Zila Friedman’s “Prayer Beads” exhibition creates an environment, a composite collection in which we find fragmented line drawings alongside prayer beads echoing a string of Islamic prayers (dried fruits bound in embroidery thread resembling white down, a map of Bnei Brak intensely filled with dotted lines on almost translucent, curling, wafer-thin paper covered in what might be etchings or drawings, graphite-smudged paper, three grey artist’s sketchbooks, and a photograph of her elderly parents. Music wafts through the gallery’s open spaces. The ontological items of this esthetic, private universe which at first glance seem to be random or unrelated actually turn out to be a private and public “black box”, uniting under one challenging ethical horizon a base that is simultaneously intimate and general.
Zila Friedman is the daughter of Holocaust survivors who live in Bnei Brak and follow the lifestyle of the Ultra-Orthodox; living in a time capsule from a different era, as their families had done before them in Eastern Europe.
The dark shadow of the Holocaust and of the individual spill over into Friedman’s works, which are steeped in abstract symbols of her autobiographical experience . Friedman’s esthetic language intensifies the presence of the wound, the fracture, the void that the Holocaust created within Jewish existence. Through the individual physicality, the historic catastrophe is reflected in a mode of refinement and abstraction.
Friedman’s emblematic unit of drawing is composed of a vertical, horizontal or curved line split into tiny sections. This motif serves as an emotional vessel through which to create felled trees, a map that takes us to emptiness, symbolic barbed wire, a heavy soil awaiting our return to its depths. With infinite delicacy, every line embraces layers of pain. The surfaces of Friedman’s drawings and paintings are a pulsating diffuse membrane of sorrow and grief.
Observing Friedman’s works causes the spectator great discomfort, as if a voyeur intruding on the suffering of others , their cries, their private pain, their most untypical moments. But make no mistake; Friedman displays a material repertoire of healing and compassion. Echoing a map of Auschwitz, the map of Bnei Brak is embroidered in white, resembling a parochet.
The shriveled dried fruit are bound in white and appear as religious artifacts, prayer beads. The drawings resemble holy relics, the artist’s sketchbooks possess a liturgical modality. The artistic assembly forms a religious site representative of loss, of void, of phantom pains; a site that allows you to touch the fabric of a life long departed.
But at the same time, dialectically, one finds a life-saving quality, seething with libido. “Along with the little storekeepers, craftsmen and rabbis from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, purity has passed from the world.” wrote Emmanuel Levinas . It seems that Friedman is an artist who has taken on the Sisyphean task, as a kind of female Don Quixote, of restoring that purity to the world. Her works encourage us to think about art, painting and drawing as a kind of prayer. Unlike the “collective worship of mourning” offered by the ‘religion’ of the Holocaust, Friedman restores a private vision of pain, with its inherent intimacy. Suffering is always personal; grief, even when caused by empathy for others is imprinted on the individual.
The range of items in the exhibition space creates a provocative link between the repertoires of Islamic and Jewish material culture. Friedman’s provocation strongly brings to the fore the gap between the Zeitgeist of the mid-20th century and that of the end of the century. At the start of the 20th century both Jews and Arab nations under colonial rule (similar to blacks and women) were perceived to be “other” by the patriarchal, conquering white Christian white West. However, over time, another unbridgeable gap opened up between those various “others”. Philosopher Giorgio Agamben relates to the chain of genealogy between Auschwitz on the one hand and the modern refugee camp on the other and questions the term ‘musulman’ , which literally means Muslim. The skeletal figure, indifferent to the world, is echoed in the rocking movements of the Moslem at prayer or the ascetic fakir . The ‘musulman’, who epitomizes the core of the experience of the tortured Jew is a Muslim.
Friedman’s exhibition focuses precisely on this paradoxical issue where the “other” becomes the “me” within this transcendental range. Prayer Beads constructs a particular esthetic universe which is, in fact, universal; one that displays the unity inherent in the frailty of the human body as we are all but flesh and blood, bones and spirit, living under the same sun, governed by the same regime of pain and suffering, swallowing the same tears and crying out to the Lord in moments of unbearable distress.
He does not hear us.
Dr. Ketzia Alon, Artists House, Tel Aviv, 2008