Jewish Journal


September 27, 2001

Holy Land Exploration

A Skirball exhibit examines Israel in the 19th and early 20th century.


Felix Bonfils' "Woman with Jug" at the Skirball Center.

Felix Bonfils' "Woman with Jug" at the Skirball Center.

In a compelling collection of 19th and 20th century images and objects, the Skirball Cultural Center's new exhibit of photographs, lithographs and archaeological artifacts tells the story of Israel as, literally, a "holy land" -- a place that has long held fascination for the three monotheistic faiths, academics and Western tourists hoping to discover the exotic world of the East.

"Exploring the Holy Land," which opens Oct. 3, documents the major movements that have motivated exploration of the area. Co-curators Tal Gozani and Erin Clancey have collected objects that "show how the pervasive aura of mysticism and spirituality of this ancient landscape inspired travel to the region," Gozani told The Journal.

The collection contains photographs and lithographs from Jewish and Christian artists, depicting their own faiths as well as Islam. Felix Bonfils, a Christian, was a well-known photographer for the American Colony -- a community of Christian pilgrims that established a photo studio in Jerusalem in 1898. "The American Colony was one of the many photo studios that disseminated photos of significant tourist locales of the Near East. His [Bonfils'] photographs offer a seductive portrait to lure visitors to the Holy Land," Gozani says.

The work focuses on capturing images that would fascinate those considering religious tourism. Noted for his ability to capture crowds in religious activity, including photographs of Greek ceremonies at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, his individual portraits are no less compelling. Bonfils' photograph of a woman holding a jug on her head, says Gozani, "really captures the fascination of the Western world with the 'exotic' East -- especially with Middle Eastern women."

Also featured in the exhibit is S.J. Schweig, a Jewish photographer born in 1905. An acclaimed still-life photographer, Schweig later supervised a number of publications for the Jewish Agency, an organization that represented Jewish interests in Israel during the period of the British mandate. David Roberts, a famed Scottish lithographer who depicted lavish scenes of the Holy Land and Egypt, has reproductions of his work included as well.

Gozani says that it is striking to view the vast barren landscapes depicted at the turn of the last century, that are no longer empty. The images "are a great testament to the development of the land of Israel," she says.

Gozani says her favorite image is a photograph called "Jaffa Gate" taken in 1880. "On the one hand, if you didn't know that the photo was taken in 1880, you wouldn't necessarily be surprised if someone told you that it was taken recently, as the gate itself looks nearly as it does today. Amazingly, the dress of the natives also doesn't necessarily give away the time period," she says. The only signal as to the late 19th century time period is "the clothing of the tourists, as well as the horse-drawn carriages."

The photographs arrived at the Skirball through their former home at Hebrew Union College, the Reform Rabbinical Seminary. Several of the photographs came from the collection of Dr. Peerless from Cincinnati, who donated this collection of hundreds of photographs to HUC.

The archaeological artifacts on display came from a private collection, and feature objects from the sacred realm as well as from everyday life. The artifacts are from the Ancient Near East and Egypt and span a broad time period between the Bronze Age to the first and second centuries C.E. Many come from the collection of Nelson Glueck, who was a prominent archaeologist during the period of the British mandate. The exhibit runs until Dec. 2, 2001, and is housed in the Ruby Gallery.

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