At the Mingei, Israeli ingenuity comes into focus in new exhibit


On May 14, the State of Israel turns 70. To mark this milestone, Smadar Samson wanted to show her native country in a different light.

“As the curator of the House of Israel, I was looking for ways to present the rich culture of Israel in a way that hasn’t been seen before,” Samson said. “This is an opportunity to show the State of Israel through the tactile language of craft and design.”

Samson partnered with the Mingei International Museum to bring about “Israel: 70 Years of Craft & Design,” which opens at the museum Saturday. The exhibit will include 120 everyday objects on loan from museums, private collectors or directly from the artists and designers. Items range from jewelry and fashion to furniture and industrial and sustainable design.

The objects, Samson said, reflect the country’s culture, its restlessness and resourcefulness.

“The Jewish people for centuries have been weaving text, not textiles; carving words, not wood,” she said. “The history of craft and design is very short and erratic, but what it lacks in visual tradition, it makes up with innovation and sophistication. Until the establishment of Israel, all crafts were related to religion. For the first time, people began making secular objects. That was something that wasn’t done before the establishment of Israel.”

“We wanted to show that Israel is more than Judaism,” said Rob Sidner, executive director and CEO of the Mingei, who was also the curatorial adviser for the show.

A small portion of the exhibit is devoted to artifacts from the pre-state period with rare religious pieces such as a Scroll of Ester, known as the Megillah, amulets and Torah cases. The exhibit then opens into a bright, colorful space “that shows the vitality and diversity that Israel is today,” Sidner said.

The objects, many of which have been created in the last five years, are not chronological or departmentalized by subject but were selected to reveal traits of the Israeli culture. There is no such thing as an Israeli style when it comes to crafts and design, therefore the exhibit tries to show a mindset, Samson said.

But Sidner said, “It isn’t just a lot of stuff. Understanding of the show will be cumulative.”

Most items fall into four cultural codes: collective and personal memory, restlessness, creating something from nothing and globalization, Samson said.

Jewelry artist Ella Wolf created a pendant for Moshe Talmor in memory of his mother Leah Flischmann, an Auschwitz survivor. The piece, made from a stone found next to shack B22 in the concentration camp, “is based on the fact that Israel is founded on a collective memory,” Samson said.

“It is very important that each object reveals some layers that are embedded in them,” she said.

“Restlessness changes the way we look at material,” Samson said. Artist Meira Una looks at ceramics in a new way, forgoing the traditional procedure of forming clay, then embellishing and glazing it. She creates vessels beginning with large slabs of black stoneware, which she paints and then reshapes into an object. Her colorful piece, titled “Summer,” is related to Genesis. “Una likes recalling the joyful dance of the leaves and flowers associated with Genesis,” Samson said.

The theme of restlessness is also manifested in a light titled “My Affair with Sandy” “by shifting the perception of plastic from a cold, rigid material into a breathing entity,” she said. Artist Yaron Elyasi created the light with recycled polymers.

The exhibit begins and ends with the theme of light, a major feature in the Israeli culture, from Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, to Haskalah, a 19th-century Jewish Enlightenment that focused on secular learning and modern philosophy.

The focus on recent works is partly because in the years following the formation of Israel, “people were otherwise occupied,” Sidner said. With no infrastructure, little food and a large surge in population, people were struggling to survive. Crafts and design were not a priority.

But the austerity years of the 1950s forced people to “create something out of nothing,” Samson said. Rojy Ben-Joseph, an immigrant from Bulgaria who came to Israel in 1948 and worked at her father’s textile factory, took remnant towel material and transformed it into a fashion trend by turning cloth into a vibrant fabric “incorporating the brilliant colors of Israel,” she said. Ben-Joseph went on to become a fashion designer.

This mindset has led to innovations such as the “Spring Heel Shoes” by Neta Soreq, who used 3D scans to create the bouncy footwear out of nylon with a photopolymer sole for grip. Raw-Edges Design Studio uses the technology of computer numerical control (CNC) and a dyeing technique that utilizes the grain of the wood to create sculpted benches out of wood pieces that look almost like fabric.

Recycled and re-purposed materials still play a prominent role among Israel’s artist and designers. Lital Mendel’s “Oops,” for example, is an origami necklace made out of old love letters. Other items — such as Adital Ela’s biodegradable Terra stools made from a blend of earth and natural fibers and OrCam design studio’s MyEye, a devise for the visually impaired that clips to glasses and reads text to the wearer — show Israel’s “transition from a national society into a global culture,” Samson said.

The selections for the exhibit were result of extensive research and advice from scholars, museum directors and designers, said Samson, who is an artist with a degree in industrial design. “It included visits to artist studios, museum archives, face-to-face interviews and fascinating conversations that defied time zones.”

She hopes the exhibit will show that creativity and tolerance can connect people in a meaningful way.

“Israel’s challenges and conflicts are quite well-known,” she said. “The creative mindset coping with these challenges deserve recognition and exposure.”

“Israel: 70 Years of Craft & Design”

When: April 21 through Sept. 3. Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Mingei International Museum, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park

Tickets: $10, adults; $7, 62 and over, youth ages 6-17, military and students with ID

Phone: (619) 239-0003


Schimitschek is a freelance writer.