Delayed by war, a rescheduled Jerusalem Biennale beats sheep into swords of iron

Originally planned around the theme of cultural assets — ‘iron sheep’ in Hebrew parlance — the 7-week art exhibit spread throughout Jerusalem is now shaded by October 7’s horrors

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

At the opening of the rescheduled 2024 Jerusalem Biennale in March 2024, at the Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art (Courtesy)
At the opening of the rescheduled 2024 Jerusalem Biennale in March 2024, at the Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art (Courtesy)

Like so many events, exhibits and performances, the 2024 Sixth Jerusalem Biennale was scheduled to take place in November, bringing its lens on Jewish art to the holy city.

It was postponed in the aftermath of October 7, and several of the planned exhibits were shown by artists in their home cities around the globe as “a great act of solidarity,” said Biennale founding director Rami Ozeri.

Now the Biennale is open for its official run in Jerusalem, March 10 through April 29, with 30 exhibits at locations throughout the city, from the rehabilitated ruins of the former President Hotel in the Talbieh neighborhood to the historic environs of the downtown Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art as well as museums, galleries and contemporary spaces.

The original theme was Tzon Barzel, a Hebrew term which literally translates to “Iron Sheep,” but which is used to signify a cultural asset of national importance. The show was designed to explore the foundations of contemporary culture, said Ozeri, in order to identify the movements, ideas, people and moments that have become the Jewish people’s cultural assets.

The name turned out to be unintentionally appropriate for the rescheduled event, which is now indelibly colored by themes and artistic explorations that emerged following the horrific Hamas terror onslaught of October 7. Military planners have dubbed the ensuing Israeli operation in Gaza Harvot Barzel, or Swords of Iron, so the name now links the show planned before October 7 with the one that is now actually taking place.

In the lobby of Heichal Shlomo, the heritage center that was once the seat of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, three walls feature the exhibit “Jewish on Paper,” sharp, graphic design posters by several dozen artists along the themes of Jewish moments, holidays and rituals, said curator Eli Kaplan Wildmann, challenging viewers to figure out which images are historical and which are more current.

Curator Eli Kaplan Wildmann (left) and Jerusalem Biennale director Rami Ozeri at ‘Jewish on Paper,’ March 13, 2024 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Jerusalem’s Dov Abramson, Neriya Zur, David Moss and Alex Woz share space here with some far older works, such as Ephraim Moses Lilien’s work from 1908.

A walk upstairs (or an elevator ride) takes visitors to three more galleries.

One features “Tzimtzum,” the kabbalistic metaphor for concealment, with works by a Brooklyn group of young artists known as Havurah who offer “something we want to understand better,” said Ozeri.

Their works provide a version of contemporary Jewish life in New York, such as a kippah peeking out from under a baseball cap and a group of middle-aged women in bathing suits sunning themselves around a Catskills pool.

Jacqueline Kott Wolle’s ‘Ladies in the Catskills,’ part of the Havurah exhibit at Heichal Shlomo for the Jerusalem Biennale, March 2024 (Courtesy)

Some 20 members of Havurah are currently visiting Israel for the Biennale.

In the next gallery is “Hallelujah,” Udi Urman’s look at Israeli artists living and exploring their cultural heritage in New York City. In the post-October 7 world, they show what it’s like to be Israeli in a world that doesn’t necessarily want to understand them.

Ken Goshen’s small, exacting still lifes show a challah roll morphed into a bagel and a collection of Israeli food products necessary to the sabra living abroad, while Ethiopian-born Israeli Hirut Yosef’s bold pastel works emphasize the focus of an African woman in a contemporary world.

The third gallery takes a look at six examples of contemporary synagogue architecture around the world, from the memorialized house of prayer in Ukraine’s Babi Yar to Yad Vashem’s in-house synagogue and the grand, expanded Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.

After Heichal Shlomo, visitors can head to the nearby President House for a look at the works of nomadic artists from six countries. There’s also “Seamlines,” five site-specific installations created at the historic house HaMiffal near the Waldorf Astoria during an artist residency program under the auspices of The Jerusalem Biennale.

A longer walk through town to the former Shaare Zedek building brings visitors to “A Very Narrow Bridge,” with works by artists who have faced significant challenges, often because of their religious or sexual orientation, representing the multicultural faces of Israel today.

Part of the Jerusalem Biennale ‘Threading’ exhibit, ‘What We Bring’ by Andi Arnovitz at the Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art, March 2024 (Courtesy)

A new Biennale location is at the Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art, hosting a Biennale exhibit for the first time.

“Threading,” curated by Emily Bilski, includes Andi Arnovitz’s upcycled wedding dress pinned with cutouts of hundreds of cream-colored names written in cursive, ranging from the biblical Eve to Gal Gadot.

Lynne Avadenka’s prints, made using an antique Hebrew typeset in transparent and gold ink, spell out a quote from the biblical book of Proverbs, and a piece from Heddy Abramowitz’s grandmother’s trousseau is embroidered with the handprints of her young family.

Curators Vera Pilpoul and Ermanno Tedeschi put together “Behind the Mask,” looking at interpretations of the Book of Esther, read during the upcoming holiday of Purim, with works created by artists from Italy and Israel and ranging from sculptures to collages and paintings.

Participating in the Biennale is an opportunity for the museum to include contemporary artists in its permanent collection, said Daniel Niv, curator and director of the Italian museum, where about 100 items are generally on display from a collection of about 3,000 items.

Go to the Jerusalem Biennale website for more information about the locations, exhibits and opening times.

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