Frida Kahlo at the synagogue: Maya Escobar and the young Jewish-American Creation
By David Sperber
Ma’arav Israeli Arts and Culture magazine
Translated from the Hebrew by Shlomit Nehorai*
Maya Escobar is no doubt one of the “hottest” things developing in the Jewish-American art scene. Escobar defines herself “dyslexic internet artist.” And in order to view her work you need not wander far.
Her work is mostly created in familiar internet format, and is most often displayed on Youtube. Escobar, daughter to a Jewish mother and Guatemalan father, defines her art work as ongoing personal anthropological-sociological research into the narrative language that uses contemporary media.
The “Acciones Plasticas” work includes short films that present a series of convincing characters and monologues that deal with identity questions. In the first short film in the series, she appears dressed up as the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who became an icon within the feminist discourse. It is commonly argued that Kahlo had some Jewish roots. Escobar is dressed and made up as is famously attributed to Kahlo – the uni brow – while screaming “I am Frida Kahlo. You are Frida Kahlo. We are Frida Kahlo.” In agitation or ecstasy, she tears her costume, messes her hair, wipes her make-up off of her face and returns to being herself. In another short film in the series, she carries on with a monologue of a Jewish orthodox woman. The text here is so exact that for a minute the line between irony and slapstick to deep seriousness is blurred. In another short film, the stereotypical Latin female as a sexual sensual object is presented, when here, too, the subject is moving between embracing the stereotypes and breaking them. Escobar presents different [images] she has experienced that address her hybrid identity as a woman, as a Jew and as a Latin American.
Another work of Escobar’s is “My Shtreimel” — a video-blog also presented on Youtube. In that piece, a young man in his twenties appears sitting in front of a computer and talking about his Shabbat rituals. The monologue describes an amorphous Jewish world in which Jewishness lives materializes without obligation to its institutions and mostly in personal frameworks. A central part in this world is self deprecation: the young man shows his beloved shtreimel and mentions that the shtreimel, which looks like the traditional head-covering, is actually a women’s hat purchased at a thrift store.
In the work “Eruv” (intermingling) Escobar relates to the fact that in Berlin, Germany, there is no eruv even though there exists a vibrant Jewish community. In a series of photographed interviews with the city’s citizens, she transforms the notion eruv — from a halachic-legal notion that creates a conversion of the public space into the private space, into a blending — the creation of a multiple of characters and worlds. The blending (eruv) transforms into a cultural concept that celebrates the different and the unique. The individuals create a splendid mosaic that assembles anew the “collective” as a social concept. The way Escobar deals with the subject is typical to the Jewish-American art world that tends to transfer concepts from the practical halachic and transfer them to another world. And so they transform into a metaphor of the personal or social condition. The personal experience is significant to Escobar. “Like other Jewish rituals, the Shabbat encompasses practicalities that materialize private condition in a private space. Except that the understanding of the private space and the public space is fluid and changes at all times. I think that it is very important that people celebrate their Shabbat as a pleasant experience, defined and personal. The Shabbat rituals evolve all the time — not as an unbending obligation that is transferred from generation to generation, but as a result of a simple choice of the individual to create to him/herself nice and pleasant Shabbat customs. We all have these kind of customs.”
The intercontinental use of the Internet gave birth to a generation of individuals who create for creation’s sake, and the concept of art for art’s sake gives that new meaning. The Internet media connects individuals and contributes to mutual influences between people who work separately in far away places. The young work on the Internet challenges the old definitions in relation to what is considered art and what isn’t. Similarly, it adopts new presentation forms that are not the norm in the art world’s mainstream and breathes new air into the art field.
The discussion of Escobar’s work leads into a wider discussion about the differences between the Jewish thinking in the Israeli discourse into the new understanding of the American world view. The Jewish-artistic engagement in the United States is influenced by the introduction of new age ideas into the center of the conversation, and is integrating into the effort to create a connection between contemporary culture and the traditional Jewish identity. Within the American-Jewish community there are signs of a move from an organized institutional Jewish expression into a unique and personal expression of the very personal experience. These artists reorganize the traditions on their own terms, and in this way, are contributing not insignificantly to the definition of Jewish-American, non-Orthodox, Modern-Orthodox anew. The link between Jewish culture and Jewish identity to art occupies a central role in this conversation.
The echoes of this tendency can be seen in Israel as well (in the young Yiddish culture developing in Tel Aviv, for instance). But generally, there is still a deep disconnect between the dominant concepts in Israel and in the United States. In Israel, it is common to connect between Judaism to an organized tradition and to a blood line that is based on a genetic continuity. On the other hand, many young Jewish-Americans marry outside their religion, but nevertheless see themselves as an integral part of the Jewish world and expect to not be expelled from it. As opposed to Israelis who experience their Jewishness in terms of disintegration that followed restoration, the Jewish-Americans create new branches where growth and rebirth metaphors fit them better.
The joining of contemporary culture and art to Jewish creativity expresses itself in fashionable characteristics like tattoos, hip-hop music, Internet art and the like, and is often understood as the disconnect with the accepted binary dichotomy between the holy and the common. That is why conservative bodies see these art forms as a dangerous provocation. These new cultural concepts interconnect during confrontational discussions with the old cultural concepts. Philologically speaking, it can be said that borrowing symbols from one discipline to another interferes with semiotic systems. In the Kabbalistic vernacular, it is said that the energy that is released during the friction that is created by the disintegration of the usual vessels creates “new light”.
Maya Escobar and Lisa Alcalay Klug will be presenting in tandem on April 22nd at the 2009 Conney Conference: Performing Histories, Inscribing Jewishness. For more information, visit http://conneyproject.wisc.edu/2009-conney-conference-schedule
*This piece has been edited for clarity.