Home / Land – Duo Exhibition with Natalie Koski, Galil Gallery, Israel, 2022-23
Home / Land (text by curator Hagar Raban)
Home/Land is a joint project for artists Paula Elion and Natalie Koski, placing at its centre the question of identity in relation to place, landscape and space, as well as its associated photographic and documentary aspects. Through a variety of individual and joint works, the artists seek to examine their personal immigration stories, which go beyond the private framework and reveal the nature of life in Israel as a society of immigrants.
Previous photographic and pictorial projects by Elion and Koski reflect key points in the Israeli vista, and present specific places that over time have become generic: treated landscape photographs of the Temple Mount and the Old City in Jerusalem, desert spaces and replicated palm groves typical of the south of the country, as well as familiar images from Israeli culture such as the image of the paratroopers after the conquest of the Western Wall, the state’s flag, waves over a building, or fireworks, which immediately remind the Independence Day celebrations.
In preparation for the current exhibition, the two artists teamed up to work on the prickly pear (tsabar) motif. For many months they researched the plant, its virtues, talked about it with other artists, and even built a habitat for prickly pears on the roof of Elion’s apartment, which is now in the gallery space. As part of their personal research, the artists spoke with the artist Karim Abu Shakra, who, like his uncle, Asim Abu Shakra, is identified with the paintings of the prickly pear plant. Abu Shakara says that his work with the plant came from a personal and familial place when he began to research his uncle’s paintings. At one point, he even found an old prickly pear planted in the studio where he was working and was amazed to
discover that although the plant itself had turned black and wilted, a new shoot sprouted from the ground, and without any reasonable conditions it grew against all odds.
The impressive durability of the prickly pear led to the fact that the plant was adopted as a central symbol in both Jewish and Arabic societies in Israel, each side seeks to appropriate the cultural meanings arising from it: the tenacious clinging to the ground, the ability to adapt to different terrains, the stability despite changes – whether natural or if man-made. In the face of the prickly pear’s firm stance, Koski and Elion seek to unravel a little of the fortified myth that has been created around it. In their works, they try to examine its presence in contrast, as a blurred, deceptive, sometimes transparent element.
In one series of works, Koski documents desert plants (cacti and succulents) in a limited living space of planters and pots.
These photographs are printed on baking paper, a material on which Elion also draws images of yellowish, dull, almost pale cacti, in a separate series. Another image of a prickly pear pot that they grew together is projected in the gallery space directly onto a wall. By its nature, the projected image does not have its own independent existence – it depends on the surface or object on which it is projected. The elusive and immaterial quality of light makes it a precarious and transitory element. A similar idea is also evident in the series of sun prints by Elion. On the roof of her home, she dismantled prickly pear and wandering jew plants into pieces and placed them on light-sensitive paper. This resulted in photograms (“light drawings”) documenting the shape of the plants, but the resulting image on paper is blurred, vague and inconclusive. And finally, as part of their research Koski moved and wandered around the country, documenting huge prickly pear bushes that grew to the height of a young tree. The mighty plants are brought here trapped in tiny prints, the size of souvenir postcards.
For each photograph, Koski attached a line of numbers referring to the geographic landmark where the photographed plant is located, which allows us to discover the location of the plant throughout the country. In this way, the prickly pear seems to be dislodged and returned at the same time. The transparency, fragility and diminution that characterize the various images in the exhibition challenge the pretended eternity of the prickly pear and undermine its most basic and familiar characteristics.
Through the various technical manipulations used on the image of the prickly pear, the artists seek to provoke a discussion about the role of the physical space and the symbolic elements in the culture while establishing a sense of identity and cultural belonging. The personal background of each of them also has a great influence on the way they perceive the human relation to landscape and place as a social, cultural and political practice: Elion was born in Argentina, where she lived under the label of a “Jew”, and although she has lived in Israel for more years than she has in Argentina – here she is still considered
“Argentinian” and finds herself missing entirely different places, like Oslo and Berlin. Koski, born in Israel to parents who immigrated from England and a father who immigrated initially from Egypt, moves between completely different cultural extremes, and still “feels at home” both in London, in Linköping in Sweden, and in her city of residence – Kfar Saba.
In a long painting made up of several scenes, Elion traces a sequence of events related to migration journeys: in the right part of the painting, she and her friend, both young girls, are seen against the background of a cathedral in a central square in her hometown in Argentina. In the left part, she paints a scene from a birthday party held for her at the age of three, when she lived with her parents in an absorption centre in Haifa, after her family fled the persecution of the Argentine regime in the
seventies. At the edges of the painting, other figures are drawn – a father holding a child and a small boy riding a toy car. These figures are based on the artist’s encounter with Syrian refugees living in the city of Kassel in Germany, and seem to close – or perhaps continue – the cycle of wandering and immigration to the present day.
In the small room at the entrance of the gallery are two more works by Elion, which are part of a series of collage paintings that Elion creates with glass panels of frames. She dismantles the existing frames and gives them new life by painting on the glass surfaces. In one work, she presents an emotional meeting of members of her extended family – uncles and aunts of her father, who have not seen each other for many years. In the second work, Elon’s grandparents appear together with her mother as a baby. Underneath the painted glass are pages containing recipes that Elion’s grandmother copied especially for her.
When Elion immigrated to Israel, the book remained in Argentina, and years later it was returned to her through her parents who came to visit in Israel.
In the space also stands a screen projecting a short video clip in black and white. In this work by Koski, her father’s family is seen in Port Said, during the evacuation of British citizens from Egypt in 1956. The evacuation was documented and broadcast in cinemas in the UK as part of the news dailies and was found by her relative a few years ago. Koski deliberately slowed down the pace of the video in such a way that she could watch her family – her grandmother, grandfather, father and all his brothers and sisters – at the moment when they were displaced from their home in Egypt, and sent as refugees to London, towards an unknown and unpredictable future. As a grown man, Koski’s father will immigrate again – this time from London to Israel.
The video documenting the family migration, which is of course contrary to the ethos of the “Tsabar”, clinging to the land, is accompanied by an old armchair from Koski’s grandmother’s house, which she inherited. In this way, the small space seeks to be an intimate island of personal memories from other places, which follows the artists in their lives in Israel.
The different perspectives offered by the artists on the image of the prickly pear are intended to challenge the cultural absoluteness of those components in our visual culture and to open them up to a variety of readings among the viewers. Through the re-examination of these local motifs, which are almost taken for granted in Israeli society, Elion and Koski present to us the possibility of fluid and complex local identity, sustained by a mixed sense of belonging and foreignness, presence