Artists Sarah Benninga and Rachel Rotenberg did not expect their joint exhibit, depicting abstract images of nudity in paintings and sculpture, would get shuttered in a Jerusalem gallery soon after opening. Or that it would immediately be hosted by another.
The exhibit, “Kravot,” opened earlier this week in the municipal-run gallery Beita on Jaffa Road. Within days, it was shut down and moved to the city’s Museum on the Seam at the invitation of the museum director, Merav Maor.
Jerusalem municipality says it is still investigating who in the city bureaucracy ordered Beita to close it, and that Mayor Moshe Lion was not a party to the decision.
“The minute we understood, we independently turned to the curator and artists to host it here,” said Maor, speaking at the Museum on the Seam, an independent institution that receives no funding from the Jerusalem municipality. “It took a few hours but we set out like a counter operation; we wanted to show solidarity, especially now, in these times.”
The exhibit is now housed along the rooms and hallways of the house originally built by a Christian Arab architect and later turned into an Israeli military outpost, situated on the border of the city when it was divided between 1948 and 1967.
At the Wednesday night reopening of the exhibit, Benninga and Rotenberg were present, greeting a hometown crowd of fellow artists and local curators, museum directors and art fans.
The blacks, grays and blues of Benninga’s dreamy nudes meld easily with Rotenberg’s wooden and metal sculptures, now exhibited in the upper galleries of the museum that still retains the thick walls and artillery windows left from its previous incarnation.
Benninga’s large-scale paintings are part of her Pleasure Garden series, based on the research she did for her art history doctoral dissertation about pleasure and flesh in Flemish painter Peter Paul Ruben’s renowned nudes. Ruben’s work was considered radical at the time, an expression of sin and gluttony and he kept the paintings hidden in his 16th-century studio.
In her series, Benninga tried to imagine what it would be like for those women if they didn’t have that male gaze resting upon them.
A born-and-bred Jerusalemite, Benninga is well aware of the ironies of having her painted attempt to decipher what was radical some six centuries earlier, considered too radical for some in modern times.
“I’m still astounded,” she said.
Benninga said that Beita curator Avital Naor Wexler had made sure not to place any nude paintings facing the gallery’s windows and had a sign warning that the exhibit contains images of the body.
“It was so unprofessional [to close it down],” said Benninga. “If you don’t like it, you don’t need to go in.”
Rotenberg, her fellow artist in the exhibit, is a former New Yorker who moved to Israel six years ago. She sculpts wood in sensual curves, rounded in form, and statuesque in nature. In the US, she would often cut down thick branches of wisteria vines found on edges of highways and roads and use them in her sculptures.
In Israel, she has begun introducing cement and metal into her work, harkening to what’s often found here.
The two artists collaborated on the exhibit at the invitation of Wexler, the Beita curator.
“I love connections between sculpture and painting, it allows people to see other things in each material,” said Wexler.
Wexler was also present at the Wednesday night opening at the Museum of the Seam, but as an employee of the Jerusalem municipality couldn’t respond directly to any questions about the closure of the exhibit at Beita.
It’s still unclear who ultimately made the decision to close the exhibit.
A spokeswoman for the city said the decision to take down the exhibition was never brought to Mayor Moshe Lion’s attention.
“We learned about the incident through the media. The issue is being examined by the city’s culture unit,” said the spokeswoman.
Beita, situated at 155 Jaffa Road, is part of the city’s Department of Culture and Arts, and abuts several neighborhoods whose residents are mostly ultra-Orthodox.
“It was very surprising to me because the show had been put up in a very modest way,” said Rotenberg, who is religiously observant and used the Hebrew term for modesty, ‘tniyus,’ or ‘tzniyut.’
Benninga compared the show’s closure to the January 2022 closure of the Ramat Gan Museum of Art near Tel Aviv, which was shuttered after nearly all the artists exhibiting there demanded their art be removed, in a show of support for a fellow creator whose painting was pulled because it was deemed offensive to the ultra-Orthodox.
In that incident, it was the Ramat Gan mayor, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, who requested that the painting by David Reeb be taken down.
“I think it’s a trend,” said Benninga. “I really don’t understand what the municipality was thinking. It was sub-censorship of the city art department, which is worse than a politician making the decision. You can’t close an exhibit when it’s already hung, it’s absurd.”
After the exhibit was first shut, a group of 160 artists penned a letter to Lion threatening to shun the city’s Beita gallery unless officials reversed their decision.
None of it makes any sense, said Rotenberg.
“I understand the concern about the nudes, and the curator took that into consideration,” she said. “There was no reason to close that showdown. We are all different kinds of Jews living in Jerusalem and we need to be able to live our lives respecting each other. We need to treat citizens like adults and not like children.”
The exhibit’s new location at the Museum on the Seam is something of an ironic choice as well.
The museum is “really on the city’s seam,” said museum director Maor, as it divides the ultra-Orthodox area of Mea Shearim from the Arab neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and East Jerusalem.
Right outside the museum entrance are the crowded apartment buildings and streets of Mea Shearim, with Haredi men, women and children passing by at all hours, as well as “shalim,” named for the shawls, or full-length coverings worn by women of this ultra-Orthodox sect. Across the street are the residential streets and businesses of East Jerusalem. The Jerusalem light rail runs down the middle of the street.
The building is a structure that represents Jerusalem’s complicated political history as well as its present. Still, said Maor, while the museum is an independent institution, its staff takes great pride in not “pushing anyone’s buttons.”
“We’re closed on Shabbat because we don’t want to hurt anyone, we honor our neighbors,” she said. “We are only inside our building, with our very thick walls.”
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