Interview by Julia Cipriano
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Esther Zabronsky—an artist, Israeli immigrant, politically minded and, might I add, lovely individual. Her show, W.A.T. (“We Are Together”), will be opening in The Java Project gallery on Saturday, April 29th. Intended to spread awareness about the Muslim Immigration ban and generally problematic state of the US government, it is a cause that is close to Esther and the featured artists. I was particularly interested in her dual role (curator and artist), how politics came into play, and how she renders and expresses her feelings about our government through art. As you’ll see below, Esther took much care when considering my lengthy questions. I hope you’ll enjoy reading her answers as much as I did hearing them.
After reading W.A.T’s intention—to spread awareness about the problematic state of our government’s policies and “show the power of unity between different races and cultures through art”—I’m intrigued by the link between art and politics, two inherently charged and contentious realms. So I’m hoping you can expound upon a few things for me.
First off, to touch upon the political aspect, I see on the site’s preamble an explicit reference to the Muslim Immigration Ban, which is a specific facet of a larger set of policies. Is there a reason why you’ve chosen to target this ban in particular as opposed to others?
As an immigrant from a Middle Eastern country (Israel), I feel more drawn to and aware of the richness of Middle Eastern art. I have studied under and know many mind-blowing artists from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Jordan. It has made me realize that through art there is true unity, regardless of difference or conflict. Through art we can embrace our sameness.
Will the show involve other components of immigration reform, such as deportation, border controls (namely with Mexico), and all illegal immigration?
No. I am not tapping into this particular area this time around. However, in 2013 I did a documentary video called “Documenta” on legal and illegal immigrants from South America working in Massachusetts. I do not consider myself a political activist, but recently I feel more pressed and urged to express myself in this subject matter. I want to open up a conversation.
(Now, to discuss how the art relates to the political message)
I see that you’re both the curator for the show and an artist whose work will also be featured. Both roles—artist and curator—deal with the idea of expression, just in different forms. In both scenarios, you’re looking to communicate something: a problematic political climate and the feelings that such a climate creates. But those are two different things: a cause (the political world) and an effect (how the population feels about said political policies, i.e: emotional implications). Which are you more focused on depicting/rendering through this show—the “cause” or the “effect?”
This is a tough question. At first, when the idea came to me to create a forum for Muslim Immigrant artists, I wanted to show it through powerful art that spoke of their political issues and the hardships they endure. But slowly, I realized that artists mainly want to express their inner thoughts, their personal desires, their familial observations, their natural habitat, sex, dreams, emotions, love…and some want to express conflicts and struggles.
At first, I found it difficult to find a common theme for the show. I went back to my initial intent for the show, and the answer was there. My wish is not to be silent anymore. I want our voices to be heard. The executive order of the traveling ban created injustice for us, the American people, as well as, for innocent Muslim people who cannot enter our country now!
In short, to answer your question, this show is about showing solidarity to the people who are separated from their families, who are uncertain about their immediate future, and who have dreamed to start a new life here in the States (like me), especially for artists who cannot expand their vision across borders. The only way I could show solidarity is to invite artists to join my solo exhibit and celebrate the freedom of saying, “we have come together to show how much we care!”
As a curator, you must decipher another artist’s work and then link it with your particular message. What were some of the criteria you employed in gaging whether these artists and their work fit within the W.A.T narrative? Or rather, how were you looking to convey this political intention, through the work itself (i.e. conflict and discontent rendered through the medium), or the artist themselves (i.e. nationality/background)?
Part of the answer was mentioned before… but the beauty of the process is that you learn as you go. Speaking with artists allowed me to you learn their story and become involved in their way of thinking. For the few moments that they spend with me, I feel as though they became part of my life.
To get back to your question, the show will most likely be a mixture of both emotions and politics. I don’t think I could separate the two. We have painters, performers, tattoo artists, musicians that come from different cultures, different beliefs and with different point of view, however, the way they express themselves is universal. This is how diversity elevates and expands our minds to make us stronger! There is a silver lining. These artists are full of life and happy to be here and be heard.
Does your goal of depicting either the (political) cause or the (emotional) effect differ between your two roles as artist and curator? Did you handle the political message differently in either case?
My goal was originally the same as an artist and as a curator. As the project developed, the effectiveness changed a bit. As an artist, I was able to fully express and translate my feelings about the political state of the world into art form with—but as one individual, my work can only reach so many people. As a curator, I had an opportunity to expand the degree of impact by bringing together a community of artists who shared the same vision. I was able to deliver a broader message. And as a group, our ability to express our political message is far more influential.
Looking back, I remember wanting to present only written reactions from people I know, and to open a discussion. I felt that words, poems—any written material—would be strong enough to spread the message about the unjust executive order of the traveling ban. However, because of the nature of the show—somewhat spontaneous, somewhat too late—the response was weak. I had to change my strategy, and open the call to all artists who share our political view. And the response was amazing, exceptional artists came forward. To name a few: Kledia Spiro, a conceptual performing artist whose work focuses on the social implication of immigrants, JO-JO Orangias, conceptual artist whose main work regards Syrian refugees, Bahar Yapman, a new immigrant from Turkey, and Darin Cohen. I am very excited about the upcoming exhibition. It is empowering!
What were some of the other ways in which your experience as an artist differed from your experience as a curator?
They are totally different “jobs.” As an artist, I am responsible mostly to myself and my audience. As a curator, I wear many hats. The most interesting aspect was to learn about the artists from a personal perspective; it is always the human component that interests me. The other aspect is to organize the event; to find people to help and delegate tasks. People are so generous. It always amazes me how much people are willing to help if you are willing to ask.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank some wonderful people who had a vital role in making this event a success. Thank you to my artist friend and collaborator, Darin Cohen, who put all the pieces together. Thank you to my friend Margaret Laurence who picked me up at “Shakespeare in the Park” and stayed in touch since then, who helped with the initial ideas. Thank you to Tammy Rose who helped me stay focused on the central idea and refused to let me stray. Thank you to Ori Geva and his crew at Java Studios for helping me get through this emotional time. Thank you to Dakota Sica for assigning me the gallery and offering his public relations. Thank you to WIP team especially Debbie Domitrovich and Tanish NH. Thank you to all my friends for their support and for constantly giving me good advice. Thank you to my family who are always on my side and in my heart. And lastly, thank you to ALL the artists who took the time to share their stories with me–this show couldn’t have happened without you.
What specific emotions underpin your art—what feelings inspire you? What emotions does your work seek to render? Are they the same?
I express myself in abstract form. It sounds too easy when I hear myself saying it. My parents were both holocaust survivors. My early years were spent around the kitchen table listening to women discussing their Holocaust survival stories. Growing up in Israel, a state of war with a deep ancient history; from its archaeological sites to modern architecture marvels, Israel has left deep grooves in my personality. I find my new home in New York City exciting and fulfilling–its culture has now interwoven with my old history. My art is about building layers of memories and then removing some to make room for…dreams, surprises…
What themes does your larger body of work look to depict? Does your art often serve as a form of political critique?
Lately, yes. Humanity and justice are very important parts of my belief system.
I see that your body of work is multi-media and abstract. What are some of your favorite mediums? And with the pieces chosen for W.A.T, which mediums were you mainly working with? How do these materials intersect with the larger theme of crisis? I.e: is there a reason why you chose paint and collage over, say, sculpture to convey your message?
The medium and materials I use are important tools to express my thoughts and ideas. I am using mostly tissue paper which is transparent in nature, and magazines which serve as tangible representations of our time. I glue layers upon layers of paper and peel them off as needed. I still like to have actual paint strokes on my paintings, it allows me to feel like I’m a part of the canon of modern painters (Cézanne, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec) by way of technique. It’s a tribute to the artists who had a strong impact on my art development.
Does the other work in the show tend towards any particular medium(s)? If so, what are your thoughts behind this choice?
I chose the artists according to their medium, in order to understand the effect of the richness of different cultures. I was looking for diversity. I have chosen painters, sculptors, performance artists, musicians, videographers, etc.… I think you’ll find similarities between my artwork method and my curating choices!
How does the other art handle the political message? How they come together to form a larger narrative, and what is that narrative? Is it a more streamlined story—depicting the development, implementation, and consequence of this crisis—or a kind of collage of varied experience?
Someone told me that this show is a sprout or a seed to be sprouted. With the way this political administration is going, we might grow algae.
What are your hopes for how this show will be received? What kind of emotional impact do you want this work to have upon your audience? What would be your ideal result—to spread awareness, bring about a specific emotion(s), or compel a pointed action?
We would really like to see the conversation spread far and wide. We hope the administration will react wisely, humanely, and embrace diversity.