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Fantastical papercuts from pre-state Israel inspire video art

Hilla Ben Ari’s art installation at Jerusalem’s Ticho House echoes work of artist Moshe Reifer, fellow Kibbutz Yagur resident who loomed large

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

  • Hila Ben Ari's dancers play with paper and movement in her video homage to paper cut artist Moshe Reifer, a fellow member of Kibbutz Yagur in her childhood, and currently on exhibit at Ticho House through October 2022 (Courtesy Ticho House)
    Hila Ben Ari's dancers play with paper and movement in her video homage to paper cut artist Moshe Reifer, a fellow member of Kibbutz Yagur in her childhood, and currently on exhibit at Ticho House through October 2022 (Courtesy Ticho House)
  • Hila Ben Ari's dancers play with paper and movement in her video homage to papercut artist Moshe Reifer, a fellow member of Kibbutz Yagur in her childhood, currently on exhibit at Ticho House through October 2022. (Courtesy Ticho House)
    Hila Ben Ari's dancers play with paper and movement in her video homage to papercut artist Moshe Reifer, a fellow member of Kibbutz Yagur in her childhood, currently on exhibit at Ticho House through October 2022. (Courtesy Ticho House)
  • Hila Ben Ari's dancers play with paper and movement in her video homage to paper cut artist Moshe Reifer, a fellow member of Kibbutz Yagur in her childhood, and currently on exhibit at Ticho House through October 2022 (Courtesy Ticho House)
    Hila Ben Ari's dancers play with paper and movement in her video homage to paper cut artist Moshe Reifer, a fellow member of Kibbutz Yagur in her childhood, and currently on exhibit at Ticho House through October 2022 (Courtesy Ticho House)
  • Hila Ben Ari's dancers play with paper and movement in her video homage to paper cut artist Moshe Reifer, a fellow member of Kibbutz Yagur in her childhood, and currently on exhibit at Ticho House through October 2022 (Courtesy Ticho House)
    Hila Ben Ari's dancers play with paper and movement in her video homage to paper cut artist Moshe Reifer, a fellow member of Kibbutz Yagur in her childhood, and currently on exhibit at Ticho House through October 2022 (Courtesy Ticho House)

Manicure scissors were the tool of choice for Moshe Reifer, a Polish-born artist who settled in Kibbutz Yagur in the 1930s and created intricate, fantastical papercuts depicting the Hebrew alphabet, decorated and filigreed with mystical figures and shapes.

Now, some 90 years later, video artist Hilla Ben Ari, who grew up in Yagur and became fascinated by the eccentric local artist, has created “The Voice that Calls to Itself,” a contemporary video installation in homage to Reifer, currently exhibited at Jerusalem’s Anna Ticho House until October.

In the six nearly full-size video works, three dancers, two men and one woman, move across the screens, bending and moving their bodies, always holding sheets of white paper that are flattened, bent and rolled to create new shapes and shadows.

Visitors can sit on a bench at the back of the gallery and have a view of four of the six screens, watching the dancers hold their bodies in seemingly impossible poses, the papers sometimes rolled in tubes crushed under their chests, or hung from their arms and hands, creating breastplates or giant wings.

“She’s created Pilates with paper,” said Timna Seligman, chief curator at Ticho House. “Paper can be so fragile, but it’s also very strong.”

The paper, said Seligman, echoes Reifer’s material of choice while the moving figures reflect his papercut figures in their outsized limbs and dramatic stances.

Papercut artist Moshe Reifer created fantastical figures in his works, currently on exhibit at Ticho House through October 2022. (Courtesy: Ticho House)

Ben Ari worked on the exhibit for about five years, starting around the time that she became aware of the papercuts as an adult, said Seligman, although the video artist has said that she may have known about them as a child.

“She talks about her grandfather showing her one when she was a little girl and she was absolutely terrified by them,” said Seligman.

Papercut artist Moshe Reifer created fantastical figures in his works, currently on exhibit at Ticho House through October 2022 (Courtesy Ticho House)

Ben Ari has previously explored the work of little-known artists and cultural figures from Israel’s archives, particularly those who came from a kibbutz background, with a body of work that has concentrated on two disciplines: works on paper and video, said Seligman.

She tends to focus on the human body, collaborating with contemporary dancers and musicians and examining the relationship between movement and sound. In this latest work, paper is a kind of structural matter, defying its simple, two-sided characteristics by almost becoming three-dimensional.

Papercut artist Moshe Reifer created fantastical figures in his works, currently on exhibit at Ticho House through October 2022. (Courtesy: Ticho House)

“She came to Ticho House with the idea about something based on Reifer’s work,” said Seligman, who worked with Ben Ari about how that would connect to the historical home, which functions as part of the Israel Museum and was purchased in 1924 by ophthalmologist Dr. Abraham Albert Ticho, and his wife, artist Anna Ticho.

Anna Ticho was a portraitist, known for her black-and-white drawings on paper, many of which depicted the pain, struggle and existential crisis of her subjects.

Seligman curated the exhibit to show Ben Ari’s video works on the righthand galleries of the museum, with Reifer’s papercuts displayed on the wall and in vitrines in the middle, and a selection of Ticho’s portraits, depicting her husband and other characters in her life, on the left side.

Seligman always chooses Ticho’s works in the context of the exhibit, she said, and always seeks a connection between the exhibiting artist and Ticho, with a focus on women artists and art that relates to Ticho’s usage of paper, light, and monochrome colors.

Double profile of a man, ink and charcoal on paper. (Courtesy: Anna Ticho)

“That’s what builds the connection between the two sides of the house,” she said.

Those familiar with Ticho’s work often think of her watercolor flowers and Jerusalem hills, although those pieces actually form just a small sample of Ticho’s overall collection, said Seligman.

“If I had her watercolor flowers on the other side, it would be a dissonance,” she said. “It’s challenging in some ways to look at her portraits.”

Study of a man, ink on paper. (Courtesy: Anna Ticho)

The portraits are bold and sharp, strong black strokes depicting Albert Ticho, another of a man leaning over, his head in his hands, and three women nudes, their knees raised.

Some of the sketches show more than one figure, with an emphasis on the subjects’ eyes or hands, another echo and connection to Ben Ari’s video works, said Seligman.

“It’s very distanced from the source material, but the more time you spend with it, the more you can see the connections,” she said.

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