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April 24, 2014 / 24 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Chrystie Sherman’

Taking The Diaspora’s Portrait

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora
Photographs by Chrystie Sherman
Through January 9, 2009
The Austrian Embassy
3524 International Court, NW,
Washington, D.C.
http://www.acfdc.org/

 

Walking through Chrystie Sherman’s solo show at the Austrian Embassy in Washington will almost inevitably make viewers rethink their notions not only of what it means to be a Jew, but also what Jews look like. Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora is the product of six years of traveling, wherein Sherman photographed Jews in communities that are disappearing. Included are images of Jews from Krasnaya Sloboda, Batumi, Privolnoye, Oguz, and Tbilisi in Azerbaijan and Georgia; Santiago de Cuba and Old Havana in Cuba; Teplik and Vinnytsa in the Former Soviet Union, Berdichev, Kiev, Odessa, Shargarod; Aghbalou Village, Arazane Village, and Tunisia in North Africa; and Tashkent, Bombay, Kochin, Parur District, Kottareddipalem, and Alibag in Uzbekistan.


Many of the images are difficult to look at. “I cried a lot on these trips,” Sherman said at the exhibit opening. “No one is smiling on these trips, because it is counterintuitive.” Sherman also found mixed responses from her would-be subjects, ranging from “terror to pleasure to hostility.” Yet, Sherman said, she became friends with many of them and sent them the photographs she had taken after they were developed.

 

 


Chrystie Sherman. “Rabbi,” 2002. Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

 

However sad, she compares her photographic project with Oscar Wilde’s famous 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which tells the coming-of-age story of Dorian, a very attractive young man who posed for the artist Basil Hallward. As Dorian discovers more about himself, he realizes to his horror that his own depravity and sins are visited not upon him but upon Basil’s painting. Despite his reprehensible life, Dorian remains forever young and beautiful, as his representation becomes more and more terrifying. Sherman sees her work as akin to Basil’s portrait of “past, present, and future” − but added that, “Lost Futures” is “ultimately a question of the future” − the future of the far-flung Jewish communities.


One of the most gripping portraits in the show is a white-bearded rabbi who sits on a bench with a Holy Book in his hand. He wears a dark coat over a white robe and has a large knit kippa on his head, which tilts to the right as he looks at the camera. His face is deeply wrinkled, and he appears to have been disturbed from his studies or prayer by the photographer’s sudden appearance. Behind him is a structure of some sort that seems liable to collapse at any minute – a dramatic touch deepened by the dark shadows of the black-and-white image. According to Sherman’s caption, the rabbi is the oldest member of the Orthodox synagogue in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and he sits in front of the construction of a new synagogue, which will probably never be finished.

 

 


Chrystie Sherman. “Shabbat,” 2002. Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

 

“Shabbat,” which shows a housewife in a doorway to her house in Bukhara, carries a very different tone. The woman, who wears a dress that both evokes a lizard’s scales and camouflages with the doorway, is preparing Friday night dinner, according to the caption. Sherman’s compositional move of capturing the anonymous woman in the doorway provides a second frame, wherein the woman is in a doorframe, which sits within a larger frame. The viewer is offered no glimpse of what is inside the home, and a bright white light shines from behind the figure, almost offering her a halo. Like the rabbi, this woman’s expression is tough to read, and she could easily be mistaken for a movie star posing for a glamorous photo rather than a Jewish woman preparing for the Sabbath.

 

 

 


Chrystie Sherman. “Holocaust Survivor,” 2000. Teplik, Former Soviet Union.

 

The woman who posed in Teplik in the Former Soviet Union for “Holocaust Survivor” cannot be mistaken for a movie star. Most of the woman’s family perished in the war, and she lives by herself in a small wooden house. Sherman shows the woman, who wears a flower-patterned shirt and a shawl over her head, standing in a field full of weeds. The woman carries a walking stick in her right hand, and it seems that her laundry is hanging behind her. This photograph could be a companion piece to the Tashkent rabbi in a diptych, as the survivor tilts her head in the opposite direction. Like the rabbi, she looks directly at the viewer.

 

 

 


Chrystie Sherman. “Challah,” 2001-2002. Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.

 

In “Challah,” a young boy carries a loaf of challah that his father baked to the synagogue. The boy wears a striped polo shirt and a large kippa, and he stands in front of a street and an alleyway where two Cuban children sit. Viewers can compare and contrast the boy with the two children and arrive at a lot of differences. They are black and wear no shoes. He is white, holds a Jewish ritual food, and is dressed nicely. In fact, many viewers might be comforted by the fact that, a loaf of challah is a loaf of challah is a loaf of challah − and they make it the same way in Cuba. But that does not seem to be the point. Sherman’s work is about gathering together − perhaps an antidote to the Diaspora that she represents − and about finding common bonds between Jews around the world, even as they are very different.


I think this is a touchy point for Jewish art. If Diaspora and losing the Temple is supposed to be our punishment for sin, and if we are spread out around the world just as the builders who created the Tower of Babel were, because we were deficient in our faith, then ought Jewish art celebrate those differences?


Is documenting Diaspora an appropriate project for a Jewish artist? I think there is a great risk in becoming enamored of Diaspora, since a multicultural world where people look different and act differently and have different customs sounds far more exciting than one where everyone is the same. Sherman agreed that the aim is to leave the Diaspora and return to Israel, but she was not particularly worried about the notion of memorializing Diaspora.


“As a photographer, to go around and see these really ancient communities that are really steeped in community and history that are drying up is very sad,” she said. “Maybe I just have a problem with things that end.”
    
MENACHEM WECKER welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, and resides in Washington, D.C.

Diaspora Pictures: Photographs By Chrystie Sherman

Friday, October 31st, 2003

Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora:
Photographs by Chrystie Sherman. 92nd Street Y:
Milton J. Weill Art Gallery. Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street. (212) 415-5500:

Call for Gallery hours. Until October 24, 2003.

 

There are Diasporas and then there are Diasporas. We Jews in the American Diaspora are fortunate to be exiled in the freest country in the world, with full religious freedom and the benefits of an affluent society. Our Torah communities are strong, healthy and growing in the midst of the majority of Jews who still identify as Jews, even as tragically large numbers of our brethren drift into the allures of assimilation and Jewish annihilation.

Other Diasporas struggle with a starker reality and simply hope to survive in any form. This “Other Diaspora” is the subject of Chrystie Sherman’s powerful photographic essay, Lost Futures: Journeys into the Jewish Diaspora at the 92nd Street Y until October 24, 2003.

Sherman’s powerful compositions and compelling subjects make a strong case for the use of the portrait as a narrative medium in one of the strongest exhibitions of contemporary photography in recent memory. Her images engage the viewer with an unsentimental honesty
that elaborates upon the portrait format of modern masters such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Both these artists utilize eye contact and emotional engagement of the subject against a neutral modernist background as the foundation of visual communication. Sherman expands this vocabulary with the introduction of an engaging social context. Each of her subjects is
situated in an environment that, by means of composition and potent symbols, narrates the individual image into the complex fabric of Jewish life often poised at the very edge of survival.

Chrystie Sherman is a professional photographer with 25 years experience in photojournalism and set photography for public television. After working on portraits of Holocaust survivors on the Lower East Side through Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, she became intrigued by the idea of the forced dispersions and suffering of the Diaspora. Exploring the backwaters
of the Diaspora, she photographed in the former Soviet Union in 2000, Cuba in 2001, then Uzbekistan in 2002, and this year in India in what has become The Diaspora Essay, to be published in 2005.

She sought out dwindling Jewish communities ravaged by oppression, poverty and emigration of much of the younger generation. In spite of this diminution, there were those Jews who choose to stay behind and maintain a Jewish life in their homeland. They are her subjects in
the 27 black and white prints shown here.

Holocaust Survivor, Teplik (2000) stands alone in her garden. She lost most of her family during the war and has lived alone since in a small wooden house. The photograph’s composition shapes the subject’s staunch determination to survive in the face of unremitting
suffering. Her figure is pushed to the right of the frame, assaulted by the curved wash line and the leaning overgrown plants. It is as if nature itself conspires to topple her. And yet, her determined eyes and steady glance at the camera tells us that she will persevere. Indeed, she is rooted to the earth by the dark shape of her dress, clinging to her homeland in spite of all odds.

Explicitly Jewish content in these powerful images is frequently submerged in subtle allusions. Woman with Bullock, Alibag (2003) is typical in its disarming impression of an Indian rural scene. This illusion begins to evaporate as we notice how the line of the rope carefully winds its way from the lower left foreground (our visual entrance to the image), through the young
woman’s hands, up through the beast’s horns and finally to the sky at the top of the image. This motif echoes a far more ancient Jewish reality of taking a prized animal up to the Temple in Jerusalem for sacrifice. The finely dressed maiden, tenderly posing with a valuable beast,
ennobles a banal reality and allows it to resonate through the corridors of Jewish time.

Symbols, strikingly simple in Sherman’s photographs, provide a narrative background in Samuel the Butcher, Old Havana (2002). The Magen David clearly identifies the shochet just as the rooster creates an ample allusion to the vicissitudes of the Jewish year. Perhaps it is the extreme verticality of the composition that makes the handsome rooster seem a likely candidate for Kaparas just before the Yom Kippur. Surely the butcher himself seems strong and determined to work for at least another year in the only kosher store in Cuba.

The Biblical narrative itself arises in Sarah and Her Indian Servant, Kochin (2003). The startling contrast between the European face of Sarah and the darkly beautiful Indian servant brings to mind the distinction we can imagine between Sarah our matriarch and her Egyptian maidservant Hagar. How well did they know each other in middle age, before Hagar bore Ishmael? The gestures of their hands and tilt of their heads echo their closeness. Was there originally a bond of affection and trust in that distant past as we see here in these two beautiful women? Sherman’s photograph plunges us into complicated relationships of today even as it reveals the complexities of our familial ancestry.

Chrystie Sherman is exploring in photography what it means to be a Jew on the edges of Jewish existence. Her photographs of the graceful Bukharian housewife Erev Shabbos, the hands of a Jewish bride in Bombay intricately decorated with henna, and even aged resistance fighters in the Ukraine all touch on issues of self-identity in a foreign environment. These communities are barely holding on, and yet the strength of the people, expressed in the power and sureness of her images, lends a disproportionate hope for the future of this Diaspora. Each portrait expands into an engrossing narrative and in the hands of this artist; each narrative
implies not only a past, but a future as well.


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.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/diaspora-pictures-photographs-by-chrystie-sherman/2003/10/31/

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