How does a deeply religious artist explore sensuality? With fabric, photographs and a pomegranate, reveals Ellie Levenson
In the Hassidic Jewish community of Stamford Hill in north London, artists are as rare as women who work outside the home. So to find a woman artist living here is particularly unusual. But then, by her own admission, Gitl Wallerstein-Braun is “unorthodox orthodox”. Now aged 57, she graduated from London’s Central Saint Martins last year and is already achieving international success with her photographs of her sculptures.
Braun moved to Britain in 1973, but didn’t speak any English until 12 years ago. She only took language lessons after a row in the community over whether to involve the authorities in a child abuse case. Her family, who backed bringing in the authorities rather than letting the community sort things out internally, were shunned by many. Braun, who spoke only Hebrew and Yiddish, found that the people she had relied on for communication would no longer talk to her.
This silence was not new for her. The child of Holocaust survivors (her father was in the Bor labour camp in Yugoslavia, her mother in Auschwitz), silence was the overwhelming feature of her childhood, some of it spent in an orphanage. “My parents didn’t talk about the past,” she says, “but it was very present. It was a silent upbringing. You didn’t question, you didn’t ask. You just obeyed.”
Braun then took an art foundation course, first drawing landscapes of Israel from memory, then moving on to the Kent coast, using thick paint and pastels, playing with senses and texture by mixing scent and other materials into the paint. These pictures impressed Central Saint Martins enough for her to be offered a place. Was art college a culture shock? “No,” she says. “I was already familiar with 28 different cultures from my English class. I felt this is who I am and I am proud. It’s like a mirror. If others see you are proud, they refer to you in that way. Anyway, in a place like London, which is so multicultural, people don’t question anything.”
As part of her studies, Braun looked at the work of renowned Russian-American photographer Roman Vishniac, who captured Jewish lives in 1930s Germany, publishing the shots that hadn’t been confiscated or destroyed in a book entitled The Vanished World. “I looked at those, and at my husband’s collection of art depicting life in the Jewish ghetto, and I thought to myself, ‘It’s not vanished.’ So I started taking pictures of my community, of my neighbour’s children and then weddings. I was documenting Jewish life – but present life, not past.”
Braun’s current work involves photographing fabric, in a style she calls photographic sculpture. Fabric is used to create folds and lines, which are then photographed. The results are extremely sensual, at times erotic, depicting both landscapes and the body at the same time, allowing Braun to explore sensuality without compromising her position as a religious woman. “There’s more freedom in the ambiguity,” she says. “You can be much more explicit. In fact, fabric has always been a way for women in the community to express themselves, with embroidery being used as coverings for challah (bread) and, in the synagogue, for the Torah.”
The material also gets across the silence that Braun has often felt. “The fabric has become my language,” she says. “I started to become aware that photography is like fiction. You can see the expression of a second, but you cannot tell the whole story. So I started to find my voice beyond the photo. I had a photograph of my womb that the doctor took for me after my hysterectomy. I wanted it because it’s a kind of loss, as I had so many children [10, two of whom died]. It was Sukkot [a Jewish harvest festival], and we had hung up a pomegranate. I looked at the photograph of my womb and the pomegranate and saw a resemblance, so I covered the pomegranate with fabric and photographed it. Eventually, I removed the pomegranate and kept the fabric, which is how my work with fabric as a metaphor for the body came about.”
For Braun, this is just continuing a tradition best expressed by painters like Caravaggio. “I was looking at his painting Doubting Thomas, where the fabric folds mirror the folds of the skin. I saw how the fabrics mirror the body in many paintings.” Her photographic sculpture of fabric formed the centre of her graduation show, which led to an exhibition earlier this year at the Riccardo Giaccherini gallery in London.
Two shows in Israel are in the pipeline, the first at the Wolfson Museum in Jerusalem this November, the second at the Israel Museum in 2008. But it is perhaps a planned exhibition next month at the Jagonari Women’s Educational Resource Centre in London’s East End that is most remarkable, the centre being situated in Whitechapel, a predominately Bengali area. The aim is to bring out the similarities between the Bengali and Jewish communities, and their shared history as immigrant communities in east London.
Braun is particularly pleased about this: “The higher purpose of art is to bring people together.” This belief is particularly ironic, given that it was her being shunned by her own community that spurred her into developing her talent. “I was interviewed by a journalist for a Jewish paper, and they asked why I started to create art. How could I say that you made me do it, you forced me?” Braun’s resilience has, however, allowed her to build bridges. “You have to struggle against the system to make it,” she says, “but when you make it, they want you – because you are an asset.”