2 evocative exhibits go up in Tel Aviv museum, as battle for hostages is waged outside

Since October 7, the plaza in front of Tel Aviv Museum of Art has been known as ‘Hostages Square,’ serving as a ‘spontaneous art space’; now, 2 new exhibits open inside

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

People take cover from missiles inside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art during a protest calling for the release of hostages at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, December 8, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)
People take cover from missiles inside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art during a protest calling for the release of hostages at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, December 8, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

It has been two and a half months since the plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art earned its new temporary name of Hostages Square, for the approximately 240 people abducted to the Gaza Strip on the day of the October 7 massacre by Hamas terrorists in southern Israel.

“Nothing’s the same,” said museum director Tania Coen-Uzzielli during a recent tour of two new exhibits opening at the museum. “The fact of the hostages forces us to rethink every day anew.”

The plaza in front of the museum, usually known for its outsize sculptures, is now a “spontaneous art space,” said Coen-Uzzielli, filled with installations of hope, anger and sadness.

“We allow that space to happen; we don’t organize it or curate it,” she said. “We can accept it as an open façade — not exactly art, but expressions of solidarity.”

There is a long Shabbat table set with places for the 129 hostages still held in Gaza, not all of them alive; tents hosted by the Gaza border kibbutzim whose members were killed or abducted; and kiosks selling T-shirts, umbrellas and hoodies with the Bring Them Home Now logo.

It is also used by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum as the location for weekly rallies and other gatherings of support.

Israelis visit Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, December 12, 2023. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The museum was closed to visitors until November 30, opening its doors only for bathroom use during rallies, with “Bring Them Home Now” images flashing on the monitors behind the front desk.

Now, however, the museum has readied two new exhibits, both reconfigured to fit the mood of the times and the ordeal the nation has been enduring since October 7.

Shalom Sebba’s ‘The Milk Elements’ 1960, from the Shalom Sebba exhibit that opened December 20, 2023, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Courtesy)

“We woke up differently,” said Coen-Uzzielli. “We are looking at art differently, and looking at the same exhibits with another view. There’s a prophecy in art and the ability to take in other views.”

To that end, one of the museum’s new exhibits is “Shalom Sebba: As a Matter of Fact,” a retrospective of the Berlin-born who began his career in 1920s Germany and came in 1936 to pre-state Israel.

The other is “Shmini Atzeret,” a one-gallery show of works from the museum’s collection that were not painted about October 7, but echo and resonate with the emotions, expressions and experiences of that black Shabbat.

The two exhibits are very different, said Mira Lapidot, head curator at the museum. “What we can offer is… an anchor, something stable to remind us of what’s been built here,” she said.

From Berlin to Palestine

On the main floor of the museum are the galleries of the Shalom Sebba exhibit, a classic art retrospective that has been in the works for three years.

The exhibit, open through April 29, 2024, comprises more than 200 works of the German-Israeli artist whose life spanned the Holocaust and whose perspective “takes on a different importance now,” said Lapidot.

Curator Na’ama Bar-Or created a timeline of Sebba’s work from his early years in 1920s Berlin through his final works.

This is Sebba’s fourth solo exhibit in Tel Aviv, beginning with two in 1944 and 1945 in Beit Dizengoff, the precursor to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and then another in the 1960s at the Helena Rubenstein Pavilion, which recently became the Eyal Ofer Pavilion at Habima Square.

Shalom Sebba’s ‘The Shepherd,’ part of an exhibit at Tel Aviv Museum of Art through April 2024 (Courtesy Pardo Yigal)

Sebba became a master of many mediums — oils, prints and collages, theater sets and costume design, massive public works and murals — and his works reflect the unknowns of his time and the question marks of the period, as he fled his native Berlin and started anew in pre-state Palestine.

He is an artist whose work is synonymous with the founding of the state and many of the works came from private collectors’ collections — “their dining rooms, bedrooms, all very beloved to them,” , said Bar-Or.

There are iconic Sebba works, such as his 1947 “Sheep Shearing,” which is part of the museum’s collection, and his oils on plexiglass and wood, as “he was always looking to show something differently,” said Bar-Or.

Sebba returned to Germany at the age at 70 at the behest of patron Hanna Bekker vom Rath, who brought back artists who had left the country due to the war, and he resided there until his death in 1975.

Eerily prescient

Downstairs in the museum’s Amir wing is “Shmini Atzeret,” named for the eighth day of the Sukkot holiday, when the Hamas terrorists committed the October 7 massacre.

Curator Dalit Matatyahu at ‘Shmini Atzeret’ exhibit at Tel Aviv Museum of Art on December 19, 2023. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The one-gallery exhibit is made up of works gathered by curator Dalit Matatyahu from the museum collection, works “that remind us of what came before October 7,” said Matatyahu, even as the works may remind viewers of what took place on that day as well.

A poem by Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz leads the exhibit, introducing the photographs of Deganit Berest, who printed the poem’s words on each of her images, hung around the perimeter of the room in a continual link.

A poem by Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz leads the ‘Shmini Atzeret’ exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, opened December 20, 2023. (Jessica Steinberg/ Times of Israel)

The poem, depicting an imaginary conversation between a son and mother about life, is eerily reminiscent of the thousands of WhatsApp text messages sent by those in the Gaza border communities and Supernova desert rave, as they begged for help, for support, for final messages on October 7.

While curator Matatyahu asks viewers to look at the works and think about moments of life and history in Israel before October 7, it is hard not to wonder at how these artworks portend those very events.

There is Moshe Gershuni’s “White Flag,” which is hard to see without thinking about the three hostages killed in Gaza when they were misidentified by IDF soldiers, and Tzipi Geva’s “Keffiyeh” from 1990, depicting the scarf by many Palestinians and their supporters in protests around the world.

“Israeli art is always under trauma,” said Matatyahu, who put together the exhibit in one month.

Yohanan Simon’s 1947 “Shabbat on the Kibbutz” is a reminder of the pastoral pleasures of life in the Gaza border communities, while Elie Shamir’s 2022 “According to Local Tradition,” a huge oil painting of a funeral at a kibbutz, evokes the many funerals held all the time now, all around the country.

Artist David Reeb’s 1983 ‘Farmers,’ part of the ‘Shmini Atzeret’ exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art through March 30, 2023 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

A familiar photo by Micha Bar Am, who had his own retrospective of sorts in the museum in 2022, shows a soldier washing up by a car, west of the Suez Canal in October 1973.

History repeated itself 50 years later as Israel underwent its largest reservist call-up since the Yom Kippur War. In that war, 2,656 soldiers were killed, and a generation was forever changed.

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