Sunday, January 18, 2009

Menachem Wecker interviews Orit Arfa

Menachem Wecker has posted a fabulous interview of the artist Orit Arfa, on his Iconia blog.

Orit Arfa seems, in many ways, to be a kindred spirit for me. It is partially her wonderful paintings (see below), but also how she thinks and talks about her paintings, and the fact that she explores so many other creative outlets in addition to painting.

Here I will not try to capture all of the greatness of the interview with Orit (for which, please click the link above), but just to give you a small taste, to tempt you to go over there and read it.

MW: In your painting of Rebecca, you show the matriarch with bare elbows. Aren’t you worried about being criticized for not portraying her more modestly?

OA: I’d be worried if I’m not criticized for not portraying her modestly. That is the point. I painted Rebecca at a time when I was seriously questions Jewish modesty norms, having worn only skirts for several years. In religious schools the foremothers are portrayed as virtuous, modest women, however powerful in their own way. The plain meaning of the texts, however, suggest Biblical heroines who were highly comfortable in their own skin and sexuality. Sarah was given to two kings by her husband, Abraham. Rebecca and Isaac are described as “making-out.” Batsheva bathes in plain sight of King David, clearly evoking in him great sexual desire. Orthodox rabbis or teachers may offer their apologetics to explain this seeming impropriety. But Orthodoxy didn’t exist in Biblical times. I wanted to create a new image of the Biblical woman to justify my own rebellion and to also offer an alternative for women who feel stifled or limited by Orthodox modes of dress. At the same time, I don’t want my art to be a form of polemics, but to realize a vision–a visual reminder, encapsulation of my values and the struggles that took me there.

MW: How would you respond to a charge that a nightclub queen Esther [above - HRA] is sacrilegious?

OA: I would respond by saying thank you for the compliment. The entire story of Esther is very racy, when you think about it from an Orthodox perspective. Beautiful-Jewish-virgin-passes-sex-contest-to- become-Queen-of-Persia. While she was required to enter the contest, she still had what it took to charm this gentile king. Ultimately her grace and feminine charm, coupled with her intelligence, were used to avert a great Jewish tragedy. Ahasuerus was a party-producer extraordinaire, so in some ways Esther IS a nightclub queen. The first chapter of the Scroll of Esther defines in great detail the lavish parties and the drinks served—right down the goblets used. She knew how to throw a good party herself, as we read towards the end.

Going back to my Rebecca painting, we see that sexual awareness and physical beauty could be just as much a virtue as modesty. When the two are mixed in a delicate, intelligent, and purposeful way, they create a fantastic eroticism and “girl-power” that can be used for good and for fighting evil.

MW: Do you think the Second Commandment restricts art-making in a Jewish context? Are there any subjects you would not paint for fear of idolatry?

OA: Of course to me it doesn’t restrict art-making, but that’s how it’s been interpreted throughout the ages. The plain meaning of the text seems to refer to physical idols, God’s competitors in Biblical times. Going back to my modern definition of idolatry, I read the Ten Commandments entirely differently. The commandment against not having other gods refers to a philosophical principle: there is only one truth—yours—and you must follow it (within the parameters of civil law described in the second half of the Ten Commandments). Do not sacrifice your body or mind to others. Do not live a life dictated by the will of others or live a life with absolutely no purpose, or worse, destructive, criminal principles. The restriction against making art, to me, can thus be a violation of the Second Commandment! Staying true to yourself and living an honest, purposeful, and happy life are, to me, the ways in which to serve “God” (what is God or if there is one is another discussion).

As for not painting “idolatry,” I probably wouldn’t paint photographs idealizing or fostering strict religion, dictatorship, criminality, a purposeless existence, or nihilism. Some “Jewish” art I consider (mild) idolatry as much as canvases with nothing but blobs of paint. Sometimes Jewish ritual objects become sources of worship, rather than the ethical principles and behaviors they’re meant to foster.