August 6, 2020

Helène Aylon: 1931-2020, May Her Memory Be a Blessing

By Amy Powell

HBI mourns the passing of Helène Aylon, the internationally-acclaimed Jewish feminist artist who died April 6, due to complications from COVID-19. She was a member of HBI’s Academic Advisory Committee, exhibited twice in HBI’s Kniznick Gallery and contributed to the permanent collection housed at HBI and the Women’s Studies Research Center. In 2012, HBI published her memoir, Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, (Feminist Press, The Reuben/Rifkin Jewish Women Writers Series).

Shulamit Reinharz, HBI’s founding director, reflected on Aylon’s contribution and HBI’s pride in hosting her exhibitions and supporting her art in many ways including through the HBI Research Awards program. “This was really radical Jewish feminist art in the sense that it challenged the status quo,” she said.

Much of Aylon’s earlier work focused on the environment, but in the 1990s, she turned her attention to G-d, creating the first parts of The God Project: Nine Houses Without Women. The first work in The G-d Project was The Liberation of G-d, featuring the The Book That Will Not Close, the Five Books of Moses with every single page covered in parchment. “I decided I was going to liberate G-d from the patriarchal misogyny and brutality imposed by man projected onto G-d,” she said in a blog published by Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA).  “With The Liberation of G-d, I planned to go through every single page of the Old Testament, cover it respectfully with transparent parchment and then highlight in pink marker all the parts that revealed this. It was a very big thing; it took six years.” The Book That Will Not Close is part of HBI’s permanent collection.

Elaine Reuben, a member of the HBI Board of Advisers, recalled an essay that Aylon wrote about her Brooklyn childhood that ended with her husband’s death when she was 30 years old. At the time, Reuben, along with Reinharz and Gloria Jacobs, was an editor of HBI’s imprint with Feminist Press. Reuben founded the The Reuben/Rifkin Jewish Women Writers Series to honor her parents and grandparents.

“I urged her (Aylon) to take us further into the story and it took a long time,” Reuben said, describing the origins of Aylon’s memoir. “When it was published, we had a launch party in New York at the Feminst Press and something at HBI.  Then she took it on the road and it became an important part of her way of reaching out into the world.”

“She told her own story so much better than anyone else,” Reuben added. “The memoir is something we are honored to present. It tells her story as she would want it told, a personal, Jewish, feminist, artist story.”

For the Children, video still
Afterword: For the Children (2016)

The memoir, Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, and the essay in the catalogue that accompanied Afterword: For the Children at the HBI exhibition, recount a conversation between Aylon and Rabbi Rolando Matalon of the Bnei Jeshurun synagogue in the Upper West Side of Manhattan about The Book That Will Not Close. Aylon, at the time, said, “Our forefathers were searching for G-d, but they found only themselves. They tried to speak for G-d, but spoke for themselves.”

David Sperber, an art historian, art critic and curator in The Department of Gender Studies, BarIlan University and a beloved friend of Aylon, writes in the catalogue essay that Aylon’s intention was to create change from within. In practice, it is precisely the fact that the artist did not erase the biblical verses, but marked them instead, is what allowed for the fruitful discussion among the rabbinical world.”

Reinharz, then director of HBI and the Women’s Studies Research Center, invited Aylon to exhibit the third part of the G-d Project, The Notebooks, in 2001, due to open in the Kniznick Gallery September 11. Reinharz cancelled the opening and Aylon, who had been on the train all day, arrived at HBI having no idea why the exhibition was cancelled. Reinharz broke the news of 9/11 to her.

Vanishing Pink. video still
Afterword: For the Children (2016)

The installation, as described in JewishBoston.com, showed 54 blank notebooks, some closed and some open, arranged in columns. The closed notebooks had dark covers, and the open notebooks were covered in white. Across this display, Aylon projected photographs from the Jewish girls’ school, Beit Shulamit, she had attended. In a powerful statement on the silencing of women’s voices in Jewish history, she dedicated the work to “Mrs. Rashi” and “Mrs. Maimonides,” “for surely they had something to say.”

The show “took you into the classroom” and “was a critique of what was going on there,” Reinharz said.

Helène Aylon pictured with The Air Commandments

Over the years, Reinharz suggested to Aylon that she consider a 10th part to The God Project. In 2017, HBI commissioned an exhibition from Aylon to honor Reinharz on the occasion of her retirement. The show, Afterword: For the Children, is the coda to The G-d Project. It exhibited at HBI from March 20 to June 16, 2017 and then travelled to the Jerusalem Biennale in October, 2017.  Aylon dedicated her finale in the series, Afterword: For the Children, to the future generations, challenging all who regard The Ten Commandments not to shrug off a dark foreboding which emanates in her view, from the patriarchy — not from G-d.

Sperber described Aylon as “a great woman who has constructed her life to be a work of art.” She was the recipient of numerous awards and grants including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art in 2016.

There are many complete obituaries written about Aylon’s entire career, including Helene Aylon, 89, feminist artist whose work reflected her evolution as a woman and a Jew in the JTA, and Helène Aylon, Eco-Feminist Artist Who Pondered Change, Is Dead at 89 of Coronavirus-Related Causes in ARTnews.

In the JTA remembrance published in The Times of Israel, Feminist Jewish artist Helene Aylon dies of coronavirus at 89,  Debra Nussbaum Cohen writes, “In a 2016 article about being one of four women to be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Women’s Caucus for Art, Aylon said, ‘I hope I would be remembered in a loving way because I’m not trying to defame Judaism but I wanted to tell the truth about it to see what we can do about it.’ ”

Amy Powell is the assistant director of HBI.

To hear Aylon read from her memoir, Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, join this reading given to at Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Brooklyn Museum on June 9, 2012. 

Comments

  1. Helene will be remembered! Amazing artist and person!

  2. She made a huge impression on me when I was at HBI and at several of our Academic Advisory Committee meetings. I was literally MOVED by her presence. Thank for you sharing this, Amy.

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