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Jerusalem of Art

Libi Astaire

What is Jewish art? A painting of a shtetl scene? A photograph of a Jerusalem street? Your Shabbos table? For the past month, artists and art lovers in Jerusalem have been asking this question, thanks to the first-ever Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Art. Curator Nurit Sirkis-Bank takes us behind the scenes — and to the frontlines of a discussion she feels reaches the loftiest expression of the Jewish soul.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Can an art exhibit change your life?

Nurit Sirkis-Bank may be an academic — she is currently enrolled in a PhD program atBar-IlanUniversity— but for her this question is far from academic. Decades ago, an art exhibit inLondonled her to change her life. The art show she hopes will impact the lives of other Jews is taking place right now inJerusalem, at the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art. It’s an exhibit she curated called My Soul Thirsts ... A Contemporary Search for a Higher Dimension, and it’s part of the first Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art.

“I want all the eyes to go upward, to inspire people,” Nurit confided, a few weeks before the Jerusalem Biennale’s opening. With those words, she gives a hint as to what makes this biennale unique.


Biennale Basics

Jerusalemis no stranger to either artists or art exhibitions. The city boasts many privately owned galleries, as well as a variety of museums. So why does it need a biennale? And what is a biennale, anyway?

Biennale, an Italian word that means “every other year,” became associated with art exhibitions whenVenicehosted the first Venice Biennale in 1895. In the years since, more than 100 cities have hosted their own biennales, bringing together artists from around the world, along with tourists — and their wallets.

Although small biennale events pop up across Eretz Yisrael in places like Herzliya and Ein Hod, surprisingly,Israel’s three largest cities hadn’t jumped on the biennale bandwagon and organized a truly world-class, international event. That changed when Rami Ozeri — a Torah-observant Jew — decided it was time for the Jewish art world to have a biennale of its own. For him, the location for such an event was obvious: “Where better than the city ofJerusalemto promote a new discourse on the intersection between all aspects of the Jewish imagination — intellectual, spiritual, and artistic?”

Starting with just the idea and plenty of enthusiasm — funding from the city and institutions came later — Ozeri contacted several curators, one of whom was Nurit Sirkis-Bank.

“He said that he wanted to open a discussion about the question, ‘What is Jewish art?’” Nurit recalls.

That was enough for her to get on board, since she has been asking similar questions almost all her life.


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