Exploring Values Through Art
The Y’s Norman E. Alexander Center for Jewish Life is proud to present the Who We Are: Values Walking Tour, showcasing local artists representing a different humanitarian value each month.
It is our goal, amidst a COVID-19 reality, to promote local artists and offer the Northern Manhattan community access to art. While normally we would like for this art to be shown on the walls of the Y, with the current COVID-related limitations, it is our goal to bring our local artists to the streets of our community.
February: Human Dignity
The Gateway to Eternal Souls IX: Blue Fields of Reeds (2020)
Mixed Media on Handmade Paper 22” x 30”
The Gateway to Eternal Souls VIII: Orange Fields of Reeds (2020)
Mixed Media on Handmade Paper 22” x 32”
Garry Grant is a visual artist based in New York City. With a focus on abstraction, his work is inspired by the materials he employs and the use of color and texture. The tone of Grant’s work conveys a sense of rhythm; the forms expressive movement. A master gilder, he uses gold, silver, and copper leaf for the underpinning of his large-scale works, building these variegated metals onto the canvas to create vibrancy and varying degrees of depth to the background. He often adds pressure to the canvas to bring about a cracked-pattern effect, adding a rich texture to the composition. For the foreground, he applies acrylic paint and other pigments to the canvas by hand, manipulating the material until attenuated forms cover the surface. More recently, his practice has expanded to include the creation of life-size sculptures, other three-dimensional objects, and works on hand-made paper. Grant’s work is held in private collections and has been featured in solo and group exhibitions in New York, Detroit, Dallas, and Atlanta.
“The Gateway to Eternal Souls” Series started with the rise of the pandemic. Grant, like too many Americans, suffered the loss of family members due to COVID-19. The series of work is an artistic tribute to people struggling with the disease, with no family members around them for support and care. Grant created a “gateway or heaven’s gate” for families who had to deal with this tragic crisis, with “the hope that the artwork will bring peace and dignity to the sick and their loved ones dealing with the virus.” With the advent of social distancing, the pandemic has forced us to become more distant from each other. While of clear benefit for health and safety, the pandemic has forced whole segments of our society to become increasingly absent from public view. How do we ensure human dignity for those both visible and hidden?
By Rabbi Ari Perten, Norman E. Alexander Center for Jewish Life Director
On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly ratified General Assembly Resolution 217 A, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The declaration asserts, “[R]ecognition of the inherent dignity of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” The declaration of human dignity as an inherent quality of the human condition is critical as it insists that regardless of appearance, beliefs, or ancestry, all humans are afforded the same rights and considerations. Yet sadly, far too frequently, many are denied their human dignity. How does this degradation occur? Often loss of human dignity does not begin with large-scale attacks and assaults, but rather more insidiously, with an intentional shift of language. To the Nazis, Jews became rats and vermin. To the Hutus the Tutsis became cockroaches. The subversive move to radically reorient the way in which “the other” is described, removing humanity in exchange for more debased connections is exceptionally frightening.
Chillingly, it is not only “villains” who ignore the basic human dignity afforded all people. The 19th/20th Century philosopher Martin Buber described the world as a combination of two types of relationships — I/Thou relationships and I/It relationships. An I/Thou relationship is one in which the I does not objectify a Thou but rather acknowledges a living relationship. I/Thou asserts a connection, bonding two discrete entities together, even if just for a moment. The more common relationship is an I/It relationship. Here, the I and the It remain separate. The It functionally serves the I as a tool existing to be used rather than engaged.
In our own quest for self-improvement, the challenging question to consider is how regularly do I acknowledge the human dignity, not just of my colleagues, friends, and family, but also of the stranger we pass on the street.
Linda Smith is an artist and art educator, who started a non-profit organization while living in Kigali, Rwanda, called the TEOH Project, which provides cameras and art classes to children in Rwanda, Ghana, and the Bronx. She has been commissioned by the United Nations to provide photography classes to survivors and former perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. She earned her BA from Syracuse University, MA in Communications at Goldsmith College at the University of London, and MFA from the University of Connecticut. Her work has been exhibited in the United Nations, embassies, and universities.
‘Isabella’ is a mixed-media work showcasing a 1911 young immigrant from Italy to the US. It’s part of the series “Sojourners,” where Smith manipulates archival photographs of family members who immigrated from Italy to the US to echo the cross generational complexities that are inherited to the process of Immigration. The haunted look on Isabella’s face and the ghostly reflection of her image speaks to the rooted conflict and collective memory of the migration and immigration movements — the vulnerability and displacement, along with the reinvention of life itself, embedded with hopes for a safer, brighter future. Questions of justice, equality, and human rights are key to processes of migration and immigration around the world, as the wide range of by-choice migrants, through refugees and asylum seekers reveal the built-in inequality in contemporary societies, especially amidst the current global refugee crisis.
By Rabbi Ari Perten, Norman E. Alexander Center for Jewish Life Director
Justice is at the center of the American myth. The average school day begins with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in which students declare the US to be one nation… “with liberty and justice for all.” Though this mantra is so regularly repeated, our lived experience often indicates that justice is, perhaps, not always the reality which we experience, but rather a dream towards which we aspire.
The classic image of justice (based on the Roman goddess of Justice, Iustitia) is a blindfolded woman with a set of scales in one hand and a sword in the other. This representation plays on the concept of sight asserting that justice needs to be impartially applied without regard to wealth, power, or any other status. In the Midrash Tanhuma (Shoftim 8:1), we are reminded, “When the judge sets his heart on a bribe, he becomes blind to justice and is unable to judge [a case] honestly.” Justice must be directed without the imposition of external factors. When sight is allowed, it clouds judgement, distancing justice from its appropriate application.
Interestingly, in the book of Deuteronomy (22:1-3) there is an explanation as to the application of justice in the return of lost property that also utilizes the image of sight. The final verse insists, “and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you may not hide yourself.” The medieval French commentator, Rashi, remarks on this final injunction, “You must not cover your eyes, pretending not to see it.” Here, playing on this same theme of sight, Rashi insists that justice can only occur when we actively pursue sight, removing any blindfolds that might limit the ability to see.
As our country continues to struggle with the concept of justice, we must each ask, what is my understanding of justice?
For more information about the Who We Are: Values Walking Tour and the Y's Norman E. Alexander Center for Jewish Life, please contact Rabbi Ari Perten at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Artists: learn more about submissions here.
Header image by Values Walking Tour: Who We Are Curator Gal Cohen.
Check out events and programs at the Y's Norman E. Alexander Center for Jewish Life:
• Bubbie's Kitchen
• Ukulele Shabbat
• PJ Library at the Y 2020 - 2021: Sharing Our Stories
• Israeli Cuisine @ Home
• Shamayim Vegan Challenge
• My Child and Me: Fostering Positive Values in the Home
• and more!