The hollow skull hanging over the reflecting pool shares space rather incongruously with ancient stone pedestals and chests. Other contemporary art installments — pony-tailed steel helmets, a rug made out of loofahs, a clothes drying rack covered with fluorescent paper and kitchen faucet hose sculpture — nestle side by side with clay jars, vases and pots and other exhibits at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in East Jerusalem.
It’s the first year that the five-year-old Manofim art festival is using the little-known museum (which is managed by the Israel Museum), and Leehe Shulov, one of Manofim’s two creators, loves the dissonance of the display: the intensely modern Israeli works juxtaposed with the collection of antiquities excavated by English officers of the British Mandate, all housed in a traditional limestone building that was opened in 1938.
That’s the idea behind Manofim — which translates as “Cranes” — a grassroots arts initiative created by artists living and working in Jerusalem, which aims at launching the city’s exhibition season by disseminating art throughout the city.
“The Israel Museum was part of Manofim from the very beginning,” said 34-year-old Shulov, referring to Manofim’s use of the Anna Ticho House, another Israel Museum outpost, during the first year of the event. “Their gift this year was to allow us to do it in the [Rockefeller Archaelological] museum, and we want to wake this place up. There’s something right about all this and that helps make it happen.”
The opening of the citywide exhibition will be held Thursday night in the elegant rooms of the Rockefeller Museum and in 29 other sites, from small galleries and art spaces to a bar, a cafe and local colleges. It’s a massive project, worked on for more than six months and further augmented this year by free shuttles — with entertainment on board — between the different venues. Each day of the week-long event is dedicated to one of seven neighborhoods in the city, including the more industrial area of Talpiot, the bucolic outskirts of the city, Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Musrara, among others.
All descriptions and explanations about the exhibits at the galleries — and in the thick brochure and extensive map available for the taking at each site — are written in three languages, English, Hebrew and Arabic, as are the Mandate-era names of the rooms at the Rockefeller Museum.
“I planned it like this; it’s a utopia that could be,” Shulov commented about the blending of languages while running her fingers over the limestone-engraved letters in the museum, some of which are written incorrectly — created long ago by people who may not have been familiar with the letters of the Hebrew language.
“To be here is a continuation of the process we began,” said Shulov, as she walked through the rooms of the museum telling the story of how she and her Manofim partner, Rinat Edelstein — both artists themselves — came up with the idea of the festival after a conversation with fellow Jerusalem artists about an event that would introduce the city to its artists and galleries.
That first year there were 18 galleries; now there are 25.
It’s helped to have institutions like the Israel Museum helping out, and last year the Old City’s Tower of David Museum was a focal point of the festival. That said, Shulov, who is also a fellow with the PresenTense Group — an organization that helps support social and creative entrepreneurs worldwide — has still had to fund-raise thousands of dollars each year to create the event. She prefers not to disclose the total budget for the event, pointing out that much of the work — from curating to tech setup — is done by volunteers and would be difficult to quantify.
A total of 15,000 people attended last year, and Shulov and Edelstein are expecting more this year. They also want to expand the event, and will be doing so at the Rockefeller Museum, where the Manofim exhibits will remain for six months. In addition to the exhibits, they’d like to have tours in the three languages, gallery talks and research projects.
Manofim also launched a newsletter and website in time for the event, which offers background materials about the festival as well as a full listing of Jerusalem artists, enabling easier access year-round to the world of Jerusalem art.
“We’re a little factory,” Shulov laughed. “It’s very satisfying to see this happen.”