A Portrait of Strength and Dignity: Michal Chelbin... Read More
For our Women’s History Month series, Curatorial Assistant Hannah Braun discusses a portrait by Israeli photographer Michal Chelbin in the Jewish Museum collection.
The brilliant bold blue-green of the car in which Alicia sits immediately attracts the eye. She sits in the backseat of a vintage car, wearing — from what we can glimpse — a highly embellished and ruffled tulle costume. Her dark eyes and stoic facial expression captures us, and we become intent to uncover and understand the story being told by her stare. Alicia’s gaze appears to be filled with adult maturity: she is poised and emotionless. And yet her delicate facial features remind us that she is a young girl. Alicia’s father sits in the driver’s seat of the car. Seen in profile looking out the front window, the father’s sideways glance presumes he is looking outward, yet keeping a close watch on his daughter.
Alicia (2005) is a photograph of a young Ukrainian gymnast by one of my favorite contemporary Israeli women photographers, Michal Chelbin, on view now in the Jewish Museum exhibition Scenes from the Collection.
The photograph is part of the series “Strangely Familiar,” portraits of young performers that capture the fleeting innocence of childhood at odds with burgeoning adulthood, as well as the rigidity and discipline required by athletics, gymnastics, or ballet. Chelbin has stated that she has used the works in this series to probe the “space between the odd and the ordinary.”
What makes Chelbin’s work so hauntingly beautiful to me is the way she transfixes her viewers through the piercing stares of her subjects. Her photographs invite a curiosity that cannot help but be tainted with voyeuristic tendencies. Although Chelbin admits to staging her subjects and the situations in which they are placed, the artist reveals little else of her artistic or creative process. Despite the multiplicity of ways we may view Chelbin’s photographs, the artist always evokes the inner strength of her subjects, and imbues each, particularly her female protagonists, with tremendous dignity.
My love of Chelbin’s work was catalyzed by an internship at a gallery dedicated to Israeli photography. However, it is because of my Russian-born-Israeli-raised father that my connection to Chelbin’s photographs and subjects grew. Painting vivid pictures to me of his childhood in Israel, my father described a mischievous boyhood filled with playing in the garden of the Kibbutz with his cousins, seeing Yiddish films with his mother at the local movie theater, and growing up under the warmth of the Middle Eastern sun. Despite the joys of his childhood, I cannot help but to see a lot of my father in Chelbin’s photographs. Born not long after the close of World War II, he grew up in a household filled with worry and fear, a residual and seemingly never ending state of existence bestowed upon European Jews living in the post-war era.
As an immigrant to the United States, my father maintained many of his European-Middle Eastern ways; however, he was stalwart in his goals to have his own children break the cycle of the fearful hiding of one’s true self. It is my father who fostered within me my love of art. He always encouraged me to choose my own path, to find my own inner strength, and to derive a boundless sense of pride in both my womanhood and my Judeo-European identity. It is this sense of longing, uncertainty, and hopefulness for the future that I see in Chelbin’s photography, and which continues to drive my interest in her art.
I am filled with a great sense of pride, having the opportunity to participate in the Jewish Museum’s Women’s History Month series. Following the opening of Scenes from the Collection, the work of women artists, working across media, are prominently displayed in our galleries. Working at the Jewish Museum has given me an invaluable platform to write about, research, and teach others about the work of Jewish women artists, both within and outside of the Jewish Museum collection.
— Hannah Braun, Curatorial Assistant
A Portrait of Strength and Dignity: Michal Chelbin in the Jewish Museum Collection was originally published in The Jewish Museum on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.