By Ben Schachter
One hundred years ago, my wife’s great grandfather, Nathan Black, owned a dry goods store in Montreal. In November of 1917 he had seamstresses sew a flag with two blue stripes and the Magen David in its center. Then, he hung that flag outside his store. “Haynt is a yuntof.” “Today is a holiday,” he said and closed his store to celebrate the Balfour Declaration. The Balfour Declaration was written by Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild supporting the establishment of a Jewish State. Today, Nathan Black’s flag hangs in our living room.
As part of the Jerusalem Biennial, organizer and curator Rami Ozeri, mounted an exhibition commemorating the Balfour Declaration. The artists are Beverly-Jane Stewart, Jacqueline Nicholls, and Ruth Schreiber.
Stewart’s historical and political painting Balfour Accomplished is arranged around a Magen David. The palette is dominated by earth-toned walls and grey-scale historical scenes punctuated by bright blue. Among the many scenes are battles from the First World War, Balfour handing Rothschild his letter, and images of the Big Ben clock tower and the Western Wall. The “completion” of the declaration is embodied in the center of the star where nine men wearing tallitim and a young boy stand at the Wall showing the success of the Jewish State and its future.
Ruth Schreiber also looks at the Balfour Declaration through an historical lens. Her work, Balfour at 100, is presented as a series of projections onto a loosely hung scrim in the gallery. The diaphanous fabric calls to mind memories of people and events that contrast with the perceived permanence of law, in this case the Declaration. Images include references to historical portraits and documents.
But the history of Jerusalem is more than politics and a chronicle of events. Jerusalem is part of the poetic and religious imagination. The British poet William Blake immortalized the city with the following stanzas: “And did the Countenance Divine Shine forth upon our clouded hills?/And was Jerusalem builded here Among these dark Satanic mills?/… I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.”
These verses, set to music as a hymn by Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, ring in Nicholls’ ear, who is from Britain. And yet the composer denied the nationalistic meaning, according to the artist, who was “nervous about the hymn’s power.” Instead the composer gave rights to the music to the Women’s Suffrage movement and “each time it was performed it empowered and supported women.” Nicholls recognizes another connection. Jerusalem is described as a woman, most powerfully, in Eichah, the elegiac poem commemorating her destruction. The dual connection between Blake’s stirring poem celebrating Jerusalem and Parry’s support of women’s rights in England is powerful fuel for Nicholls’ and her work. The result is Jerusalem Dreams.
Jerusalem Dreams is a raised bed upon which a white shroud-like sheet hangs over a sleeping form. The body appears to rest on her side as if in a deep sleep. Embroidered across the fabric are the words of Blake’s poem in Nicholls’ characteristic handwriting along with another quote, “L’shana haba b’yerusalyim,” “next year in Jerusalem,” embroidered in Hebrew along the length of the body in blue and gold. Under the bed, extending its reach into the room is a layer of salt. In the light, the salt looks as ethereal as the white sheet.
These three works look at one singular, monumental event. An event that changed history, led to freedom for a people – again, and continued a long passionate quest for a new land, until then, mostly in the imagination. This well crafted exhibition reminds us that history is of course written on paper, but perhaps most powerfully, it is also written in hearts and minds.
Machtarot Museum, 1 Mish’ol ha-Gvura Street, Jerusalem.
Hours: Oct. 8-Nov. 15, Sunday – Thursday 09:00-17:00.
Ben Schachter received a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University in studio art and art history, and received an MFA in studio art and an MS in art history and criticism from Pratt Institute. He is currently professor of visual art and chair of the Fine Arts department at Saint Vincent College. He exhibits regularly and gives public lectures. In the Fall of 2017 his first book “Image, Action and Idea in Contemporary Jewish Art” will be published.