Biennale Puts Jerusalem On Contemporary Arts Map

 The opening of the Jerusalem Biennale for contemporary Jewish art, which lasts through Oct. 31; photo by Judy Lash Balint.
The opening of the Jerusalem Biennale for contemporary Jewish art, which lasts through Oct. 31; photo by Judy Lash Balint.

by Judy Lash Balint

Jerusalem’s role in Israel’s start-up culture just got a boost: this time not via high tech, but through art.

The first Jerusalem Biennale for contemporary Jewish art recently opened at five locations throughout the city, and runs until Oct. 31. The Biennale hopes to stake out its place as another innovative arts project in Jerusalem’s lively arts scene, and to introduce contemporary Jewish art and artists to a wide audience.

With exhibits at places as diverse as the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art in the Hechal Shlomo building, the newly restored Tachana Rishona, Beit Avi Chai cultural center, Templar buildings on Emek Refaim, and outdoor spaces in the Musrara neighborhood, the Biennale aims to attract a diverse crowd.

Overall, the Biennale provides a showcase for some 50 artists from Israel and abroad, and 150 artworks are on display. Each art space is curated by a different artist and deals with a different theme related to the synthesis of Judaism and artistic expression. Each exhibit has its own interpretation of contemporary Jewish art, from photography, video art and installations through performance art, paintings and sculpture.

The Jerusalem Biennale is the initiative of Rami Ozeri, 34, a Jerusalem native and budding arts entrepreneur. Ozeri, who has a master’s in economics, spent a couple of uncomfortable years at the Bezalel Academy of Arts due to his passion for wanting to introduce Jewish elements into his art. “They didn’t get me there, I felt alone,” Ozeri says of his experience at Israel’s most prestigious art school.

On a subsequent trip to Berlin in 2010, Ozeri happened upon the Berlin Biennale and “had an epiphany.”

“I knew that’s what I wanted to bring to Jerusalem,” he explains. “There’s no place here to exhibit art that’s both Jewish in content and contemporary,” he adds. Ozeri also wanted to pose the question, “What is Contemporary Jewish Art? Does the category even exist?”

“There is no simple answer for that,” he states. “But there is no better place than Jerusalem to raise these questions and to encourage curators, artists and scholars from different backgrounds to try and give an answer.”

Ozeri’s first attempt to get the project off the ground failed when he couldn’t convince enough funders to jump in.

After working at it for another three years, Ozeri managed to pull in more than $10,000 via the Indiegogo crowdsourcing site, together with matching funds from the ROI (Return on Investment) community. In addition, Ozeri secured major support from the Hasid Brothers, prominent Jerusalem developers, Bank Hapoalim, the Leichtag Foundation, the Jerusalem Foundation, and the Jerusalem municipality.

At the festive opening held in the courtyard of the newly restored Templar buildings on Emek Refaim, Tzion Hasid of the Hasid Brothers Development Corporation praised Ozeri for his vision and thanked the organizers for using his buildings to provide an outlet for artists who may be encouraged by the increased activity to stay in Jerusalem.

Ozeri notes that several of those involved in the Biennale “Here and There” exhibit he is curating at the Hasid Brothers site are artists he characterizes as “Datlashim” (Dati Leumi Sheavar) – formerly modern Orthodox Jews “who are very connected to Jewish content but who live in the secular, avant garde world.” Participants include American award-winning artist Tobi Kahn, American-Israelis Andi Arnovitz, Ken Goldman and Jessica Deutsch, Ruth Schreiber, British-Israeli Mordechai Beck, and London-based Jacqueline Nicholls.

Over at the exhibit entitled “My Soul Thirsts” (Tsama Nafshi) at the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art at Hechal Shlomo, many of the 30 participating artists are observant or Haredi, according to curator Nurit Sirkis-Bank.

The works on view at the Wolfson include abstract, figurative, textile and multi-dimensional pieces, including work from graduates of the Oman art school for haredi women, a satellite of the Bezalel Academy. Sirkis-Bank explains that the shared focal point of the works is the yearning, longing and desire for holiness as seen from a contemporary perspective. In each of the works there’s a desire for a connection between heaven and earth.

“What I wanted to do was to bring very contemporary Jewish art to Hechal Shlomo, side by side with the traditional, to raise new questions,” Sirkis-Bank tells

Sirkis-Bank was raised in a secular home in Tel Aviv and became orthodox in her late 20s. “I found my interest in Judaism as I was working on my PhD in multi-disciplinary art at Bar Ilan University,” she says. “My life’s mission is to build bridges in Israel, to make people more comfortable together.”

Ozeri concurs, adding that his vision was for a Biennale, an ongoing institution, not a one-time arts event. “I look forward to seeing everyone here in 20 years at the 10th Jerusalem Biennale,” a jubilant Ozeri told the crowd at the opening.