דפנה נסים ונטע אלקיים: חלוצה 2010
Halutza: Dafna Nissim and Neta Elkayam 2010
הגלריה לאמנות ע"ש אברהם ברון, אוניברסיטת בן-גוריון בנגב, באר שבע. (קטלוג)
At the Avraham Baron Art Gallery, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Curator: Haim Maor (catalog)
Two Contrapuntal Voices
Reflections on the Works of Dafna Nissim and Neta Elkayam
Halutza exhibition is not a double solo show, but a combination, a fascinating interweaving of works by two artists, Dafna Nissim and Neta Elkayam, who joined forces to exhibit their works together, and whose themes, forms and other artistic means resonate within each other. As a matter of fact, I was acting here as a sort of “matchmaker.” Having noticed the similarities in their works and biographies, I introduced them to each other and suggested that they might work together on a joint exhibition. A curator usually brings together works of art; and sometimes – artists.
Dafna Nissim is a multimedia artist working in painting, drawing, staged and treated photography, installations, video and embroidery. Likewise, Neta Elkayam is a multimedia artist working in realist painting, staged photography, performance art and street theater, installations, video, drawing, embroidery and writing.
Both artists consciously draw their inspiration and raw materials from female artists who have been working on themes relating to gender, politics of identities and minorities and heavily relying on autobiographical materials. Among the prominent artists whose work resonates in that of Nissim and Elkayam, I would like to mention Anna Mendieta (1948-85), Frida Kahlo (1907-54), Annette Messager (b. 1943), Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), Shirin Neshat (b. 1957), Yochved Weinfeld (b. 1947), and Hila Lulu Lin (b. 1964).
Similarly to these artists, Nissim and Elkayam test – or rather blur – the boundaries between their personal life and artistic representations. Their biographies and lifestyles are both a playground and political-artistic field that needs no declarations to be considered as such. Both artists shy away from any labeling that might categorize their work as “women’s art,” “body art,” “Jewish art,” “Israeli art,” etc. Nevertheless, these concepts are internalized in the core of their works and require no explanation.
Nissim and Elkayam are both members of bereaved families. Nissim family lost Dafna’s paternal uncle, who fell during his military service in the 1950s. Neta’s grandmother lost two sons: the first fell at the age of 30 in the 1973 Yom Kippur War leaving behind a wife and two children; the other son fell in 1982, at the age of 19, during his military service leaving behind his Bar Mitzvah photo album. Death, fear of death and the shadow of bereavement are ever-present companions of the art of both artists.
Elkayam: “My grandmother represented for me everything associated with the ‘war culture,’ and IDF’s bereaved families: memorial services, cemeteries, stylized remembrance ceremonies, military museums and weapons-turned-sculptures displayed in public squares. I experienced bereavement through my grandmother, who, having emigrated from Morocco, lives in a world of her own and communicates with God on regular basis. I was mesmerized by what I saw. My grandmother influences me in the interstices between innocence and wisdom, exile and nationality. I myself, as well as my art, exist in the in-between.”
In some of Elkayam’s works, there is a border blurring, a merging of body and soul: valiant woman, womb for a soldier, womb of a soldier, soldier-grandmother, man-woman, body within a body. Living on the dead: a womb for producing soldiers and umbilical cord tied like a noose around the neck of a soldier as a woman-mother rides on his back; swallowed men-sons in women’s guts pissing golden urine and blood or vomiting gold threads into their mouth; groups/packs of dead/living soldiers and groups/packs of breastfeeding pioneers/mothers; naked woman wrestling with a soldier and stabbing him in the back. Motherhood and the essence of nationhood qua Zionism – the never-ending inner conflict of a mother who had sent her son to die only to mourn his untimely death. A painting not included in the exhibition shows Neta Elkayam drawing her image as naïve Bat Mitzvah girl from development town donning a lace curtain of the Ezrat Nashim (women’s gallery) instead of a tallit. Rather than being one more example of philosophical-political discussion about fluid queer sexuality, this gender blurring is an homage or act of empathy and internalization, or a revolt against losing a family member who remains “forever young” with his innocent childish face immortalized in his Bar Mitzvah photo album.
Food and food culture serve Nissim and Elkayam as a means of expression, protest and defiance against an image of the nurturing mother as well as against the precept: “be fruitful and multiply.” Fruit, vegetables and bread become an integral part of Nissim’s creative palette or palate.
A blunt visual paraphrase of the verse “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” is presented by two large color photographs depicting a performance of Elkayam, in which she held in her hands dozens of frozen fishes. The fishes, which appear also in Elkayam’s animated films and are associated with phallic-erotic symbols as well as with traditional Shabbat food, epitomize, for her, spawning, or a metaphor for the biblical “and [the children of Israel] increased abundantly.”
In the works of Nissim and Elkayam, their opulent and variegated use of embroidery and sewing techniques shifts these “feminine crafts” to realms inundated with raging struggles, stabbings, violent tattooing, acts of vandalizing and destructing food or the female body. It is also a means for conveying messages of frustration or repression far removed from any psychological sublimation or leisure culture.
Neta Elkayam has installed various objects against a gray wall: pencil drawing of children’s faces either badly illuminated or suffering from skin disease; 10 rectangular and elliptical embroidered linear drawings of soldiers and Israeli female pioneers (halutzot). The works are framed-restricted-imprisoned by embroidery hoops; the word “Jewess” in Arabic is embroidered with greenish thread on red fabric resembling the Moroccan flag or parochet (Torah Ark curtain); Moroccan kitchenware become quasi-erotic assisted-readymades: two conical tagine lids become breast shields and a bessamim spice box becomes assisted-readymade representing a bulletproof womb. Additionally, a loop of four animated films is shown on plasma screens hanging on Elkayam’s private “Western Wall” as part of the stones making up the wall of her nightmare-ridden consciousness. A mixture of eroticism and aesthetics, bereavement and Zionism, immigration and displacement, dancing soldiers losing their balloon-like heads and breastfeeding pioneer women, women suiciders and mourners – all these inhabit her tortured consciousness. In her four animated silent short films (I and a Soldier, I and a Knife, Dancers and Three Female Suiciders), Elkayam creates blood-curdling combinations of surrealist hallucinatory images. They are made in technique and style that draw their conscious inspiration from the works of Jewish-South African artist William Kentridge (b. 1955). Kentridge deals with the collective apartheid consciousness of his country. Elkayam, on the other hand, deals with the private and familial consciousness of those who had to pay twice the ultimate price: the sacrifice of their sons on the altar of the nation. Clues for deciphering her installation may be found in her text “Aesthetics of Paranoia,” in which she links the pure aesthetics of her childhood experience – the discovery of the female body – with her grandmother’s private-religious ritual (“I am an ovule that has become a universe”); her grandmother’s private bereavement and the alienated national-ceremonial one; and hallucinations in the face of paranoid reality (“They look the way they did when they died, and they are transparent and hollow. Grandma approaches them, excited, and they walk through her and then through each other; and grandma embraces their playful spirit, and they dance. They look like atom particles and grandma is the nucleus around which they orbit […] they become hyphenated, merge into one soul, one person: ‘grandmother-soldier.’ […] Everyone stand close together on the flagstones of death, conjoined like molecules.”)
In her painting First Born (2006), Neta Elkayam painted herself standing in front of a kitchen wall. In its coloration and character, the painting resembles an old faded black and white photo. These refer to both figures: the grandmother and the fallen son-soldier. Neta Elkayam is stepping, as it were, into the shoes of both, identifies with them, becomes their doppelganger, their living memorial or their echo.
In Halutza, Dafna Nissim is showing two video-art works, Forever Hairy (2011) and Polished (2011), and three series of staged and digitally manipulated photographs, Beauty Proposal (2010-11), Untitled (2011) and SketchBook (2011).
In the series Beauty Proposal, Nissim’s photoshopped face assumes a look of hybrid creature with fluid, queer sexuality. Each photo shows her against a different landscape (Kibbutz Kramim, Jerusalem, Netivot, Beer Sheva, etc.) in what seems like glossy fashion photos, or film stills. There is a disturbing contradiction between the photos’ aesthetic and glossy magazine-like nature and the revulsion and horror inspiring “punctum” – a woman with facial and body hair. Nissim’s photographic portraiture belongs to a “twilight zone” – hairy women, man-apes, aliens, or transgenders. On the most basic level of revulsion, there is a link to wild primeval times, in which hairiness was identified with unbridled sexuality. Contemporary Western culture recognizes this aberration and labels it “cultural disruption.” Policing the female body produces a lucrative industry of epilation and “excessive” hair plucking that turns a woman into a smooth, obliging “porcelain doll.” Beauty Proposal undermines socially expected images and offers instead aesthetics of accepting abjection and bodily superfluity in the spirit of Julia Kristeva.
In the Untitled series, Nissim is photographed again in poses that correspond with fashion and advertising photos, but their polished and glamorous outlook is disrupted and disturbed: words are stitched and beads are sewn into body parts. Stitching words into one’s skin mutilates it, dulls its beauty, “marking” and “staining” the woman in a similar way to tattooing a number on the forearm of an inmate. Code words (Coffee/Bread, For Children, Laundry, Grocery Shopping, 8:30, etc.) allude to the tasks and errands performed by Nissim as a mother/artist who struggles to survive in these two demanding jobs.
The third series, SketchBook, consists of “food” photography that brings to mind cooking and recipe books. Here too the polished glamorous look is disrupted: the food, as it turns out, is a surface, or artistic raw material. Sewing threads turn the works into documented three-dimensional drawings, into studies in Nissim’s sketchbook. She turns her kitchen tabletop into collagic surface. One reality permeates the other, and vice versa, as she juggles her Sisyphean activities on limited, borrowed time. Nissim: “For someone who grew up in a family with Iraqi and Yemenite food culture, spoiling food is an unheard of practice. To make a drawing by stitching up food is a sacrilege. My children, too, had a hard time accepting this delinquent behavior. As far as they are concerned, mother should make food, not spoil it in order to make art.”
In her video, Forever Hairy, Dafna Nissim talks with her family about their attitude toward and reaction to her excessively hairy body. Their different reactions reveal their traditional ideas, beliefs and habits concerning body hairiness and shed or plucked hair as an “object of abjection”; the model of female beauty; fertility and passion a la Orient; the Motherhood ethos; and relationships within the family. Waxing armpits and eyebrows is related to concepts such as objectification and degradation of the female body. These concepts are present in their conversations, albeit without actually being named. Dafna Nissim is filmed in the video with her back to the camera, listening to the person sitting in front of her. One can imagine her facial expressions. In her own words: “in my conversations, I emphasize my freedom as a hairy woman, who does not abide by social conventions.” In one of the conversations, her close friend, herself a rather hairy woman, takes the liberty of walking around with unplucked body and facial hair. Nissim’s partner displays his love and acceptance. The video is engaged in a dialogue with the Beauty Proposal series. However, unlike that series, the video intentionally blurs the distinction between the “documentary” and non-documentary. The work’s title, Forever Hairy, refers to and disrupts the meaning of the phrase “forever young” and also alludes to the Hebrew expression for “she scapegoat” – “seira le’azazel,” which is spelt and sounds exactly like “may the hairy woman go to hell.” It gives rise to an anxious anticipation of excommunication and forlorn and solitary life awaiting a female “victim” of excessive hairiness.
In the video Polished, Nissim is seen with her belly covered with black shoe polish paste and her fingernails with red nail varnish. Throughout the video, she drums on her belly to the beatings of darbuka. The video starts with the blackened belly gradually clearing up and then blackened again and so on and so forth. The soundtrack of oriental music associates the skin of the belly with that of the darbuka. In this work, once again the woman’s body is violated and objectified. The title, Polished, implies shoe polish but also brings to mind a “polished woman” – refined, fortunate and successful. However, in the video the woman only “succeeds” in becoming a punching bag/percussion instrument.
The coda of Neta Elkayam’s text remains open-ended: “What extinguished the life of children, what finished off the life of mothers, what disrupted the life of siblings, and how vicious are the enemies. How fragile is our marginal existence…”
And there is nothing more to say, because when words subside all that remains is the stench of gunpowder and the long silence in which soldiers keep spinning on a roundabout, without a soundtrack. Her soldiers, like the Jews of “Moving-Moving,” gasp for air, but keep on going: “I’m a moving-moving Jew / Having arrived yesterday, tomorrow I’ll be gone / You won’t catch me laying down foundations, / Memory roots like my severed tail. / Moving-moving twirling-twirling / Neither earthbound, nor hovering / I won’t stay around to grow old in people / and they won’t grow old in me / It’s autumn, and now it’s spring / And already I’m suffocating / Let me pass through / I need some air.”
In their works, Dafna Nissim and Neta Elkayam are preoccupied with their own gender, beauty, body, feminine consciousness and the ways in which they are accepted/not accepted by society. Both function as directors and models and “play” with their real and assumed-disguised identities. This is not a feminist “masquerade ball” in the spirit of Cindy Sherman’s photos, but rather one more artistic tool to reflect and respond to reality: life in a nuclear single-parent family consisting of a mother and two children (Dafna Nissim), or life affected by a ticking biological clock and by one’s close environment (Neta Elkayam).
Prof. Haim Maor
Curator of the exhibition
Dafna Nissim: Biographical Notes
b. 1965 in Pardes Katz, Israel; lives and works in Beer Sheva
Post-graduate studies, Art History Department, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva
BA, Philosophy and Art History, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Graduated from the Art Department, Oranim Academic College, Kiryat Tiv’on
Selected One-Person Exhibitions
2011 ‘Ayuni, Kibbutz Be’eri Art Gallery
2010 Yomyom, Gross Art Gallery, Tel Aviv
2009 My Family, the Negev Museum of Art, Beer Sheva
2003 Winter Collection 2002/3, Tova Osman Art Gallery, Tel Aviv
1995 P. 7, Israel Painters & Sculptors Association, Tel Aviv
1994 The Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art
Selected Group Exhibitions
2010 Men and Women Create Beauty, Gross Art Gallery, Tel Aviv
2009 Mishela, Oranim Academic College, Kiryat Tiv’on
2004 Ata Totach, Ben-Gurion Unuversity of the Negev
2000 Mundane Muse, Janco-Dada Museum, Ein Hod; Arad Museum, Arad; Rehovot Municipal Gallery, Rehovot
1994 Manner of Speaking, Art Gallery at the Memorial Center, Kiryat Tiv’on
1990 Spring in Tefen, the Open Museum, Tefen Industrial Park
1993 Young Artist Award, Department of Visual Arts, Israel Ministry of Education and Culture
1990 America-Israel Cultural Foundation Scholarship
Neta Elkayam: Biographical Notes
b. 1980 in Netivot, Israel; lives and works in Jerusalem
2007-8 Performance studies, Performance Art Platform, Tel Aviv
2006-7 Postgraduate studies, the Kalisher School of Art, Tel Aviv
2001-5 BA in Fine Arts, the Kay College of Education, Beer Sheva
Selected One-Person Exhibitions
2009 Annette and Samar, Antea Gallery, Jerusalem (with Zmira Poran Zion)
2008 Providence, Tova Osman Gallery, Tel Aviv
2007 Intimate, the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art
2006 AbuHazira7, the Zaritsky Artists’ House, Tel Aviv
2005 With No Words, 4th exhibition in the Nidbach 12 series, the Jerusalem Artists’ House
Selected Group Exhibitions
2011 The Zaz Festival, International Festival for Performance Art, Wadi Nisnas, Haifa
2010 Heart Endurance, co-curator and participant in the Reframing Reality festival, the Jerusalem Cinematheque
2009 The Old Man, Ben-Gurion University Art Gallery, Beer Sheva
----- Welcome, performance at Love Art event, Tel Aviv
----- Marhaba, performance at Manofim art event, Jerusalem
----- Crane Arts Festival,Burgundy; La Java, Paris
2008 Syndrome, co-curator and participant in the Smilansky 4th festival, Beer Sheva
----- The Zaz Festival, International Festival for Performance Art, Tel Aviv and Mitzpe Ramon
2007 Lost, Pyramid Gallery, Haifa
----- Space of Gender, the Open House, Jerusalem
2006 Without Notice, Barbur Gallery, Jerusalem
----- Open Studio, Kalisher School of Art Gallery, Tel Aviv
2008 Support for the “Green March” project, Mifal Hapayis Arts and Culture Council
2007 Artist fellowship training, America-Israel Cultural Foundation’s Scholarship
2005 The Mayor of Netivot Scholarship for the encouragement of young artists
 These images are strongly linked to Greek mythological motif: Zeus came to Danae in the form of golden rain and impregnated her. Hence, “Urophilia,” a sexual activity involving urine and urination.
 For example, in drawings and paintings of Israeli artist Nachum Gutman (1898-1980) from the 1920s, or in the late 1960s works of Austrian artist Rudolf Schwarzkogler (1940-69)
 This is an allusion to the Tinea Capitis disease and the spraying of newcomers with DDT in the 1940s and 1950s.
 A term coined by Roland Barthes (1915-80) denoting an irrational photographic detail that attracts the viewer’s gaze and attention and “pierce” him or her emotionally. He used this concept, for the time, in his Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. by Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981 , p. 27.
 According to Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (trans. by Leon S. Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), the “abject” is a reject, remainder, waste, or excretion of the human body, and once it is secreted it becomes a taboo, an object of abjection or repulsion.
 See “Moving-Moving Jew,” in: Sami Shalom Chetrit, Jews, Poems: 2003-2007, Binyamina: Nahar Books, 2008 [Hebrew].