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Hagai Segev – Heroines Who Disappeared

2014 | “Pioneers and Bears in Afula” exhibition text

Is it surprising to meet a bear in the Izrael Valley? Legends tell that hundreds of years ago you could meet bears and tigers, and perhaps even lions, in the mountains of Israel. The most recent sightings and witnessing of the presence of bears were noted in the North of Israel as late as the beginning of the twentieth century. Today it seems impossible to grasp that, and it remains a fantasy. Like legends and tall tales, in Haya Graetz-Ran’s paintings, everything is possible, even a meeting between pioneer women paving roads and bears. The connection between history and the present, between reality and imagination, are the complex artistic strategies Graetz-Ran adopts, in order to get across her deeply seated message, along with aesthetic artistic messages, and, no less, messages of feminism and local culture.

Not one of the details depicted in Haya Graetz-Ran’s paintings is unintentional. These paintings are not intuitive – they are calculated to tell the story of the Land of Israel and the people who acted here at the beginning by presenting them in a contemporary, critical, sober context, that offers a penetrating look at complex reality.

The aim of the paintings is to reveal layers of culture that were created in Israel over nearly one hundred years. The connection to the Valley with its landscapes and the story of the pioneers who built it is a frame story among several, that she accumulates one at a time. Simultaneously, she reminds us of forgotten stories of heroes from the past, and brings them back to our consciousnesses, especially those of unknown heroines from the past.

Pioneer women and bears are two opposing images, when considering the Land of Israel. The unusual connection between the two is the basis for the works in the new series shown in the exhibit. The pioneers depicted in many of the paintings of recent years are the heroines who disappeared from the history books. They are the spiritual mothers of the women who left their safe homes in Europe in order to found and give birth to a new nation in faraway villages, out of unfathomable commitment to Jewish culture and later – Israeli culture. These pioneers created the strong connection with the Valley in their hard, insufferable physical labor, such as paving roads while breaking rocks into gravel. They renounced personal relationships in order to be part of an ideology that at times caused their deaths. For bravery they did not win thanks, and certainly not glory.

Graetz-Ran brings back these pioneers to awareness and examines their images in unrealistic contexts, in the world of art. She examines the reality in which they existed, and tests it, while basing the paintings on old photographs that she finds in archives and abandoned family albums. The photos document their lives and their histories, real or staged, and are the basis for this work that is realistic in its artistic characteristics, while patently unrealistic.

This contradiction is the critical base for all of Graetz-Ran’s works. Throughout the years of realistic painting she continues to research the hidden artistic methods in painting based on reality. Her painting digs deep into the beautiful layers of paint and leaves the viewer with unfulfilled feelings of difficulty in grasping the strange connections, such as the bear and the pioneers. These connections encourage thoughts on that connection, but no less on the feasibility of these absurd situations that comprise reality in the Land of Israel, then just as now.

Nevertheless, Graetz-Ran’s painting is one based on historical photography – direct and simple yet beyond its being documentation or reconstruction of pictures from the past – it constitutes a reminder and criticism of perceptions fixed in the artistic consciousness, that are only a reflection of the social and cultural condition. Questions concerning place, questions concerning the female condition and female presence in culture, are a significant part of the various layers to which she attends in her painting and which raise a profound discussion.

The photographs carefully chosen by Graetz-Ran are not just photos of a random event – they are a document of an existential condition representing an individual mental condition that sheds light on the national condition. Nonetheless, in those times multitudes of additional photographs were made, these survived and came into Graetz-Ran’s hands, and she took great care to save them from the albums, and we learn much of what is told, and even more on what is not told from the photographs. The background stories are frequently more complex than what is present in the abstract and the snap photo itself. A clear example of this is the story of the pioneer Shoshana Bogin; the paintings based on photos of her, form the base for Graetz-Ran’s previous exhibit at Mishkanot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem (curator Raz Samira, 2014).

Nothing is random – all choices force the viewer, decades later, to deal with the past, and no less with its fixations, patterns and thoughts. They force the viewer to express one’s stance directly and to look eye- to-eye at the most personal perceptions in relation to women and in relation to Israel or this embroiled land where we live and work.

As a direct extension to a description of the impossible connections, Graetz-Ran examines the relationships between representations excluded from the historical story. Alongside the pioneers, there is an additional series shown in the exhibit, of young women carrying jugs on their shoulders. This image, that in years to come became one of the central images of the period of time marking the boundary between romantic Orientalism to that of pioneers from the Land of Israel, and was frequently found in the early Israeli art, as demonstrated by Nurit Canaan-Kedar in her articles and an exhibit she curated (Tel Aviv Land of Israel Museum, 2014). These paintings constitute a direct continuation to the ways of portraying women in Israeli art and women in Biblical-scene, Bedouins or Oriental Jews in character or in subject. The connection between the young woman who brings a drink, fulfilling physical needs connected to women’s work – constitutes a contradiction to the pioneers who splinter rocks into gravel. Here the association is with the traditional roles of young women and women. The contradiction between the two representations substantiates what Graetz-Ran describes as “the deepening of the feeling of the gap between the ideal pioneer to the reality of the Land of Israel”. Even during the period of romantic Orientalism or in the time of the pioneers, who ignored their physical and mental difficulties and challenges, Graetz-Ran’s goal is to represent the voices of the others, those marginalized from the central flow through which the stories can identify the cracks in the ideal story.

The cracks about which Graetz-Ran speaks are present in a clear, concrete form on the wooden plaques, some of which are painted on. The boards marked by furrows that are transformed into part of the artistic design, represent the furrows in the lives of the pioneers, as much as the ideologies unfulfilled completely. The cutting boards attached to trowels and to souvenirs from the Flea Market together represent the material aspect of the spiritual and ideal world left unfulfilled, as experienced in the 40s and 50s of the twentieth century.

The pioneer women are enscribed on these unconventional surfaces, and they are stamped for eternity in a place where eternity has been neglected. The furrows in the field are today furrows and clefts on the surface of the wooden plaques. And when a painting is painted on canvas, then the furrows are carved on the women’s faces – these heroines hidden from the Zionist narrative.

Hagai Segev