By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Visual artist Naomi Safran-Hon travels between Haifa and Brooklyn, N.Y. to create “hybrid collage paintings” of cement, photographs, drawn images, lace, and other “domestic” materials. The resulting works link various narratives that have been woven into the very land of Israel over time.
On Feb. 10, “Gown of Concrete and Cement: Works by Naomi Safran-Hon” will open in the Chase Family Gallery at the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford.
The title of the show is a quote from a Hebrew poem, “Shir Boker” (“Song of the Morning”), written in 1934 by celebrated Hebrew poet Natan Alterman. Referring to the land as a woman, Alterman dresses her in a metaphorical gown of concrete and cement to identify the early Zionist dream of a new country.
Born in 1984 in Oxford, England to Israeli parents, Safran-Hon grew up in Haifa, where she began creating art as a young child. She credits two early experiences as pivotal stops along her artistic journey: “I fell in love with the ‘picture world’ in the seventh grade at my middle school in Haifa,” she says. “I signed up for an extracurricular class in art history. I remember it took place at this ungodly hour of the early morning, named ‘zero hour.’ I hated to wake up for school, but I loved that class and recall vividly the first painting we discussed, ‘The Oath of the Horatii,’ by Jacques-Louis David.”
The following year, her family was on sabbatical in St. Louis, Mo. “The public school I attended had an amazing art studio, and to this day I remember how the classroom looked and some of the projects we worked on,” she says. “I do not recall the name of the teacher but she was amazing and left a lasting impression on me.”
When she was 16, Safran-Hon wanted to become a professional photojournalist. That summer, her father took her to Berlin and the two visited an exhibition by Magnum Photos, a cooperative photography agency and her creative journey took a turn. She threw herself into photography studies at the art high school in Haifa, and developed an interest using the medium for self-expression. “I realized that photography can be used as a tool by the artist, and I wanted to become an artist,” she says.
Safran-Hon received the 2003 Young Artist Award from the Hecht Museum at Haifa University and, four years later, exhibited in the first Herzliya Biennial of Contemporary Art at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art in Israel. When she was 20, she came to the U.S. on a fellowship to Brandeis University, where she earned a BA summa cum laude in studio art and art history. “I believe that an artist has to be fluent in different media as well as in the history of image- making,” she says. She went on to complete a Master’s of Fine Arts at Yale. She lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“Growing up in Haifa has shaped who I am and what I am interested in,” she says. “Although I live and work in the U.S., I carry in me the landscape of my youth, so beautifully coined by the Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky: ‘Adam hu tavnit nof moledet,’ ‘a person is made in the shape of his homeland.’”
Of her multinational background, Safran-Hon says that it affords her the privilege of having freedom to travel. “I became aware of this when I saw the enormous wall and land barriers built to prevent Palestinians from moving freely,” she says. “Moving to New York City and working here allows me perspective, an outsider view, which allows me to explore and understand the conflict better. It gives me freedom to choose to deal with this subject and with my relationship to the place where I grew up.”
Safran-Hon’s work has been featured in several solo exhibitions in Haifa and New York, and in group shows throughout the U.S. Her latest body of work was inspired by the changing landscape of her homeland, Israel — “a land constantly formulating, struggling to find its shape and identity,” she says.
The title of the show and the materials used to create the artwork are tightly bonded: “The promise of the early Zionists to create a new country made of concrete and cement echoed through my education; is also manifested in Natan Alterman’s poem, ‘Gown of Concrete and Cement,’ and in many ways it became our reality.”
Safran-Hon says that she was always interested in history and in understanding how the present is shaped by the past – not surprising, she says, given that her parents are both historians. “I grew up in an investigative household,” she says. “Creating these pieces made me think about the forces that shaped our present conflict and led me in a way to these media, material, and technique.”
Safran-Hon uses her work to link the past and the present and to illustrate that link in visual terms. “To understand contemporary Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians, one has to go back in time,” she says. “The present situation is a consequence of the past. For example, if you look at the shape of Jerusalem, politicians and army generals drew the border of the municipality of Jerusalem after the 1967 war, when East Jerusalem was annexed to West Jerusalem. I use this shape in the painting, ‘Jerusalem I;’ it is an abstract shape that carries in it so much meaning and history. The same is true about the shape of the state of Israel itself, with its undefined borders, and how, by the way you draw the map, you can align yourself politically. With these pieces I try to push the viewers to think about these borders and shapes and what they mean: what these lines in the painting mean in reality, how that reality affects the people who live there, and how, at the end of the day, we all need to live there together.”
Safran-Hon gathers inspiration and materials in the psychic and physical space between Israel and Brooklyn. “My work develops as I travel back and forth between my childhood home in Haifa and my present home in Brooklyn, where I process and develop the information and materials I gather from my trips,” she says. “I bring back photographs from my visits and have the freedom and inspiration to reshape them into paintings in my studio.”
Safran-Hon takes photographs in the Palestinian neighborhood of Wadi Salib in Haifa, mounts them on canvas, cuts holes in them, and “weaves” cement and lace through the openings, in a gesture to “fix” the damage done by war, weathering, and time. “Through this process, I tell the story of the people who used to live there until 1948,” she says. “This is another history that is part of the landscape of Haifa, and these dilapidated structures are silent testimonies of the past. With these pieces, I try to question the reality of our life in Israel and present a different image of its history. Seeking the other narrative that is hidden and buried in the landscape, the parallel story of the land, of the people who used to live there, creates a complex story of the conflict.”
Safran-Hon strives to create an “exchange” among viewers of her work and to transform them. “Art might not be able to change the world, but it can initiate discussions and affect people’s lives,” she says. “People can change the world.”
“Gown of Concrete and Cement: Works by Naomi Safran-Hon:” Chase Family Gallery, Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford, Feb. 10-Mar. 17. An opening reception with the artist will be held on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2 – 4 p.m. For information contact Jill Ziplow, (860) 231-6339, email@example.com