Assessing Israeli art in Teaneck

Assessing Israeli art in Teaneck

Kibbutz-born artist Ofri Cnaani to paint word picture of why her peers are different

An image from Ofri Cnaani’s “The Sota Project,” currently on view at Manhattan’s Andrea Meislin Gallery.

Although she has been reading talmudic stories since she was in the 11th grade, it was not until she came to the United States that Israeli-born artist Ofri Cnaani was able to incorporate Jewish content into her art. In Israel, Cnaani said, she grew up in a secular household on a secular kibbutz. While she studied the rabbinic texts, it was “from a secular perspective.”

Her solo exhibition is now on view at the Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York City. It is a 20-minute video installation entitled “The Sota Project.”

“For many years, I was fascinated by those kinds of texts,” she said, likening talmudic stories to a kind of mythology.

The artist explained that, “for political and historical reasons, people who are in the arts know more about other mythologies – Indian, Greek – than [similar] treasures in their own culture.” She attributes this to the fact that those with a secular tradition have little access to the religious texts.

On the other hand, she said, those who do study and know these stories “are not necessarily interested in the midrashic tradition.”

It is that midrashic tradition that has influenced “The Sota Project.”

Artist Ofri Cnaani will speak in Teaneck on May 8. Elinor Carucci

“In the case of the sotah, or adulteress, there are a lot of talmudic texts created in relation to one another,” she said, adding that she, too, is trying to create a new approach. When you enter the exhibition space, the original text appears on the wall so that “people will read it and know that I didn’t make up the story.”

Her “reinterpretation,” she said, raises universal issues concerning marriage, sisterhood, infidelity, betrayal, and punishment – all in a contemporary context.

On May 8, Cnaani – a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and at the Transart Institute in Berlin – will visit Teaneck to talk about her work and about the current Israeli art scene. As guest speaker for Congregation Beth Sholom’s annual Alfred and Rose Buchman lecture, the artist will deliver a talk entitled “Between Promise and Possibility: Art in Israel Now.”

The two-time winner of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation Award calls herself a third-generation artist: Her grandfather is the noted abstract sculptor Yehiel Shemi, who also co-founded Kibbutz Cabri in Western Galilee, where Cnaani was born. Her mother is a dancer and a visual artist; her sister a sculptor.

“It’s the only thing we know how to do well,” she joked.

An artist for some 15 years, Cnaani came to the United States more than 10 years ago to pursue a Master of Fine Arts at Hunter College. Now a Brooklyn resident, she is the mother of two small children.

Her work – encompassing video, installation, and performance art – has been exhibited in solo shows at P.S. 1/MOMA, the Haifa Art Museum, the Herzliya Museum, the Braverman Gallery in Tel Aviv, and in exhibitions in Venice, Vienna, Moscow, and Madrid, among other venues.

Cnaani said that while she is not a scholar, she is a good reader, “with the ability to step into the text barefoot,” and bringing her knowledge of art and art history with her. She is not interested in Jewish legal works, “but is specifically drawn to aggadah, talmudic short stories written in the dialectic tradition. They go back and forth – of lot of ‘what if’s.'”

“I never thought I would deal with Jewish texts in my own work,” she said. “They’re two different sides of the brain. It could only have happened to me here. Many secular Israelis will say that they’re Israeli first and Jewish second. After I came here, it changed its order. In a way, distance allowed me to start working on the Sota project.” The installation will be on view through June 2.

Cnaani said that when she began reading Jewish texts, her grandparents could not understand how she could be both secular and interested in Jewish stories. When they left Europe, she said, “They hoped never to look back. They chose a different lifestyle and ideology.”

Still, she said, “I don’t think the Jewish canon belongs to the religious people. It belongs to Jewish culture. I can open a book written 1,600 years ago and read it effortlessly in Hebrew.”

The artist said that while New York may not always be the center of the art world, “Israel will never be.” While a lot of “very contemporary art” is coming from Israel, “something about the [Israeli artists’] state of mind will keep them on the periphery.”

“They’re very attuned to what’s going on in the global art world, but they work a lot with local materials,” she said. “In such a historic place, it’s so contextual. But you can be sure it will be interesting culturally.”

In her talk at Beth Sholom, Cnaani will “try to catch a couple of the contemporary trends, looking back and forth between pre-state Israeli imagery and contemporary images,” rather than presenting a strictly chronological history. She will also speak about the way contemporary artists deal with Jewish topics.

The annual Buchman Arts lecture is free and open to the public. For more information, call (201) 833-2620 or e-mail

What: Alfred and Rose Buchman arts lecture

Topic: “Between Promise and Possibility: Art in Israel Now”

Speaker: Ofri Cnaani

Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck

When: Tuesday, May 8, 7:45 p.m.

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