When Berkeley-based artist Lava Thomas was asked to participate in “Sabbath,” a new exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, she did not hesitate to signal her interest.
Thomas, who identifies as a black biracial woman with Jewish ancestry, was particularly excited by the 2017 Dorothy Saxe Invitational exhibit’s focus, the 4th Commandment found in the Book of Exodus: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work …”
The recurring invitational exhibit invites dozens of leading-edge contemporary artists from a variety of backgrounds to submit a work based on a specific ceremonial object or theme. This is only the second invitational of 11 that has asked artists to respond to an idea, rather than an object.
Describing herself as a “research-based” artist who approaches her material as an academic would a study, Thomas dove into the Sabbath with gusto.
The CJM provided her and the other 56 participating crafts artists from across the U.S. with excerpts of Jewish theologian and civil rights leader Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s meditation on the subject, the 1951 “The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man,” to inspire them in their creation of a three-dimensional work.
Heschel, in “Sabbath,” had likened the Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat, “as a palace of time.”
Thomas took Heschel’s concept — and went much further. Reading about the friendship and relationship between Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. (the two were to have shared a seder together, but King was assassinated just days before Passover in 1968), Thomas focused on the parallels between Shabbat and the African-American tradition of Sabbath. The latter, Thomas said, should be viewed in a political and historic, as well as religious, context: a time when enslaved black people can cease from coercive toil.
“The Exodus story is really key to African-American theology,” she said.
Drawing from her own childhood church experiences, Thomas created “Indigo Sabbath,” stacked tambourines of shades that move along the color spectrum from blue to black. She removed the drum of each tambourine and replaced it with lambskin, leather and other materials.
The tambourines, said Thomas, evoke her loving feelings toward the black Pentecostal church in which “my grandmother was the choir director and pianist,” and the “ecstatic abandon” with which Thomas herself played the tambourines.
In addition, Thomas explained in her artist’s statement, “The tambourine’s egalitarian nature speaks to our common humanity — anyone can play it without special training and its history is tied to cultures around the globe. As an object used in both worship and acts of resistance, the tambourine is symbolically complex.”
The title of her piece, she said, refers to the indigo plant, which slaves grew on South Carolina plantations in the latter part of the 18th century before the advent of the cotton gin.
Allusions to history, culture and identity also abound in the work of another Saxe Invitational participant, Nicki Green, a transgender artist specializing in craft. Her contribution to the show, a glazed stoneware piece entitled “Sabbath Crock,” includes imagery of women in various states of submersion in the mikvah, or ritual bath. The crock is also intended as a vessel in which to brine, or ferment, vegetables, Green said.
There is a “pretty strong relationship,” she said, between the act “of fermentation as an immersion ritual” and that of a Jew taking part “in the living water of the mikvah.”
In both cases, Green said, there is a metamorphosis that takes place. “You transform under the surface and emerge a new person.”
This is not dissimilar, she said, to a state of ongoing change that many queer and transgender people experience. “My trans-ness,” she said, “has always been in flux, always fluid and ongoing.”
Green said she was delighted to participate in the CJM exhibit because it was an opportunity for her to express herself both artistically and religiously. “I felt disconnected from a Jewish identity until four or five years ago,” she said. “I didn’t know any queer Jews growing up.”
But as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, where she is completing her master’s in fine arts, she learned of the queer-based SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, where she studied Talmud last summer. “That really catapulted my interest in text study,” she said, along with a renewed interest in incorporating Jewish motifs into her work.
Leah Rosenberg, another Bay Area artist taking part in the show, has always felt connected to her Jewish roots. Although she grew up in a tight-knit Jewish Canadian community in what some would consider a provincial backwater — Saskatoon, Saskatchewan — Rosenberg draws much of her inspiration as a Jew, artist, baker and food designer from that landscape.
“My mother,” she notes, “is known for her challah,” which she sends to family members in not only larger cities like Winnipeg, “but all over Canada.”
Challah, per se, does not figure into Rosenberg’s piece, but the special meal that many Jewish families prepare for Friday night does serve as a backdrop. In her acrylic, wood and beeswax installation, “To Remember and to Keep,” Rosenberg has created 104 Shabbat candles — two for each Shabbat of the year — in seven hues that, in their entirety, form a mass of stripes, a design concept for which she has become known. The candles are accompanied by a “To Remember and to Keep” box, where they can be stored.
When she began contemplating her submission to the exhibit, said Rosenberg, she thought of “the traditional of coming together for a meal” and all that it entailed, including the Torah’s instructions to light two candles to “Remember the Sabbath day and make it holy” and “Keep the Sabbath day and make it holy.”
Rosenberg said that she was also inspired by the late author and physician Oliver Sacks, who recounted his mother’s kindling of the Shabbat candles in his 1999 New Yorker essay, “Brilliant Light.”
Rosenberg chose the seven colors for the candles — scarlet, white, Tyrian purple, indigo, silver, light blue and red wine — “based on my study of Judaism.”
“These are the colors that turn up in the Torah,” she said, noting, for example, that blue often symbolizes divinity because it is the color of the sky and sea.
While Thomas, Green and Rosenberg, like most of the other artists in the 2017 Saxe invitational, address the Judeo-Christian understandings of the Sabbath, a few of the contributors also make reference to Buddhist, Native American and other ancient traditions, said CJM chief curator Renny Pritikin.
The Sabbath theme is especially timely in this era of our constant connection to devices, CJM executive director Lori Starr explained at a press preview before the show’s Nov.12 opening. Starr said she was not surprised by “how many people are resonating to the idea of ‘let’s take a break. Turn it off. Let’s stop’ ” … Instead, she said, “You just are.”
(On point, for example, is artist Allan Wexler’s contraption, “Sabbath Cell Phone Silencer.)
The Saxe Invitational is so named for Bay Area Jewish community philanthropist and art collector Dorothy Saxe, whose late husband, George, endowed the program in her name.
Saxe, 91, a founder of the museum, said in a phone interview that she is “super-excited” about the exhibit.
“The work is inventive, imaginative and profound,” Saxe said. She added that she is also pleased that the invitational can be considered “a stretch,” because it revolves around a concept, rather than an object.
The notion of the Sabbath, Saxe said, allows artists to “open themselves up to all kinds of interpretations.”
All of the works in “Sabbath” are available for purchase at the conclusion of the exhibit. Half of the proceeds will go the artists, and half to the museum. To purchase a glossy catalogue or artwork, visit the museum store or go to store.thecjm.org.