Avital Sheffer exhibition opening: Unearthed II
Opening address by Paul Donnelly, curator
Powerhouse Museum Sydney
I am very honoured that Avital asked me to open this exhibition of her beautiful and inspiring works. Thankfully serendipity played a part in bringing me here tonight because my colleague, Grace Cochrane with whom many of you will be familiar, suggested that the subject matter of Avital’s work may be appropriate to my speciality of ancient ceramics. Most fortuitously, this connection is strengthened further through Avital’s and my own mutual region of interest – the Middle East.
For Avital of course, this region represents far more significance than mere academic interest. Avital has an intensely personal connection to that part of the world which is clearly evident in her work. As her birthplace and home for several decades, the presence of the Middle East in these vessels is understandably all pervasive and multi-faceted. It is no accident then that Avital has chosen clay as her medium of expression, for it is clay that has for millennia provided the people of this part of the world with vessels for food and drink; effigies of their gods and goddesses; tablets for their written records; ovens for their bread – and in unbaked form – mud bricks for their dwellings and defensive town walls.
Fittingly, we see facets of all these elements in Avital’s work. The forms are both anthropomorphic and architectural – a pleasing combination considering the dependence of each upon the other; for what is architecture without people to give it scale and purpose? The dome, a form that has fascinated Avital since childhood, dominates many of the pieces, playing the combined role of cover, head, and roof. Integral to the form are specific details that bring to my mind associations with ceramic vessels of the ancient past. Vestigial ledge-handles and pierced lugs similar to those made in periods dating back five thousand years, reveal the degree to which Avital has made an intellectual choice through familiarity with the ceramic repertoire of the ancient Middle East.
This measure of intellectual effort towards form in Avital’s approach is complemented in the surface treatment of these works. In enlightening discussions with Avital (which she is happy to share upon request), she identifies each and every Hebrew text to particular Jewish works in collections from Toledo in the west, to Istanbul and Jerusalem in the east. Additionally, the floral motifs, geometric patterns, and arabesques, originate from Jewish and Islamic texts, and architecture. In addition to their use as an aesthetic choice, these significant combinations of Hebrew and Islamic motifs reflect Avital’s moderate political position, and her associations with the peace movements of Israel.
Clearly these works are loaded with meaning on many levels, and there is much of Avital in every vessel. Through evoking the past of this rich and complex region, Avital provides a bridge from her new home to her old. Similarly, for us as observers, the detail and technical competence of these works command our attention, while being inevitably filtered through our own range of associations. As demonstration of this, and despite having had the pleasure of Avital’s explanations of her work, I see in these vessels wall tiles in Damascus and Istanbul, and henna tattoos of the Bedouin. To me the overlaying of text and diagrams are analogous to the passing of time, with the blurring of archaeological layers requiring separation and interpretation.
Clay is a powerful medium in its ability to evoke the individual. We see here around us the conscious products of an artist, but there will also be evident on their surfaces and hidden in their interiors, unintentional scars and details connecting to the activity of their maker. In the case of ancient pottery this can be a particularly powerful connection to the past. Fingerprints and runnels in the clay are like frozen connections to countless individuals long gone and nameless, but leaving their traces nevertheless. This was notably demonstrated to me a few years ago while in the process of drawing a complete early-Iron Age jar at Pella in Jordan. I had already spent time drawing the whole vessel and in passing noted the less than pleasing decoration on one side of the body. However, when it came to measuring these apparently meaningless splotches of paint a thought occurred to me. I placed my right hand over the pattern and in an instant it was obvious that these were the traces left by an ancient hand once covered in paint, and who had held the vessel in exactly the same position. In a fleeting moment, three thousand years disappeared before my eyes, and an ancient Canaanite potter lived.
It is with this vision of the personal power of clay that I will leave you to admire the works that surround you – to ponder the details of their form and decoration, and to explore the associations they evoke. In some way, these vessels are the past of us all.