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The Voice of the Citizen, an exhibition of paintings and artworks by Arlene Amaler-Raviv at the South African Jewish Museum until Oct 2nd.

“Art is a guarantee of sanity. That is the most important thing I have said”. Louise Bourgeois

Sometimes the entry into understanding a visual context begins not with the images themselves but with words. In the case of Arlene Amaler -Raviv, the artist of the exhibition “The Voice of the Citizen” these words take the form of a story. For the most part, this exhibition is not about the personal but rather broader social and political concerns.  However this particular story is personal. It illustrates the interface of larger concerns which have been humanized by Amaler-Raviv’s own personal suffering and her acute sensibility to the marginalized. She expresses this   through the evocative gestural mark makings – crusty daubs, scratchings, smearings, and larger spreads of pigment that have become her signature.

The story Amaler -Raviv tells, begins twenty years ago in a dark time for the artist.

Leonard, an artist who lived on the same street understood what it cost for a fellow artist not to be able to paint. So he brought Amaler-Raviv  a gift – a  colour picture book called “The Hamlyn Children’s History of the World” seen  through colonial eyes by  Somerset Fry with the instructions that seeing she couldn’t paint ,she was to doodle.   And doodle she did, engaging with each word. The result was a series of palimpsest images (long before William Kentridge began superimposing images on texts) The dark time passed and the book was put away. A move into a smaller studio meant streamlining.  Had it not been for her daughter’s perceptive eye, the book would have been jettisoned and lost. The images, now in wooden frames as a plain pine box coffin,  are one of the highlights of this exhibition and titled “Hamlyn Series”.

“The Voice of the Citizen” is not a retrospective show and should not be viewed as such. Nevertheless it covers 40 years of intense creative output- a life examined and edified through the power of the image.  It showcases a variety of series and bodies of work. The viewer starts with the postcard series titled “North, South, East, and West”. These comprise double glass panels containing some of the postcards collected over many years whose surfaces have been disrupted by Amaler –Raviv. For the artist they “unify everything of my 40 years of work and tell my stories. “

To enter a world, virtual or physical means crossing a threshold.

To get to this exhibition you have to cross the threshold of South Africa’s oldest (now deconsecrated) synagogue. The walk up a mock gang plank to the sounds of susurrating sea is symbolic of the many arrivals and departures undertaken by the Jewish diaspora. To be a refugee is a deeply held fear for most people and as the artist points out, given the right circumstances, anyone could become one.  “Departure” an aluminum panel showing an airport apron from the Vodacom commissioned series “Politicians, Businessmen and Workers” is appropriately situated.

One of Amaler –Raviv’s themes is that of journeys. They range from the substantial  silhouette almost calligraphic treatment in “ Native”  or a ghostly after image of a solitary man clutching a plastic carrier bag crossing an urban street, a rural woman carrying a bed on her head, to paintings resulting from  journeys  to other countries.

The atmosphere of the exhibition may be of the world at large; the fall of the Berlin wall, the end of apartheid, the collapse of Wall Street and the Arab Spring. But the heart of the exhibition is an intimate painting.  Tucked away on the wall between the wooden screen of the pulpit or Bimah it’s small and easy to miss. It depicts a female figure overwritten with Hebrew words from the Kabbalah, the esoteric Jewish school of thought. 13 portraits on squares of linoleum taken from the kitchens and bathrooms of Hanover Street in District 6 lie scattered around the painting. These formed part of the District Six project “Relocation/Dislocation” where the artist commemorated forced removals by painting 229 portraits of the inhabitants. These were laid on the ground and covered with armoured glass and surrounded by telephone directories which eventually ripped and tore from exposure to the elements.   For the artist this small painting takes on the role of healing and in the context of the exhibition at large is a talisman against the onslaught of local and global forces.

In some respects “The Voice of the Citizen”  could be regarded as a far more expansive continuation of the exhibition “Citizen” exhibited 2 years ago especially in terms of the artist’s ongoing thematic concerns.

Works from the previous exhibition reappear as strongly familiar presences that stubbornly refuse to go away showing often a single figure, sometimes clusters in disconnected groups walking to some unseen destination burdened both by earthly chattels which appear interchangeable with psychic baggage.

One of the themes in the works, acknowledged by the title, “citizenship”, is that of belonging. And implicit in that is its counterpart, not belonging. Some schools of thought  argue that citizenship is a modern phenomenon,  a couple of hundred years old, while others believe it began in the early Greek states which developed into  a different form in ancient Rome.

You can be native to a place, as in the case of the indigenous people under colonial rule, or 2nd generation slaves. But a citizen is accorded legitimized belonging by the prevailing powers in the sense that they are acknowledged, given rights and a voice .Of course there is a price to both belonging and not belonging. Amaler – Raviv straddles the role of both citizen and outsider. Her work demonstrates Benjamin Franklin’s comment that, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” She operates as both citizen and through her criticism of the society that gave her citizenship she places herself in the role of outsider. Her work shows an awareness of and identification with the stranger, the other, who was regarded in some older cultures as the holy one. Whether it’s the contemporary immigrant Congolese security guard or the unknown man crossing a Berlin square in the late 1930’s, the stranger appears.

As the artist said at her opening “The Voice of the Citizen” is “an invitation to have a conversation with my painted marks.”

A catalogue is available and includes an insightful essay about the artist by Gabriella Kaplan.

Go see.

This review by Lucinda Jolly first appeared in the Cape Times

WHERE: SA Jewish Museum, 88 Hatfield St, Gardens, Cape Town 8001

INFO:  T 021-465-1546  Visit