"Ye shall remember me, and no one more, shall call me mad, the great God's prophetess, for he showed me what happened formerly to my ancestors; what things were the first those God made known to me; and in my mind did God put all things to be afterwards, that I might prophesy of things to come, And things that were, and tell them unto men."
Sibylline Oracles, Third Book, Jewish apocrypha
The sibyls were pagan oracles who operated in the ancient world and predicted different visions of the future and of society. Varro, the Roman scholar, counted ten sibyls, who left behind various writings and myths. Little is known about the characters of the sibyls. Fragments of stories, from which emerges an image of extraordinary, wise, powerful, clear-eyed, open-minded, long-lasting women, some of whom were secluded in some sort of "Temenu", which was a sacred area in nature, a holy spring or grove, who most often prophesied destruction and disaster. Short sections from the scrolls they wrote, and stories about them, are in the writings of Plato, Aristophanes, and others, as well as the "Sibylline Oracles", which were included in the Jewish apocrypha and possibly edited and completed by Alexandrian Jews in the second century BC. In Renaissance art, the sibyls received renewed attention when it became acceptable to form connections between Greek and Roman mythology and Christianity. The most prominent and well-known example is Michelangelo's sibyl paintings in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, inserted among the Hebrew prophets, each of them representing a different geographical and cultural area, and they, like the prophets, were perceived as heralding the coming of Jesus Christ.
The lack of influential, spiritual female characters, and the idea of divination as a medium used prominently in pictorial imagery, led me to search for contemporary sibyls in art. Women, artists, who have a certain standing and say in the eyes of society or themselves, a kind of unique prophetic voice. Artists who also represent different sectors of Israeli society, 2019, whether they've chosen to do so or not. Selecting each one of the art works displayed in the exhibition is, of course, intentional, but it is also conceived as a representative image, a window through which on peeks at the extended social or public artistic actions of each of the participating artists. Every one of them embodies the 11th sibyl.
Yael Bartana (born in 1970) just recently entered the Guardian's Best Art of the 21st Century list. Over the years, Bartana has created surprising variations on familiar utopias that promise salvation, yet eventually collapse in ruins. Her trilogy "And Europe Will Be Stunned," is a kind of vision of the revival of the Zionist movement on Polish soil. "Inferno," which deals with pilgrimage, rite, and finally, the destruction of the Temple in Sao Paulo, and other works. Her preoccupation with these so-called distant visions is thought provoking, and inspires powerful, new views regarding local and contemporary reality, ripping off the layer of normality covering our eyes.
Herzl's self-portrait in the exhibition features the artist disguised as Theodore Herzl, a figure known as the distant and iconic symbol - "Chozeh HaMedinah," meaning: "Visionary of the State," a modern prophet. In a move that brings to mind Daniel Boyarin's thesis on the link between Zionism and the perception of straight masculinity, Bartana simultaneously raises questions about both national identity and sexual identity. Had we not known this is a self-portrait, we would not be able to identify the subject as a woman. The portrait indicates in advance the unlikely possibility that a woman can be considered such a founding symbol in the history of Zionism, and the lack of women among Zionist leaders. Herzl-Bartana's gaze is sober, devoid of innocence, self-aware. The portrait stares directly at its viewers and exposes their innocence, along with the innocence of the Zionist enterprise in light of today's complex and torn reality. Placing the photo at a certain level, above the visitors' heads, where it can be seen from the moment people enter the gallery, requires the viewer to join a performative process of pilgrimage to the magnetic figure and raise their head in supposed admiration, and in return, receive an amused, cynical look from Bartana.
Michal Heiman (born in 1954), is an artist, as well as a longtime lecturer and leading activist for women's rights in academia. Her photo, titled "Mask", is part of the series, "Radical Link: A New Community of Women," a series of photographs and activities performed by Heiman before and during her solo exhibition at Herzliya Museum in 2017. She photographed women of various cultures and from different fields of society: artists and activists, asylum seekers and others, all dressed in straitjackets similar to the 19th-century gown that Heiman saw in the book, "Face of Madness: Hugh W. Diamond and the Origin of Psychiatric Photography (1976)". In one of the photographs in the book, Heiman saw a young girl who was strikingly similar to her, which compelled her to seek out a link between women in the past and the present. The figure featured in her photo in the "11th Sibyl" exhibition is holding a copy of a painting by Paul Klee, called "Angelus Novus," as one holds a mask. This painting inspired Walter Benjamin's important text "The Angel of History", which appeared in "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Benjamin's Angel of History is a symbolic image, which gazes at the ruins of history left by the victors, while moving with the storm of progress into the future.
Heiman's action reveals the original historical narrative, according to which powerful doctors are white men, while women play the role of a victim, a madwoman, an object of observation. By hiding her face and replacing it with the Angel of History, Heiman infuses new power to the photographed woman, an alternative point of view, which generates a retroactive change in the historical narrative, just as Benjamin suggests in his essay "On the Philosophy of History." At that moment, her status changes from defeated to commemorated, and someone whose gaze influences the present.
The united bond between the various layers of information of the elements in the picture: the gown, the madness, the photographer and the original photograph, Klee's painting, Benjamin's text, the contemporary directing, and Heiman's photography, causes various points on the universal female timeline to unite into a new narrative, create a shared fate, and a new community of women who look, act, and change.
The "Angel of History" installation by artist Oryan Galster Oren (born in 1984) consists of a bright pink room, entered through a soft, falling curtain. Inside the room is a two-channel video work. To the right is a stop-motion animation of a linear, sketched, disassembled, almost body-less Angel of History, pencil drawings on paper that slowly change, and a touch of phosphorous pink that form the angel's head covering. On the left - a video featuring the lips of the artist, painted in pink, floating in a black space, and telling the story of the Angel of History. The narration, alongside the simple sketched video, that supposedly illustrates it, brings to mind a children's story. It seems as though the artist is addressing the viewer or her young daughter, telling a story interlacing the symbolic motifs that characterize generic fairy tales with daily biographical details. The story slightly reveals the unspoken price of motherhood and paints an inner portrait. Despite its cautious symbolism, a simple, sincere, and fleshy truth occasionally sneaks into the fictive, sketchy tidiness. What seems to be happening in the life of the Angel of History is strikingly similar to the internal portrait of a religious young artist, who is also a young mother, one who is forcibly trying to grasp the challenging opportunity to create and develop as an artist, while raising a family. Inside the pink space, which appears to be an inner space within the Angel of History's body or head, hang small tools containing various, delicate materials, objects that bring to mind a little girl's playthings, but also jewelry and treasures from distant places. The separate shapes reflect the decomposing, separate limbs of the Angel of History, yet also the experience of inner decomposition, portions of the soul that do not always find their place, a too narrow house, a body that grows too large. The overall experience is one of a loss of control, which is also a spiritual and mental journey. While there is fear in it, and at times even horror and distress, new revelations are revealed, containing innumerable new possibilities of beauty and playfulness.
Artist Vered Nissim (born in 1980), engages in popular culture performances, which characterize Israeli Oriental identity. She uses ornamental elements and objects from the environment in which she was raised, which she takes to the extreme and stretches, so that surprisingly; the artificiality, over-the-top embellishment, and kitsch are used in her works as a background for an authentic and honest truth. Nissim's solo exhibition at the Afula Municipal Gallery in 2018, focused on the status and self-definition of single women. Nissim created an installation titled "Speechless," which will be positioned in the exhibition in a new and slightly different way. The installation consists of a large swath of wallpaper featuring a waterfall in nature, on which a luminous atmospheric picture of a waterfall hangs, emitting the sound of birds chirping and bubbling water. On various points on the waterfall, colorful plastic parrots are positioned, and each one received a makeover in the form of pedicure stickers and bold eyelashes. Above all this, there is a video, featuring the artist's mother, who appears in many of her art works. The mother sits on a table, as someone who puts things "on the table," addresses her daughter, imploring her to bring a child into the world, while saying that the world has changed and that there is no longer any need for marriage or a life partner. The mother appears here as a kind of oracle, a mature woman delivering a difficult, piercing, agitated speech. On the other hand, Nissim's father - whose picture hangs on the wall behind the mother as his comments are heard in the background, as well as the chorus of the ornamented parrots, who respond amusingly and ridiculously to the poignant words - indicates the artist's ambivalent attitude toward the matter, the shattering of a beautiful but false dream, just like the bucolic waterfall image on the gallery wall.
Fatma Abu Rumi (born in 1977), is an Israeli-Palestinian artist whose art focuses on the status, the challenges, the freedom, and identity of women in traditional Muslim society. While displaying tenderness, love, and respect for the society in which she lives, she manages to extract honest, painful truths concerning both her personal life and the lives of women in various traditional societies. In her video, "The Wall," she directs a symbolic narrative that explores the movement and growth of child-adolescent-woman in traditional Palestinian society. Walking quietly, almost ceremoniously, to the sound of a wedding song that almost sounds like a lament, Abu Rumi, wearing a wedding dress and accompanied by two of her friends, who are also Arab artists, climbs an observation tower near the village of Tamra, where she grew up and lives today. Several people committed suicide by jumping from this tower, until a fence was built around it to prevent people from jumping. At the top of the tower, the artist and her friends are hidden from the viewer, leaving only the flapping wedding dress. The exhibition also features a painting titled, "Tame," depicting a falcon, a bird that is a male status symbol, which represents control and a desire to hunt among the wealthy men of the Arabian Gulf. In the painting, the falcon's face is covered by a mask as it perches on the arm of a woman, whose nails are painted red - a female symbol of freedom. It seems as though this is a strong, sexual, powerful woman. The juxtaposition of those two works generates a new thought about a woman's power to free herself from the grip of society and social conventions, using symbols that are part of the visual language of that same society.
Shai Zakai (born in 1957) is an ecological artist, one of the pioneers and leaders in the field. She also treats people through a variety of healing methods. Her art in the exhibition follows her activities over the years as a kind of artistic forest keeper. Zakai perceives the artistic act as an action that has a cosmic energetic influence, and considers herself an emissary of the public or a healer. The exhibition displays three of her works, which reflect the connection between an object that stands as an individual finished work of art, and her actions in the various rituals she performs, as well as the rituals in which she invites the viewers to participate, such as the one that took place at the opening of the exhibition. According to Shai, the rituals present an opportunity to observe art in a new way: observing art through physically listening and sensory alertness to other frequencies, which are usually invisible. The hanging statue "Goddess of the Valley II," is made from the fibers of the Sabra cactus, a plant identified with Israeli characteristics, which is currently in danger of extinction. As a healer, Zakai charges the sculpture until it becomes an energetic, almost living object, thus providing the viewer with an early memory of growth and proximity to nature. Zakai has been using this material for many years, and it appears in her photograph, "Social Self-Portrait With a Sabra" from the 1990's, in which she appears as a mythical creature, wearing a dress/armor made from the Sabra plant. The photograph emits a timeless atmosphere, and the artist stares piercingly at the viewer, as though asking him to feel the pain of the forest and the valley. The sibyls were known for their long life. Placing a photograph from the beginning of her career, along with her video art work and a recent sculpture, portrays the artist's image as a consistent oracle predicting what is currently called and discussed as the climate crisis.
Over the years, Noah Arad-Yairi (born in 1960), has been preoccupied with the female body and the relationship between internal and external, pain and beauty. Her series of "Madonnas" portrays contemporary women in everyday situations, some of them embarrassing, while others are amusing. The woman are portrayed as holy characters.
Arad-Yairi volunteered for a long time at Checkpoint Watch, where women stand at checkpoints, report the occurrences taking place there, and help the Palestinian population communicate with the military. When creating and displaying her art in public venues, her activism is expressed in her art. Therefore, she chooses to voice her political views, in order to generate awareness among those who until recently were a persecuted people. In the sculptural installation that Arad-Yairi created for the exhibition - while viewing the oracle as one addressing the general public, and considering many protest organizations that are actually women's organizations - she chose to combine political issues with her preoccupation with femininity and conflict.
The installation stands before the gallery's glass door - a large clay head of a woman, supposedly a self-portrait of the artist, her mouth wide open as though saying something to the world, her eyes open and staring steadily at those entering the gallery and passersby in the street. The head rests on a metal trolley, which can move to any gathering that may serve as a platform for divination. Beneath it hang fragmented figures, which look like ancient archaeological findings of the ancient sibyls. The images were inspired by Michelangelo's paintings of sculptural sibyls, some carrying scrolls. They are made of concrete; their mouths open as they create a feminine, sturdy wall. The local, tough materials from which the installation is made - concrete, iron, jute, and clay, which may be perceived as "masculine" materials, are used here to construct an uncompromising female "army post".
The title of the installation is a line from Amir Gilboa's poem - "If you see blood and say blood, they will say color." As in the poem, Arad-Yairi focuses on how art can become a revelation, pointing out the blood flowing in the world. Yet at the same time, it may become an insular work of art that is perceived as "color," rather than "blood". The installation expresses beauty and strength that can enchant, but the dirt left by concrete crumbs and the wounded and rough parts of the back of the Sybil's concrete castings, allow Arad-Yairi to point at the "blood, instead of dismissing it by saying it's just "color."
While preparing for the exhibition, as in a self-fulfilling prophecy, it became clear that there were several self-portraits of the artist as an oracle, although some of the artists did not see themselves in this light until we discussed the sibyls. Furthermore, many of the works move along the timeline and try to say something about the present and the future through images of the past.
By understanding that art and prophecy are intrinsically close, the 11th Sibyl exhibition seeks to view contemporary artists differently, to connect them to the role of prominent women in ancient times, and to identify that same clear, distinctive prophetic voice that each artist expresses, which of course concerns gender and feminism, but also ecology, healing, politics, religion, and culture. This, in order to add to the feminist-artistic expression that grows from a personal place, a broad, universal, perhaps even spiritual dimension, which appeals to humanity in general.
Avital Naor Wexler, curator