In his final exhibit, an emigre curator gets personal

In his final exhibit, an emigre curator gets personal

Nissan Perez, who came from Turkey at 21, closes his Israel Museum career with an exploration of immigrant photography

Debra writes for the JTA, and is a former features writer for The Times of Israel.

S.J. Schweig's image captures two Jewish women spotting the Promised Land for the first time. (photo credit: Courtesy Israel Museum)
S.J. Schweig's image captures two Jewish women spotting the Promised Land for the first time. (photo credit: Courtesy Israel Museum)

The Six Day War, which Israelis have been commemorating these past few days, was undoubtedly the major event of 1967. Except, perhaps, for art historian and curator Nissan Perez, who came to this country from Turkey that same year and started his life anew.

Perez, born in Istanbul into a French- and Spanish-speaking home, emigrated from his native land at the age of 21 and has spent the nearly half-century since making his mark on the photography scene in Israel. He joined the Israel Museum not long after his arrival, creating the Jewish State’s first-ever photography department, and going on to curate more than 180 exhibitions both at home and abroad.

But all journeys eventually wind their way to an end, and last week Perez unveiled his final exhibition. “Displaced Visions: Émigré Photographers of the 20th Century,” which opened on May 28 and will run through October 5, is practically naked in its personal connection to its curator. For his curtain call at the Israel Museum, Perez is showing visitors more than just beautiful images. He is showing a sliver of himself.

“I like to quote the French semiologists who wrote that each of our theories have shreds of autobiography,” Perez, seated in a quiet corner of the museum’s light-soaked, newly refurbished Fine Arts wing, says. “Well, I guess this is quite true for this exhibition also.”

Perez’s immigrant journey made an indelible mark on his art career, he says. It imbued him with the permanently skewed vision of an outsider, shifting his perspective from that of the locals, no matter how fully absorbed he became in Israel. The 100 immigrant photographers on show in the exhibition, all of them major players in the global art scene of last 100 years, were similarly displaced.

Nissan Perez, the exhibit curator, is an emigre himself.
Nissan Perez, the exhibit curator, is an emigre himself.

“When you move from one culture to another, one language to another, and one visual environment to another, you obviously see things differently than the locals. And that’s what happened to most of those, if not all of those, photographers at the time,” says Perez.

Growing up in Istanbul, the ultimate intersection of East and West, Perez quickly became fluent in more than one culture. Add to that his traditional Jewish home, where his immigrant parents spoke to him in pre-Inquisition Spanish, and his schooling, which was conducted in French, and you have a supreme hodge-podge of tongues and traditions.

“This certainly left traces in me, in my education, and the way also that I see things,” he says. “Quite often people remark here in Israel that the way I look at Israeli photography is different than the locals. Which is true.”

In paring down his exhibition roster to just 200 images, Perez decided to include not just immigrants but also children of immigrants, because, he says, “They grew up in an environment of immigrants, so they were still outsiders.”

Photography buffs will likely recognize some of the images in the exhibition, including the parlormaids of Bill Brandt (born in Germany, immigrated to England); nighttime snaps of Paris by George Brassai (born in Hungary, immigrated to France); and iconic looks at New York City by Andre Kertesz (born in Hungary, immigrated first to Paris and then to the United States).

Brassai: Shoemaker at Montparnasse
Brassai: Shoemaker at Montparnasse

But the real treasures of this exhibition are the lesser-known pictures. They can be found in collages by first-generation Frenchwoman (and notorious lover of Pablo Picasso) Dora Maar; Paris landscapes by the perpetual rover Germaine Krull; and early surrealist works by Latvian-born American Philippe Halsmann.

Other bold-faced names in the mix include Robert Frank, Man Ray, Lisette Model, Tina Modotti, Moholy Nagy, and members of the New York School.

There’s something almost voyeuristic about these black-and-white snaps, like peering through a keyhole straight into the tumult of the 20th century. In one shot, a cherubic blond-haired boy stands on a German street, a Nazi flag fluttering serenely in the corner. In another, a Jewish grandmother and granddaughter are framed in a porthole window, staring out at the Promised Land that unfurls, unseen, on the shore before them. Some of the images are positively Lacanian, the stranger looking upon the local in a bid to stretch his own stunted gaze.

Untitled: Paris Street Scene with Notre Dame, by Man Ray
Untitled: Paris Street Scene with Notre Dame, by Man Ray

For an exhibition of this sort, says Perez, Israel made an ideal canvas.

“This is a country of immigrants and a country of immigration. It’s a melting pot. And so we know that every wave of immigration brought something new and something different and the society keeps changing all the time,” he says.

And the exhibition, he insists, is not just an homage to photography. It’s a study of those 100 defining years in general.

“Today, you know, the buzz words are ‘globalization’ and ‘the Internet,’” Perez says. “But globalization started at the very beginning of the 20th century. People don’t think about it, but that’s when communication and transportation both became much easier.”

To expand upon the experience of the exhibition, the Israel Museum will host a symposium on June 25 and 26, entitled “In a Strange Land: The Photographic and Artistic Interpretation of Unfamiliar Environments.” The event will be chaired by French anthropologist Marc Augé and will include a discussion with a handful of notable historians, philosophers, anthropologists and artists from around the globe. Names on the roster include Boris Groys of New York University, Svetlana Boym of Harvard University and French public intellectual and author Bernard-Henri Lévy.

When the exhibit wraps up in October, Perez will once again be entering something new and unfamiliar. To cope, he says, he plans to keep busy — teaching courses at both Ben-Gurion University and the Hebrew University, and finally bringing to life his ideas for not just one new book, but three.

“I’ll be busy,” he says with a smile. “I guess I’ll be quite busy, in fact. I am not the kind of person to sit in front of a TV set in pajamas and just have a beer.”

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