Magic, Mourners & Healers: Jewish Women in the Shtetls & Contemporary Art
Thursday, January 20th at 6PM
Scholar Nathaniel Deutsch discusses the World War I-era ethnographic survey that documented folk beliefs about motherhood and childbirth, and how that folklore appears in Debra Olin’s Every Protection series.
DEBRA OLIN: EVERY PROTECTION
October 14, 2021 – April 24, 2022
Michael Weinstein Gallery & Women’s Balcony
Is it considered a charm for a pregnant woman to wear an apron?
Is there a belief that one must not rock an empty cradle?
What medicines, precautions, and other means are employed in order to have clever children?
Questions like these, drawn from the traditional beliefs of generations of Eastern European Jews, inspired artist Debra Olin and became the heart of her Every Protection series. Haunting and provocative, the questions were part of an exhaustive survey developed in the years just before World War I by Russian ethnographer S. An-sky, who sought to document a way of life he saw disappearing in the Pale of Settlement, the region of Eastern Europe where Jews were then forced to live.
The collages in Olin’s exhibit serve as exquisite shells concealing a mysterious spiritual core.– Mikhail Krutikov, The Forward
In nine large mixed-media works, and in an installation made just for this exhibition, Olin explores a woman’s formative experience of childbirth and childrearing through some of the 283 questions that address these subjects in An-sky’s survey. Often, the artwork includes the questions themselves, either in the original Yiddish or in English. Olin combines them with her own symbolic language, repeating and regrouping the words and symbols to create a dialogue with their subject. A question about children’s games is paired with hands playing cat’s cradle. A sonogram image becomes the modern equivalent of a traditional amulet, a token of protection and safety. Together, the works suggest the artist’s fascination with the universality of superstition and folk beliefs, and her connection to the women of a vanished time and place.
“From the Oral Torah” hangs from the celestial ceiling of our Women’s Balcony, the very place where generations of immigrant women from the Pale of Settlement once came to pray. Like whispered chants or prayers, printed questions are draped over the shoulders of the women evoked by the ethereal garments that the artist has created. Multiple feet emerging from their hems suggest a community and with it a sense of universal belief. The installation spans the divide between the everyday and the sacred. For what could be at once so commonplace and so miraculous as giving birth?
Explore Debra Olin’s inspiration and process with an audio guide narrated by the artist. Listen here or look for this logo at the museum to indicate the pieces in the show with an audio narration.
This project has been supported by a grant from the Artists’ Resource Trust, a fund of Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation.