Memory plays a prominent role in Etti Abergel’s personal and creative life, one that stretches back long before her primary school heyday or those moments of utter elation the first time one of her coil pots survived the kiln. While Abergel was born in Kiryat Tivon, her memories include layers of culture, community and history going back half a century to North Africa, where her parents and grandparents lived before immigrating to the Holy Land.
The emotive artist, whose new solo exhibition “Sculpture” will be on show at the Negev Museum of Art from February 27 to June 2, quite literally weaves her own narrative into history-laden materials and objects.
“Childhood and immigration are two important archetypes in my work,” she explains. “I simply cannot seem to pass this state of mind – those children who were forced to leave their homes and abandon everything”; a paradox when plastered against the backdrop of the domestic imprisonment of Moroccan women in the ’50s and ’60s.
In traditional Moroccan households, the woman retains power within the traditional order (i.e. the space of the house); however, problems arise when these women must pass into the modern world “to study, to write, to work.”
Abergel – a self-proclaimed “natural feminist” who views the struggle to create as extremely feminine in itself – uses many motifs in her work to personify the weight imposed upon these immigrant women, her grandmother especially.
In the past, the veteran artist has been credited for her utilization of “babouche” slippers as a metaphor for domestication, since they prove rather useless off carpet or tiled floors. For one of the works in “Sculpture,” Abergel fills a white laundry basket with coarse pieces of plaster to represent the weight of “carrying the house inside the basket.”
Abergel’s work requires many steps of breaking narrative boundaries then reassembling them into more abstract ideas in a drawn-out search for meaning. Thus, in sawing the plaster-filled basket in half, Abergel transcends barriers in an attempt to free her grandmother, and consequently herself.
She sews doll-sized dresses from the plaid, tarp-like bags carried over from Morocco during waves of migration, with an “intentionally clumpy, unprofessional technique, in contradiction to my grandmother, who was a weaver.”
Sometimes the seemingly banal objects which form the basis for her pieces come from the kitchen or from artisans’ lives.
Other times they come from the agriculture realm (an allusion to her father, who worked as a farmer). In addition, she loves to use found objects from her studio; a woven black basket is filled to the brim with blue pens, a tangle of paintbrushes creeps down the whitewashed museum walls like a vine. All of which address the difficult questions of who has the privilege to be an artist, what makes an artist, and what does it mean to hand oneself over to the creation.
While the topics of the exhibition – which she refers to as an “installation diary” – are as heavy as the materials she uses, Abergel prides herself on finding light underneath all that pain, personified in one of her grandfather’s relics: a lamp in the shape of a boat, that was always shining on his shelf.
This light shines through stylistically, as well. On top of flying solo and taking a more ambiguous approach, Abergel has also strayed from her comfort zone.
Known for her affinity for white, much to the public’s surprise (and perhaps even her own) she has introduced color into her latest works.
“The colors come from the industrial objects that I have chosen to use – the reds and blues of the immigrant bags, the yellows and blacks of measuring tapes. They serve as a metaphor for the body experiencing history as a personal account, history as an alternative body.”
At the very core of the exhibition you’ll find the museum space itself, a charming historical structure in the Old City of Beersheba. Never a house, always a home, the building – commonly known as Beit Hamoshel – was built as the Governor’s House. Dr. Dalia Manor, director and curator of the Negev Museum of Art, has managed to preserve the homey atmosphere of the building, which is why Abergel’s home-centric exhibition is a fitting spring fixture.
“The scale of the [museum’s] rooms is very domestic,” Abergel says. “I worked within the parameters of this structure to imagine a journey through rooms, each unique.”
Her end goal: a simultaneous combination of house and museum, domestic and creative, enclosure and freedom.
“So far, the process has been filled with emotion. Maybe it’s new, maybe I’m changing, maybe it truly is all about the material, the joy of touch. It has enabled me to feel much freer to explore, to imagine, to shape something from the banal moments of daily life.”
Etti Abergel’s “Sculpture” opens February 27 and runs through June 2 at the Negev Museum of Art in Beersheba.