rec­og­niz­able im­ages in Chris­tian­ity: Mary weep­ing over the cru­ci­fied body of her son. The most famous pi­eta is by Michelan­gelo, and was of­ten pho­tographed by artists such as Boaz Tal, Vardi Ka­hana, Adi Ness. Sher searched for an orig­i­nal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the im­age, while seek­ing to avoid ex­ces­sive drama­ti­za­tion. In her pho­to­graph, a dark haired fe­male sol­dier is de­picted at a bus stop, hold­ing her army bag as if it was her own child wrapped in a blan­ket.

In an­other pho­to­graph, The Birth, bent fig­ures of fe­male soldiers (along with two dogs) peer down at a new­born baby with a mix of ap­pre­hen­sion and fas­ci­na­tion.

“Sol­dier-maids rep­re­sent a con­trast be­tween the mil­i­tary uni­form and the pu­rity of the new­born, while high­light­ing the woman’s role as birth-giver,” Sher ex­plains. “Like in the clas­si­cal scene, do­mes­tic an­i­mals are present, tra­di­tion­ally sym­bol­iz­ing the sim­ple peo­ple. In my work they are rep­re­sented by my dogs.”

Sher’s pho­to­graph Wa­ter­melon Eaters de­picts a kind of Last Sup­per. She states that she was try­ing to avoid the Last Sup­per as a theme be­cause it is so com­monly used. How­ever, when she failed to find a sin­gle church with­out the im­age, she ul­ti­mately gave in. Draw­ing on the famous ver­sion by Leonardo Da Vinci, the fe­male soldiers are pho­tographed stand­ing and sit­ting around a blue ta­ble with the Jerusalem hills in the back­ground, as they eat a wa­ter­melon. Ac­cord­ing to Sher, the red fruit rep­re­sents not only Christ’s blood and body, but also the essence of the Is­raeli ex­pe­ri­ence. The name of the work al­ludes to the renowned The Potato Eaters piece by Van Gogh. One of Sher’s dogs is once again de­picted in the lower right cor­ner; head jut­ting out from un­der­neath the ta­ble.

In one of Sher’s most breath­tak­ing pho­to­graphs, Trip­tych Geula, a snap­shot of Jerusalem’s di­verse hu­man mosaic is de­picted against stark Jerusalem stone.

“The Trip­tych shot in Jerusalem shows a city of con­flict and strife, a place of an on­go­ing power strug­gle,” Sher adds. “Jerusalem sym­bol­izes the arena of con­flict­ual re­la­tions be­tween re­li­gions, streams and fac­tions in Is­raeli so­ci­ety, and be­tween women and men in the pub­lic sphere. To­day we are wit­ness­ing a so­cial strug­gle with the #MeToo move­ment, led by women who are no longer will­ing to be vic­tims. Women are mov­ing away from the pas­sive, silent and vic­tim­ized po­si­tion. Sup­ported by the en­tire sis­ter­hood of women, they are lead­ing a change in so­cial per­cep­tions and the be­hav­ior they im­ply. This sig­ni­fies that change is pos­si­ble. Trip­tych Geula shows Palm Sun­day, af­ter the hol­i­day that marks the ar­rival of Je­sus to Jerusalem. At its cen­ter is the Mes­siah, de­scribed as a poor man who will ar­rive on the back of an an­i­mal that serves as an agri­cul­tural tool and ‘not a weapon of war.’ This Sal­va­tion [in He­brew – Geula, which is also a fe­male name] will make the world a bet­ter and more just place, a world where peace, friend­ship and com­radery pre­vail.”

When asked how the au­di­ence has re­acted to “Song of Deb­o­rah,” Sher em­pha­sizes that no one re­mains in­dif­fer­ent. Her work high­lights the in­ter­sec­tion of cul­tures, his­tory and re­li­gion in a truly unique man­ner. Some view­ers have been puz­zled, at­tracted or sur­prised by the un­usual mix­ture of fa­mil­iar sym­bols and im­ages; “Song of Deb­o­rah” is pro­vok­ing them to think and open their eyes to the world around them. Sher, while happy with her cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion, al­ready has plans for her next one. Her son will join the army next year, a change that will bring with it plenty more fod­der for artis­tic ex­pres­sion and cap­tur­ing mo­ments with the lens.

When Deb­o­rah her­self was asked how she feels to be the star of her mother’s pho­to­graphic ex­hi­bi­tion, she re­sponds, “For me, it’s re­ally spe­cial that a se­ries so big and im­pres­sive made by my mother is named af­ter me. The very fact that my mother chose to do these se­ries af­ter a dif­fi­cult pe­riod I ex­pe­ri­enced in my life is re­ally ex­cit­ing.”

(Pho­tos: An­ge­lika Sher)

THE FIVE pan­els of ‘Trip­tych’ play on the clas­sic Chris­tian im­age of Mary with the archangels on ei­ther side of her.

(Wikimedia Com­mons)

AN­GE­LIKA SHER: Leav­ing no one in­dif­fer­ent.

‘WA­TER­MELON EATERS’ presents a Last Sup­per of sorts, against the back­ground of the Jerusalem hills.

‘TRIP­TYCH GEULA’ de­picts the di­verse cul­tural mosaic of Jerusalem as seen through its res­i­dents.

IN ‘PI­ETA,’ Sher riffs on the iconic im­age of Mary with the Baby Je­sus.

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