Gene Jenneman: What's in your package, artist asks

Orna Ben-Ami is an Israeli artist living in Tel Aviv. I met her in New York City about a year ago. Over a dinner discussing her art, I decided I would bring her work to the Dennos Museum Center. I visited Israel and her studio in Tel Aviv last fall at the invitation of the Israeli government.

Born in 1953, she went from being a radio broadcaster in the Israeli military, to studying history and international relations, to exploring metalsmithing and sculpture.

Ben-Ami, a soft-spoken, gentle person on the surface but tough underneath, works in iron. Not by casting it, but by manipulating the material — bending, welding and cutting it with torches — to make her art.

Her exhibition at the Dennos, Entire Life in a Package, comes from an experience of going through boxes of personal effects and photos of her family members who had passed away. As she looked at these images and objects, she realized that the only thing that remained of her loved ones were their bodily adornments — hats, clothing, jewelry, buttons, hand bags, etc. — both in the box and as shown in the photos.

She began to recreate from iron those adornments and mounted them to blown-up versions of the photos in the location of the actual adornment. She printed the photos with the people fading into the background, leaving only the iron adornments to represent the relative who had passed.

The realization that, in the end, what is left of us in boxes and photos could define how we are remembered, would lead to another similar exploration — that of refugees carrying with them in their flight from whatever event caused them to flee, a box, a suitcase, a package in which they could only take a few things connecting them to their past life and cultural identity. In effect, carrying their “entire life in a package.”

In the Middle East and across the world there are refugees fleeing trauma. This exhibition confronts us with the human side of the refugee crisis as documented in Reuter’s news photos. Ben-Ami has fashioned in 3-D and iron the “packages” found in those photos, mounting them to the photo as she had done with the images of her relatives. The final product is a profound visual statement. It may also cause you to ask, “What would be in your package?”

Entire Life in a Package originated at the United Nations in New York City in 2017, traveled to the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland and toured to museums in Germany and Italy before coming to the Dennos. The Dennos has organized a tour that will take the exhibit to Kalamazoo and Marquette before returning to New York later this year.

When Ben-Ami was at the Dennos for the exhibition's Feb. 2 opening, she told the story of meeting, at a showing of the exhibit in Germany, the uncle of the little Syrian boy seen drowned on the shore in the photo that shocked the world. It was a moving experience for both of them. Seeing this exhibition at the Dennos will likely be for you as well.

Entire Life in a Package is on view at the Dennos through May 5.

Gene Jenneman is executive director of the Dennos Museum Center. He can be reached at ejenneman@nmc.edu.