Now on view at New York’s Jewish Museum, two recent acquisitions by artists of color redefine and expand on the forms and meanings of Judaica, examples of which are exhibited in the same gallery, to construct a message which is both inclusive and contemporary.
Nigerian-born artist ruby onyinyechi amanze’s “Marriage Contract” is an elegant mixed media work inspired by the design, text and purpose of the traditional ketubah. Yet, the drawing’s Hebrew and English words, a free form poem composed by amanze herself, addresses not the financial obligations of the groom, but the mutual pledge of spiritual and emotional commitment given freely by both partners. Redolent of the vows exchanged at a modern-day wedding ceremony, the poem’s theme is one of liberation: “Our love sets free the best that is in us now….fear not being quenched or diluted...I humbly participate in choosing to love you and accepting the love you shine on me.”
Noting that members of her immediate family adhere to Jewish customs — the Ibo people of southeastern Nigeria subscribe to the belief that are the descendents of a lost tribe of Israel —the Brooklyn-based amanze has recognized this aspect of her heritage as well. Floating in a sea of infinite white space, surrounded by motifs that include foliage, flowers, insects and birds, the anonymous couple that she portrays in “Marriage Ceremony” may or may not be Black and/or Jewish. This man and woman transcend the specifics of race and religion, to personify each and every pair of lovers — of all beliefs, races and cultures — who journey through life together.
Garnering headlines after his painting of former President Barack Obama was unveiled at Washington, D.C.’s National Portrait Gallery in February, the prominent American artist Kehinde Wiley casts his mostly blue jeans and tee-shirt clad sitters as modern royalty, in the manner of Renaissance portraitists like Bronzino. Rendered in eye-popping hues of pinks, blues and purples, Wiley’s picture of Alios Itzhak, an Ethiopian man who lives in Jerusalem, is displayed next to the elaborate 19th century mizrah (an ornamental paper cut containing both sacred and secular imagery, hung on the eastern wall to direct worshippers towards Jerusalem) that became the source for the painting’s decorative background. Sharing the stage with Itzhak, the mizrah acts as a dominant element, one which is emblematic of his Jewish identity. The painting is part of a series of portraits of Jewish and Arab men which Wiley has named “World Stage: Israel.”
Just as the floral iconography of the Obama portrait tells the story of the president’s personal history, Wiley’s incorporation of the mizrah into “Alios Itzhak” deepens the viewer’s knowledge of the sitter. Here, the paper cut’s energized tendrils grow and twine forward, from background to the front of the picture plane, to literally embrace Itzhak. The picture’s frame, topped with a carving of the Decalogue and confronted lions of Judah, is an essential component of the art work.
Over on the West Side, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Sound Archives has launched an online exhibit devoted to the work of pioneering collector Ruth Rubin, a singer and scholar who dedicated her life to recording the Yiddish song. Over 1100 of them, made between 1946 and the 1970s, can now be heard on the site, http://exhibitions.yivo.org/, which also includes lectures, concerts, videos, documents and photos.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
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