Exhibition commissioned by Maitland Regional Art Gallery NSW , 2009
JOURNAL NOTES: AUGUST SEPTEMBER 2007 – AUGUST 2008* by Hanna Kay
Not long after I had moved to live into the Upper Hunter valley, north of Sydney, in 2000, I came across a Jewish gravestone in the town's mixed Christian cemetery. The lone grave, dated 1916 and, inscribed with both English and Hebrew inscriptions, was somewhat bizarre in its remote rural setting, though . Born in Israel, the notion of Jewish people scattered around the globe is not strange to me;. My parents immigrated to Israel from Lithuania and Poland;. for myself, born in Israel, I have lived in Europe, New York and now Australia.
Migration and immigration have been embedded within Jewish tradition since God told Abraham to “get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house to the land that I will show thee ...” However, as far as I knew, Jews outside Israel, especially in the last 200 years ago, lived mainly in urban communities. Thus, when I was approached by the director of the Maitland Regional Art Gallery to consider a project involving Jewish migration to the Hunter Valley in the beginning ofearly in the 19th nineteenth century, I was intrigued.
While I am interested in the mythologies and legends that are indispensable to my Jewish heritage, in themselves they do not interest attract me as subject matters for art works. Neither do I want to engage with a narrative that considers the morbid causes that have impelled Jewish people to move from one place to another. Yet, since mobility has provided a context for my art works, I am interested in the tension between memories and experiences. When one we needs, or is are forced to move, images take shape in our minds, and we search for them in the new place we call home. These images don’t always correspond to reality. The friction between fantasy and what isthe tangible fascinates me.
These were my thoughts when as I looked around the Jewish cemetery in Maitland. The fenced block of land, in the midst of rural paddocks, stands abandoned and neglected. - There are about 40 forty graves, dating from the 1850's through to the 1930's, all of which arethem inscribed in Hebrew and English. I was born Jewish, and even though I am not a practicing Jew, the history and the tradition has been bred into me and etched into my memory. As I negotiated the tall grass, conscious of snakes, spacious vista and history, I knew that somehow I would like to find a visual expression for the experience.
These days, while working from a studio situated in a the middle of the a paddock, I reflect on my wandering. I map out journeys made over decades, on other continents, in different cultures and languages. I try to find links,; to find visual expressions which willto connect personal biography with geographical landscape. Arguably, perhaps one of the most important consequences of displacement and migration is the engagement with a foreign landscape. Upon arriving to in a new place, the first encounter is with the environment: the vista, the light, the sky, the clouds, the smells. This usually may triggers a conscious or an unconscious urge to reflect on the significance of the natural environment to our wellbeing.
When I arrived in Sydney (some 20 twenty years ago,) more than anything I was struck by the light. It was just a touch brighter, clearer, and sharper than the light I had left behind in the northern hemisphere.
In the past, when people moved around the world on foot, by horses or on ships, the duration of the journey would allowed them to get accustomed themselves to climatic and environmental changes. By the time they had arrived on at the other side of the world, they would have not been so struck, as I was, by the different quality of the atmosphere.
Then there was the new smell, - an unidentified dry smell –, which now I can now ascribe to dry gum leaves – that permeateds the air, the buildings, the bush and even the beaches. Australian smell is light and evasive. Moreover, And of course I was impressed by the way people fit into the texture of this new environment. We are shaped by the terrain in which we live, and when we feel comfortable enough in it, we shape it according to our need.
As much as I believe I have detached myself from the events that make my history, I cannot be free from interacting with them. Jewsish people are called the people of the Book. For over 4,000 tumultuous years they have held on to The Words and onto to the hermeneutics, critique and discourse that have been added over the years. I have been trying to remember millennia of cultural narrative that flow in my blood and had beenwere imprinted in me while I was growing up. I am sifting through stories, legends, mythologies, historical facts, contradictions, and poetry that have oozed into my psyche and shaped my identity. This exhibitionMy work attempts to address the connections between this mythical storyline and my biography, creating a broader narrative which that resonates with other peoples and cultures.
Standing by the Hunter River in Maitland. The gentle waves and the clear horizon a picture of tranquility and wholesomeness, shattered only by soiled yellow foam along the waterline. Once, this waterway carried people strange to this environment and culture. Now, not even a kilometer away, there is a plot of land documenting their lives and their incongruous tradition.
My third visit to the Jewish cemetery in Maitland.
A cemetery is a place of rest. It is a place that matters. It is also a place where the cultural meets the natural. This particular one is a surreal site. The wind carries the smell of horse manure from nearby paddocks. Tall grass overtakes the weather-worn tombstones. The yellow grass sways in the gentle wind, turning silvery-green where the field meets the blue horizon. A wire fence defines the block of land where the gravestones are arranged in skewed rows. Behind the fence, in a paddock that stretchinges behind beyond the horizon, a horse eyes the overgrown grass in the cemetery. Hidden in the grass is an alphabet spelling unthinkable stories.
I was hoping to getfor a breakthrough. I was hoping that in the graveyard, surrounded by the vast sky, the fences, and the farm machinery,. I would find a way into the artwork. But all I could see was Hebrew letters racing towards me from the headstones. Telling stories of hope and pain. Stories of assimilation and segregation. Almost 200 years ago, a craftsman had engraved the letters into the hard stones in memory of fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. Most likely that craftsman did not even understand the words he/she had been asked to carve. Today, I read the marking on the stones and translate them into possible images on a canvas - – thus transcending their meaning yet again.
I am carried away by the excitement the concept generates. But I am also overwhelmed by the anticipated, unknown journey toward resolving the almost impossible challenge I have put in front ofbefore my artistic self. Migration, displacement, immigration, alienation, hopes, shattered dreams, dark secrets, shadows, past, heritage and, uncompromising tradition, are all narratives upon which I do not want to embark upon. Neither do I care for symbols of religion and race, and. Also, I do not wish for the angst generated by such a subject to come through the images. Instead, I would like to find the light and the lightness in the threads that are woven throughout our Jewish heritage.
I was born into an ordinary Jewish family, to decent parents with no extraordinary philosophies of life. By living in Israel in the first half of the 20th twentieth century, they had to have a sense of their place in Jewish history in general, and in Israel in particular. Otherwise they were just two people adrift who happened to migrate to a place where history was unfolding. Thus, they had to have some convictions, but none not about their own, personal significance.
My father and mother kept alive their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, through the stories they told us. They were not such good raconteurs, but we excused them. The stories they told carried them along. They Both of them colored the were memories of lost geographies which they both coloured with things for effect, and. each excused the other because the actual story was unbearable. It was their way of holding on to tradition. To their past.
In the art works, I wish to filter the past of my Jewish heritage as if I wereas a pump – sucking up murky water and releasing it clear, but not sterile. I wish the objects in the painting to hint at the possibility of metamorphosing into something else.
I am reaching a point of excitement. But to be excited by the prospect of an adventure is one thing, to act is another. To begin with, I had tomust discard the comfort of my technical painterly achievements, and to establish a dialogue with my imagination which will lead to a new way of working. Out of this dialogue comes the idea of using photographs of the gravestones and incorporating them in the paintings came directly out of this dialogue.
This way of working is both new and familiar.
Instead of using my conventional method – (a pencil or a brush –) to annotate my thinking, I use the camera. Photographing the graves and the inscriptions has been a way of finding out what I'd like the paintings to be. I had to go slowly. For the purpose of this body of work, the stark black and white photographs doid not support a vibrant range of colours. Instead, I needed to use a delicate gamut of greys to bridge over the photographs’' sharp contrasts.
I go slowly. Watchful and not knowing or even guessing what the elements that form the image would do in a given picture. Yet, I begin to feel more confidence. The images are looking increasingly balanced.
While drawing on my Jewish upbringing, the subject matter of the art works is nature and the landscape. When people move or are displaced, the landscape changes, often drastically. Yet, the more so if they are Jewish,, when people move, in particular Jewish people, despite drastic environmental changes they still bring with themto it their rigid traditions, customs and myths.
A desert looms high in Jewish consciousness. The mythology tells of 40 forty years of wandering in an arid wilderness, all for an arid Promised Land. On the one hand, violent campaigns and tribal feuds were fought over a minute expanse of dunesdry rocks; on the other hand, the association is with a serene desert, a place of meditative, quiet nature.
The first time I went to the desert, I was surprised by the lack of sweeping sand dunes. The parched desert that surrounded the Dead Sea was more like fossilized sand ridges and mounds. They formed a maze of ravines and valleys that framed the basin of the salty lake. An awesome place where only a scorpion could hear you sing, and only an eagle’s cry might disturb the silence.
The first time I went to the Australian desert, I was surprised by the lushness of the country. However, it was neither the unusual flora nor the exotic fauna,; neither the dramatic, rugged cliffs nor the scrub lands that took hold of me. It was the colours and the texture. Stones the in shades of reds, yellows, whites and purples carried primordial memories. And the light was different. It washed over stones that had bakeding for eons in the unrelenting sun. It squeezed into nooks and crannies, swept shadows and distorted perspective. It altered space and transformed time.
Having grown up in one landscape and migrated to live in several others before ending up in rural Australia, I make images of experienced landscapes – a personal memory of migration. In the paintings, I juxtapose landscapes which that would have shaped the lives of the migrants who settled in Maitland. Europe, Israel, and Australia offer different palates of colours, lights and sensibilities, with which I engage. Also I also intend to look at the traces that left by natural forces leave upon the landscape, and the way they work to shape relationships with the environment. The working title, “undercurrent,” suggests that water is a major natural force in the project - – a metaphor for movement and change. And the paintings themselves follow landscape motifs, creating sequences of images which that suggest the passage of time.
As the artworks develop, 'light' and “water” have become the aesthetic concerns.
On one hand, There is the beliefIt is believed that light is the giver of substance in the world,. On the other hand,and there is the belief that the world is engulfed by darkness. These two aspects have been the thread by which changes and transformations of Jewish consciousness are held together.
In the Jewish tradition, water symbolizes the beginning of creation. Yet it, too, can be viewed from two contrary points of views – as both a giver and a taker of life; a creator and a destroyer.
Before me lay lies a wilderness of graves neglected for years, crumbling, and gradually sinking into the ground overgrown with vegetation, amidst paddocks stretching into the far horizon. There were are no stones placed on top of graves, witnessing that somebody hasd visited the dead. It was is not possible to decipher all the chiseled inscriptions, but the names I could can read – different in Hebrew than in English - – made make me think about how their names were so intimately they are bound up with the country they lived in and with its language.
I stayed in the cemetery for a while, taking photographs and trying to come to terms with the incongruity of the place. I walked up and down the uneven rows of graves, reading the names of the dead. When As I was am about to leave, I discovered the children’s gravestones. I stood stand before them for a while, not knowing why I was am so surprised and saddened. Many children did not live long at in that period. Headstones in loving memory of David, who dies died aged 7, and Jane, who died age 11, both children of Lewis Cohen, of Murrurundi. On other graves I read of more stories of parents' sorrow. Each inscription tells a story of pain and hopes.
Before I left leave, I placed a stone on a grave, according to custom.
I am seeking for a way to think about people's wanderings. My response to the subject is intuitive. I have been following associations and personal references to both migration and Judaism. Mapping geographiesy of tradition.
The paintings focus on natural elements. Water is prominent in the consciousness of the communities along the Hunter River, and would have been especially so in the psyche of the Jewish people who had arrived by sea to in Australia about 150 years ago. I have used water as a main subject in the artworks to express movement and rigidity, change and tradition, oppositions and contradictions, all of which have accompanied Jewish people throughout history. In addition, The water surface in which tombstones are reflected also suggests a separation between past, present and future, and may imply layers of memories that are evoked by encounter with cemeteries. .
For me, making marks on paper or a canvas is an inquiry. It is a way of thinking through glimpses of ideas. Sometimes, the first thing I discover is that I don't really know what these marks mean. Four decades of doubts prevent me fromward off panic, and reassuringe me that this lack of knowledge is my own doing. I also know that if I continue, some rewards may follow. I trail behind the brush, which seems to be, quite independently of me, to be attempting to break through an opaque curtain. I know that the information I am looking for is there, on the tip of my brush. But at times it is impossible to put it on the blank surface so that I will see what I have just imagined.
This time, I have been searching for a way that would will allow me to depict a form (gravestones) that does not have the familiar pull (– like, for instance, waterways, grasses or stones). I have found what I was looking for in the combination of photography and paint. This juxtaposition of the digital and the manual is new for me. A new realm of relationships has opened up.
I have come upon this new way of working by confronting what seemed to be an impassable obstacle. Usually, when an artist succeeds in such a task, it means giving up a comfort zone. It means letting go of reliable ways of working, a vital course in an artist’s struggle to endure.
Such self self-imposed restrictions can be tempting, as Stravinsky said in Poetics of Music: “‘My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.”’
My thanks to Janis Wilton, OAM New England University, Australia, who researched the project.
* Published in NASHIM: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Issues
Indiana University Press, no. 19 Spring 2010
Here are the judges' comment:
Judges’ Comments – National Trust Heritage Awards: Interpretation and Planning, Corporate/Government Category:
A remarkable and visionary project, which sought to revive interest in the small forgotten 1840s cemetery of some fifty graves. The outcomes have encompassed an exhibition of artworks inspired by the Cemetery, with interpreting catalogues and education program, a wonderful published history, and similar projects that have been initiated within other regional and rural communities. A truly remarkable outcome for the modest resources invested, demonstrating the discoverable relevance and importance of heritage places, and how the celebration can inspire other communities.