Free admission (all visitors, all hours)
Beginning Monday, December 7th, Fort Gansevoort presents “Shared Dreams.” Organized by writer and curator Ariella Wolens, the exhibition is Fort Gansevoort’s first with the 89-year-old Bronx-born self-taught painter. Malcah Zeldis began her artistic practice in the late 1960s, producing folk-art inspired works centered on themes related to urban life and Jewish practices, biblical narratives, and historical figures. She has devoted most of her attention to the latter, dedicating many series to such prominent 20th century leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi. Throughout her career, the artist has developed a distinctive visual style characterized by vibrant color, deceptively simplified figures, and flattened perspective that in some cases challenges the viewer’s perception of space. The human body is often dramatically scaled – outsized or made minuscule — and paired with conventional settings and objects, creating an intriguing formal dissonance. By deploying these visual codes, Zeldis reformulates her subject matter with eccentric flair, and establishes a symbolic milieu all her own.
Focused upon Zeldis’ images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this exhibition seeks to examine what it means to have the life story of the preeminent Black American leader portrayed through the eyes of a Jewish woman, and acts as a springboard for considering the complex relationship between these two communities, particularly during the Golden Age of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-20thcentury. In seeking to explore the cultural association of African Americans and Jews, the title of this show invokes the ethical notion of mutual moral responsibility which is at the crux of both Jewish teachings and the creed of Dr. King. In a perpetually referenced quote from the Talmud attributed to Jewish scholar Hillel, the question is posed: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being only for myself, who am I?” This maxim draws clear parallels to King’s imperative to stand up for oneself and act with benevolence towards others. In his own words, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” It is with such expressions of duty and compassion that King galvanized African Americans to non-violently protest their right to social equality – a conviction that resonated in the hearts of Jews such as Zeldis, and continues to move legions of Americans and global citizens to speak out against the oppression of any and all people.
All of the gouache paintings presented in Fort Gansevoort’s exhibition were originally included in Rosemary L. Bray’s children’s book, Martin Luther King, published in 1995. Zeldis committed herself to this body of work as an act of reverence for Dr. King, whose efforts she followed very closely while he was alive. The series begins with Dr. King’s early life in the American South, detailing his familial background and schooling, before delving into his role as a central figure in the Civil Rights Movement. Curator Ariella Wolens writes, “Malcah Zeldis’ narrative telling of the prophetic life of Martin Luther King Jr. pulsates with joyous vibrancy. Her unfettered visions convey King’s inimitable grace with a directness that is in perfect harmony with the universality of Dr. King’s clarion call for social equality.” In this way, Zeldis constructs a realm where history is suspended inside a colorful reverie and observed through a euphoric yet acute lens. The viewer is introduced to an alternative method for processing and understanding the events of that time. Dr. King’s assassination, imprisonment, and the bombing of his home are captured with a delicate candor that is both skillful and moving. Although images of violence are subdued, the depicted adversities remain potent.
The nation Zeldis depicts is not far from where we find ourselves now. During this politically turbulent moment more than a half century later, this exhibition reminds us that it is important to commemorate leaders who have shaped a progressive framework for the future. As America today reaches another climax of civil unrest and intensified calls for social justice, Zeldis’ work poses the crucial question, “Will we continue to repeat history?”