Social justice and Judaism at heart of Aylon's work

Performance artist's career and memoir will be celebrated Oct. 10 at the Rose

One of a series of self-portraits by Helène Aylon.

Cover of Aylon's memoir

Helène Aylon knows how to make a scene.

The artist is known for iconoclastic performance-art pieces, which include driving across the country in a refashioned ambulance (Earth Ambulance, 1982), collecting dirt and soil from nuclear test sites.

In Japan, she asked students to fill sacks with seeds and bamboo shoots and floated the sacks down a river toward Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Current: two sacs en route, 1985).

She also highlighted a vellum-covered Bible in pink marker every time injustice to women occurs in the text (The Liberation of G-d, 1990-1996).

Themes of social and environmental justice are at the heart of Aylon’s work. But just as integral to her vision is her identity as a Jewish woman. These elements fuel Aylon’s memoir, “Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist,” which chronicles the evolution of her Jewish feminist identity. It was recently published in the Reuben/Rifkin Jewish Women Writer’s Series: a joint project of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and the Feminist Press.

The institute will celebrate the memoir’s publication and Aylon’s career at the Rose Art Museum on Wednesday, Oct.10, in an event open to the public. Aylon will read a brief section from her memoir, accompanied by a retrospective slideshow and discussion of the intersection of Jewish identity and art. Light refreshments and a book signing will follow.

“Helène Aylon has tackled the important issues of the day, such as environmentalism, religion and feminism and explored their intersection,” said Shulamit Reinharz, Potofsky Professor of Sociology at Brandeis and founding director of the HBI. “Her work is provocative and beautiful at the same time, and I am thrilled that the HBI could partner with the Feminist Press to publish her life story.”

Aylon’s work is internationally recognized and has been featured in museums all over the world, from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to the Jewish Museum of Australia. She has worked as a consultant for the HBI, in addition to exhibiting her work (My Notebooks, 2010) in its gallery and receiving HBI support for All Rise (2010), an installation at the Jewish Museum in New York that resembles a courtroom, highlighting the absence of women in the rabbinic court. 

Despite such critiques, her deep passion for Judaism is evident. “I, myself, I love Judaism, and I’m staying in it because the rituals that are so important to me were all created by women. The lighting of the candles wasn’t written in the Five Books of Moses, but it’s a major part of feeling Jewish for me,” she said.

While Aylon shows no signs of slowing down at the age of 81, she often thinks about the newest generation of Jewish, female artists. “They will have to continue with the topics I started to address, but they will still contend with new challenges,” she said. “It’s also important that they understand what feminists have struggled for, because those are foremothers too.”

Categories: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

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