Reimagining St. Petersburg
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Reimagining St. Petersburg

A Russian immigrant explores her roots and femininity in a new exhibit at Jaffa port

Dina Argov, at the Container restaurant/artspace in Jaffa, with her triptych 'Painting Women' behind her (photo credit: David Katz)
Dina Argov, at the Container restaurant/artspace in Jaffa, with her triptych 'Painting Women' behind her (photo credit: David Katz)

Dina Argov, a painter whose artwork is currently on display in the “Woman – Nature” exhibit at the Container in Jaffa, didn’t really think of herself as Russian — until she had her daughter in 2010. Becoming a mother elicited memories of her own childhood in St. Petersburg (then, Leningrad) and deepened her connection to her native land.

The Jaffa port, and the setting of the restaurant/art space, the Container (photo credit: David Katz)
The Jaffa port, and the setting of the restaurant/art space, the Container (photo credit: David Katz)

Argov, a graduate of Jerusalem’s prestigious Bezalel Academy, moved to Israel when she was six and grew up on a kibbutz (she now lives in a small beachfront moshav). She didn’t grow up in “the ghettos of Russian speakers,” she joked, referring to the stereotype that Russian immigrants in the 1990s tended to be insular, at least in terms of language and culture.

Argov possesses a down-to-earth beauty: She doesn’t wear make up, her hair is pulled back, just gently enough for small curls to spring free, and she has the porcelain-like skin of a maiden. She dresses in ethnic-inspired, free-flowing dresses which seem to fit with the ethos of her paintings, earthy and natural.

Dina Argov with some of her paintings on display at the Container in the background (photo credit: David Katz)
Dina Argov with some of her paintings on display at the Container in the background (photo credit: David Katz)

The paintings of “Woman – Nature” exude that same undefinable, feminine softness. She uses a lot of red — which is very Russian, she admitted. Red is not merely the color the communists used; “Krasni,” the word for red in Russian, shares a root with “krasivi,” the Russian word for beautiful. It is a typical Russian folk art color.

“Russians are very superstitious,” added Argov, noting that her painting style has been influenced by “spiritual urban tales.”

"Mountryoshka," a Peruvian-inspired take on the Russian matryoshka doll, by Dina Argov (photo credit: David Katz)
'Mountryoshka,' a Peruvian-inspired take on the Russian matryoshka doll, by Dina Argov (photo credit: David Katz)

The revival of Russian folk art and superstitions is not new; it came before the rise of Communism, when avant-garde Russian painters started exploring religious motifs and peasant ornaments. Kazimir Malevich and Natalia Goncharova, for example, are two Russian painters who were famous for incorporating Russian primitive art into their modern art.

Asked about what inspires her, Argov shared a story from her childhood. “My mom had a souvenir stand in St. Petersburg,” said Argov, “and she made all sorts of jewelry boxes and religious ornaments for the travelers…. I remember her working on the large table, painting something or working on a craft, and me, under the table, mimicking her with my own drawings.”

Argov comes from an artistic family, she explained, but she’s the first to exhibit her work. “They [her family] were architects, designers, and engineers,” she said.

A matryoshka collective, by Dina Argov (photo credit: David Katz)
A matryoshka collective, by Dina Argov (photo credit: David Katz)

In “Woman – Nature,” Argov focuses on the oneness of the two — “the femininity of nature and the nature of women.” The playful words help convey the feeling of the collection: dreamy paintings of women who fade into the horizon, the sun and land distantly becoming one.

Her matryoshka (Russian wooden dolls) paintings depict Russia’s folk woman matriarch. She described the matryoshka dolls as the ultimate symbol of motherhood, or at least the potential for motherhood, that is inherent in a matriarch figure. Each small doll fits within the next, slightly larger doll, which represents the cycle of life and motherhood.

Argov didn’t always paint Russian icons. She gravitates toward landscape drawing, she explained, but a recent trip to Russia affected her.

“I remembered how multi-cultural and visually rich the country is when I visited last summer,” beamed Argov. St. Petersburg, her home town, is known as a melting pot for inter-Russian peoples, as well as a meeting point for European and Scandinavian heritage, because of its western location within Russia.

Her grandmother still lives outside St. Petersburg and like many other Russian families, she has a “dacha,” a rustic vacation cottage, usually set deep in the woods. “We spent a few weeks there last year,” she said, longingly. “We are going again this summer.”

"Beach coming triptych" (top) and other works by Dina Argov (photo credit: David Katz)
"Beach coming triptych" (top) and other works by Dina Argov (photo credit: David Katz)

Set within the Container, a chic restaurant/bar/art/music space, Argov’s whimsical works play off the natural light that beams in through the wall of windows. The concrete shipping-hangar contrasts with Argov’s art yet does not detract from it.

Located in the ancient Jaffa port, the Container was originally a warehouse built by the British. Vince Mustar and Asaf Tavor, the restaurant’s owners (the former is also the main chef), designed a large barspace out of old shipping containers (hence the name).   Approached by City Hall to be part of a master plan to revitalize the Jaffa port area, the restaurateurs opened the space in 2010.

The Container has managed to maintain its authentic work-space character. It incorporates the sights and smells of the ocean, but with an edgy twist, regularly hosting music acts that accompany a superb seafood meal or a midday cocktail.

The Container at the Jaffa port (photo credit: David Katz)
The Container at the Jaffa port (photo credit: David Katz)

“Woman – Nature” runs through May 19, 2012. Argov’s next exhibit, “Flora and Fauna,” will also explore nature themes. She is also participating in the Shakti women’s arts festival in June. For more information, see artbydina.wordpress.com

The Container serves fresh seafood and serves brunch/lunch through last call (or, last customer). It is open on Shabbat and is not kosher. For more information, please see: http://www.container.org.il/

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