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early twentieth century to yesterday’s memoir. Was Marc Chagall a Russian artist, a Jewish artist or a French artist? Crumbling social institutions, societal upheavals, and fluid opportunities in societies adrift from traditional moorings demand that artistic identity be parsed and minutely explored. Two exhibitions currently at Yeshiva University Museum examine this most postmodern of themes.
Oded Halahmy, working in New York’s Soho for the last thirty years, is showing an impressive retrospective of his works reflecting both the modernism he found in New York and his Middle Eastern roots. His identity shines forth as an Iraqi Jew marooned in New York in his retrospective: Homelands: Baghdad-Jerusalem-New York; Sculpture of Oded Halahmy.
Conversely, the twenty-four artists in Remembrance: Russian Post-Modern Nostalgia who have forged artistic lives out of the ruins of the Soviet empire treat identity as a borrowed shirt, an ironic garment within which to lash out at their past and present oppression. Identity for them is less a longed for homeland than a weapon with which to mock and attack multiple enemies, including a grandiose but dead Communism, avaricious capitalism, and artistic orthodoxies of the past hundred years. We will explore this complex exhibition next week.
While Oded Halahmy has at least three homelands: Iraq, Israel and New York, he has one
central artistic identity. Conversation (1996) establishes the framework of his aesthetic and cultural concerns. His whimsical and yet probing sculptures, almost all cast bronze, frequently utilize the powerful symbols of the palm tree and the pomegranate to create a dialogue between contrasting elemental facets of our personalities.
The palm is earthbound and yet continues to aspire to the sky, forever reaching even as it
shelters. It is a symbol of expansive freedom gently swaying in the wind. Frequently situated lower in the sculptural composition, the pomegranate occupies a distinctly different position that evokes our visceral nature. This luscious fruit, filled with seeds of fecundity and potential creativity, represents the earthbound nature of man bound to a life of flesh and blood. Its little crown even implies kingship over the earthly realm. In this sculpture, the dialogue is between the upper and lower aspects of our lives, with steps and ramps forming the base that we can metaphorically ascend.
Homeland (Study) (1987) moves these ideas into the realm of social identity. Halahmy
presents us with a tableau-like freestanding relief sculpture that could be mistaken for a group
portrait. The sculpture simultaneously operates as a series of universal symbols and as a landscape view of his remembered Iraq that he left as a 13-year-old in 1951. The majestic palm, curiously fractured, is flanked by the king and the humble, child like pomegranate. They in turn are framed by a star/sun symbol and an abstract figure on the viewer’s right. The skillful manipulation of size creates a scale and dignity beyond its actual height of only 48 inches.
Halahmy evokes for us a nostalgic view of a Middle Eastern childhood, perhaps representing his own family amidst the ever-present palms and life-giving sun. In the catalogue he writes that, “In my memories of Baghdad, everything is vivid, beautiful; people, friends, relatives, food… it was the most beautiful place on earth, a paradise.” It is a touchingly primitive portrait of a world long gone.
A more mundane realm of power and politics is referenced in Silver Pomegranate Moon
(1983). The sharp angles and rectangles contrast with curved gestures to abstractly describe a king seated in a palace attending to affairs of state while the moon rises above. Incongruously, a pomegranate is placed on its own stand next to his throne. Halahmy tells us that in the process of creating the work, he placed a real pomegranate on the abstract sculpture. The effect was a creative breakthrough.
The fruit is brilliant, reflecting the light differently from the surrounding burnished nickel bronze. It serves to remind the king that he too is but flesh and blood. His exercise of power, even
stern justice that might be seen in the jagged shape of his raised arm, needs to be tempered by
humility and gentleness as expressed by the soft light of the moon.
Halahmy frequently considers his work as playful. While that may be much of the time, still it is
a serious kind of play. His dalliance between abstraction, symbolism and a simple figuration reflects a life that he characterizes as nomadic. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, he grew up in Israel, studied in London, and finally moved to New York in 1971. At one point he states that “my homeland is the place where I am working and living” and yet there are no palm trees in Soho.
His constant use of these symbols reflects a poignant yearning for the lands of his youth, a
cultural identity bound up with the Middle East and the home of his forefathers. An artistic identity is not so easily manufactured from surroundings, even three decades old. Uprooting the artist does not uproot the artist’s authentic identity. Strangely, it may actually make it grow stronger.
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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