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Sex and Feminist Jewish Art

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Continuing our series on Jews & Sex, Rachel Garfield discusses feminist art.

In 2006, in her book Jewish Identities in American Feminist Art: Ghosts of EthnicityLisa Bloom explored the relationship between art by second-wave American feminist artists and the elided Jewishness of many of those artists.  

The journey to the explicitly articulated Jewishness of a new generation of artists in the 1990s is one that builds on the progressive gains of these second-wave feminist predecessors. These younger artists brought out silence at the heart of American feminist art. Bloom looked at the ways in which antisemitism and assimilation both served to make Jewishness the unacceptable other. Gender was felt to be a more acceptable difference as a platform in art to fight for equality. It was only in the 1990s after Black artists had foregrounded racism in their art that exhibitions began to appear tackling the earlier invisibility of Jewish identity in key shows such as Too Jewish at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1996. 

In her chapter for Jews and Sex, Lisa Bloom discussed some of the reasons why issues of sex and sexuality were absent in the art of Jewish women but how it appeared in later generations of artists such as Rhonda Lieberman (USA), Deborah Kass (USA), Ruth Novaczek (UK) and me. Below are the works by Novaczek and me discussed in her chapter. 

Rachel Garfield, Unmade Up, 2002 

Bloom wrote: ‘In Unmade up (2002) Garfield records the reactions she received when interviewing Jews about their feelings towards dating other Jews. Her artwork is a large video installation featuring a series of self-portraits of the artist where Garfield moves between presentations of her private and public self. In part of the tape’s loop that is continuous, Garfield appears as the cultural critic using headphones as she listens to the responses of her interviewees … For most of the men Jewish women were “too Jewish” in the wrong way: retrograde, narrow, rule-ridden and authoritarian and many of the men, as well as the women, who were interviewed, were eager to place as much distance as possible between themselves and the Jewish community by marrying a British man or woman’. 

Ruth Novaczek, Rootless Cosmopolitans, (1990) 

(extract/trailer) 

Rootless Cosmopolitans is a cinematic journey into love, Jewishness and heritage.  It offers a visual palimpsest of found footage, fictional narrative and autoethnography.  

‘Characteristic of Novaczek’s style is the way that humour and fantasy comes through in the energy Novaczek puts into her film’s sound track, as dialogue and music often carries equal weight in her work with the visuals. The images and voices of women in Novaczek’s work are often seductive, fragmentary, and haunting; her soundtrack can at times be poetic as informed by the Beat poets or direct and funny as influenced by Jewish comedians as when she introduces her main character, Lily Klein, in Rootless Cosmopolitans: “Take Lily Klein, a real Princess. She didn’t have real estate, she didn’t have media control. She drank”’.  

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Rachel Garfield is Professor of Fine Art at the University of Reading.
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