covered or exposed
protected or concealed
posing or walking
sheltered or targeted
wrapped or hidden
abused or empowered
a believer or brainwashed
get to choose?
The Space Within presents the growing phenomena of the global orthodoxy and the way it’s changing and reshaping the social appearance and behavior of women within all major religions, with a special emphasis on the veiled women.
The Space Within
by © Emily D. Bilski
Lili Almog has devoted much of her career to photographing women around the world, presenting intimate views into their cultural identities and spiritual lives. Embedding herself among her subjects, Almog has created insightful series that document, among other subjects, minority Muslim women in China and Carmelite nuns cloistered in convents in Israel, Palestine, and the United States. For the Third Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, Almog is exhibiting two new series of works that were inspired by her observation in Jerusalem of a group of Jewish women who were shrouded head to-toe in black. These women were members of the small, insular ultra-Orthodox sect “Lev Tahor,” sometimes referred to as the Jewish Taliban, and they became the catalyst for works that continue Almog’s ongoing engagement with issues of women and faith. These new photographs explore veiling as an expression of a religious world-view, of femininity, and of modes of seeing.
Whereas in the past Almog had taken a documentary approach, photographing her subjects where they live and work, this time she chose to work with models dressed in chador-like garments, resembling those she had seen on the women in Jerusalem. By employing models, Almog wanted to remove any specific cultural or religious identity from her subjects, focusing instead on their interior lives and on the psychological interaction between the photographs and the viewer. For the series “Drawing Room,” the models were posed in a studio setting; in “Seasons,” Almog placed her subjects out-of-doors. This dichotomy of interior vs. exterior emphasizes themes of women’s confinement and freedom. Set within studios that are largely devoid of color and minimally furnished, these interiors become conceptual spaces for thinking about women as the subjects and makers of art.
For the exhibition at the Jerusalem Biennale, Almog was challenged to devise a mode of display that would conform to the dictates of the Tower of David Museum. Since the museum is located within an archaeological site, it is not permitted to hang anything from the walls or to interfere with the historical architecture. Almog designed a system of wood boxes—resembling the crates used for shipping artworks—for mounting the photographs. Grouping photographs together within these frames she has created life-size sculptural units that echo the motifs of models and studio furniture seen in many of the photographs.
The artificial environment of the studio gave Almog the flexibility to create thought-provoking compositions as she manipulated the models’ poses in combination with studio props. If we tend to think of veiled women as living under religious and patriarchal authority, here it is Almog who exercised control, just as male artists have controlled nude models in their studios over the centuries. In many of the photographs, the presence of Old-Master-style paintings of nudes on the walls or easels reinforce this connection. As it happens, these paintings and drawings of nude = models are the work of female students at an academy that trains artists in the tradition of the Old Masters.
Moving through the photographs in the series, the elements shift and recombine, as in a jazz riff.
The austere composition of Drawing Room # 2, introduces the basic building blocks: a veiled and robed woman, pedestals for the model to stand or sit on, an empty easel, and a drawing of a nude hanging on the studio wall. Subsequent images in the series provide variations on this theme. In Drawing Room # 32, the draped model is juxtaposed with a painting depicting a nude woman, which is propped on the easel. The model’s pale uncovered hands, seen against the expanse of her dark clothing, are startling and become the focal point that draws us into the image. In some of the photographs, the model is covered in a colorful print fabric—resembling a particularly garish tablecloth —suggesting the subject has transformed from human figure to still life. In Drawing Room # 4, the fabric is emblazoned with flowers and peacocks, with the preening peacock providing a striking contrast to the modestly covered woman. Flowers and peacocks were traditionally employed in still life paintings as Vanitas emblems, while draped cloths frequently appear as motifs on tombstones, where they symbolize the veil that separates life from death. All of these elements enrich Drawing Room # 4 with numerous associations. A similar vein of humor is introduced in Drawing Room # 15. Here the bare studio has been replaced by clutter and a jumble of artists’ tools, while the model hikes up her skirt to reveal an expanse of white thigh, a stance similar to Angelina Jolie’s famous red-carpet pose at the 2012 Academy Awards. The model shares the studio with numerous images of the Venus de Milo—as a plaster cast and in drawings made from the cast—and the two female figures read like mirror images of one another, with the ancient goddess’s legs covered in drapery and her torso exposed,
while the model shows only her leg. This juxtaposition accentuates the tension between covering and uncovering as expressions of sexuality and power. Finally, in Drawing Room # 23, the studio walls are bare, and the easel and pedestal have been covered with black tarps, echoing the veiling and robing of the model. Amidst the bleakness of this monotone scene, the model, perhaps slyly,
pushes up her right sleeve to reveal a tattoo.1 Even in the midst of a strict iconoclasm, art finds a way to exert itself, and the female subject, in an act of subversion, insists upon an act of self expression.
For the series “Seasons,” Almog photographed the cloaked models out-of-doors, amidst a variety of climactic conditions. As counterpoints to the changing seasons, the women represent a self contained and enduring constancy, acquiring a dramatic power. In Seasons # 9, the black-clad figure, arms outstretched, stands out in contrast to the technicolor brilliance of the surrounding autumn foliage. At the same time, she becomes one with nature, her form resembling a sturdy
tree. Silhouetted against the landscape, she resembles an empty key-hole-like space; yet, at the same time as she disappears, she completely dominates the scene. This central paradox characterizes the depiction of women in “The Space Within.” Almog reveals her subjects as she obscures them, creating out of absence a powerful presence.
1 The portion of the tattoo visible in the photograph says “woman.” The model’s full tattoo reads “nasty woman,” a reference to Hillary Clinton’s confronting sexism in the 2016 presidential election against Donald Trump.