A collage of nuclear art
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A collage of nuclear art

Artist Andi Arnovitz tackles Iran, IS and the plunder of Islamic culture

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

For artist Andi Arnovitz, her latest collection of collages, titled 'Threatened Beauty,' is an opportunity to wonder about the culture, people and regimes threatening Iran and Iraq ('In Tehran do they kiss their children goodnight too', Courtesy Andi Arnovitz)
For artist Andi Arnovitz, her latest collection of collages, titled 'Threatened Beauty,' is an opportunity to wonder about the culture, people and regimes threatening Iran and Iraq ('In Tehran do they kiss their children goodnight too', Courtesy Andi Arnovitz)

Artist Andi Arnovitz worries about a nuclear Iran. She also spends a lot of time thinking about Islamic State and Iraq.

It’s not that she doesn’t have other, more immediate worries. But the current headlines about beheadings in Syria and nuclear enrichment in Iran leave her uneasy and full of questions.

“Where’s the truth in this?” she asked. “I can’t figure it out; somebody’s bluffing.”

That may be. But for now, Arnovitz, 55, who often works watercolor, collage and other print media into her prints and installations, put her nervous energy into “Threatened Beauty,” a weighty group of works currently on exhibit at Jerusalem’s L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art.

The works, all 32 of them, fill one room on a lower floor of the museum. Sized small and large, all circular in shape, they trace the proliferation of Iran’s nuclear project and its effect on both local and global societies.

'In the olive grove', by Andi Arnovitz (Courtesy Andi Arnovitz)
‘In the olive grove’ by Andi Arnovitz (Courtesy Andi Arnovitz)

Arnovitz completed half of them one year ago and finished another ten in the six weeks before the last-minute show opened in mid-March.

Andi Arnovitz, a Jerusalem artist whose thoughts about a nuclear Iran led to her creation of an exhibit about the subject (Courtesy Andi Arnovitz)
Andi Arnovitz, a Jerusalem artist whose thoughts about a nuclear Iran led to her creation of an exhibit about the subject (Courtesy Andi Arnovitz)

“I didn’t leave the studio; I was possessed,” said Arnovitz, a Jerusalemite who was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and made aliyah with her family 15 years ago from Atlanta.

But it’s in times like those that artists often do their best work, creating pieces that spring off the page and vividly illustrate the story being told. For Arnovitz, who creates her works from a wide range of media, the entire series began with her collection of HALI Islamic art magazines that she was about to recycle.

Instead, she began chopping them up, inserting pictures of Persian rugs and other Iranian images into the tale she was telling in each piece. Each piece is first watercolored in the background, then has the collage layered on top.

“When you isolate images” — like medallions cut from a photo of a carpet — “they become something else,” she said. “I started to see things in the textiles and in the ceramics.”

The rugs, and the images they contain, became city skylines, dragons breathing nuclear fire, or ancient Persian men shooting nuclear warheads. Arnovitz’s watercolors depict fission and fusion, heavy water, and mutant vegetation.

'Thirteen boys' in memory of the Iraqi boys killed for watching a soccer game (Courtesy Andi Arnovitz)
‘Thirteen boys’ in memory of the Iraqi boys killed for watching a soccer game (Courtesy Andi Arnovitz)

In “8000 Books,” about an Islamic State book burning in Mosul, Iraq, Arnovitz burned up a copy of her favorite novel, Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and then sewed pieces of a paragraph about the world’s massacres into images of tiny books, the words floating in the background.

“13 Boys” shows the 2015 execution of 13 teenagers in Mosul who violated Sharia law for watching a soccer match between Jordan and Iraq.

'Displaced', Arnovitz's piece about refugees throughout the world (Courtesy Andi Arnovitz)
‘Displaced,’ Arnovitz’s piece about refugees throughout the world (Courtesy Andi Arnovitz)

In “Displaced,” perhaps her most intense piece, Arnovitz painted tiny watercolor figures of people trudging, processions of people carrying things, pushing old people in wheelchairs, representing the more than 50 million refugees in the world today.

A collage of olive groves is intertwined with a classic Persian hunting scene in “Isfandiyar and the wolves,” but it’s unclear if the olive trees are sick or healthy.

One of the largest pieces, “All that is precious,” shows iconic buildings such as the US Capitol and the Eiffel Tower toppled over by nuclear destruction.

'All that is precious' by Andi Arnovitz (Courtesy Andi Arnovitz)
‘All that is precious’ by Andi Arnovitz (Courtesy Andi Arnovitz)

“I used stock photos of those buildings,” she said. “But when I cut out the windows and toppled over the images, it became something else completely.”

Arnovitz admits it’s not a happy show, although it is timely, an apt collection of works that brings the daily headlines into a kind of colorful and relatable immediacy.

For her it worked as a kind of catharsis, at least for now.

“I got it out of my system,” said Arnovitz. “I still read articles, but I don’t want to do art about it anymore.”

“Threatened Beauty” is on display in the Islamic Museum of Art until June 5.

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