Temporal Fold: Galia GurZeev’s Brazilian Self
Gur Zeev takes the liberty to observe this distant biographical “temporal fold” and reinvent it: in a self-initiated elusive process she assembles the pieces of her “Brazilian self,” reconstructing the signs and traces which this period left on her family. Photoshop and digital flexibility serve her as prime agents in weaving the tale and embodying the old-new narrative. After constructing her “Brazilian family archive,” Gur Zeev inserted details from it into issues of the Brazilian magazine Manchete (Headline) from those years, which recount the marvels of the country lying along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The magazine pages and its touristy photographs infuse an air of adventure and magic into the family photographs, lending them a touch of the big wide world, of bourgeois luxuries and indulgence. The naïve, still- unaware Israeli identity of the 9-year old Galia, shaped in the pre-Six Day War ascetic Israel, was immersed in the gaiety of the carnival, in the glistening waters of swimming pools and the vast, dynamic Brazilian expanses, and domesticated by the good upbringing of Jewish day schools in the Diaspora. In her attempt to deconstruct this experience and reconstruct it anew, Gur Zeev delves not only into her private past, but also into the question of a subject’s closeness to or distance from his own biography, and the ability to reconstruct the past as a jigsaw puzzle of images and contexts.
“The passage of time (my History),” Georges Perec wrote in a personal tribute to the master of memory, Marcel Proust, “leaves behind a residue that accumulates: photographs, drawings, the corpses of long since dried-up felt-pens, shirts, non- returnable glasses and returnable glasses, cigar wrappers, tins, erasers, postcards, books, dust and knickknacks: this is what I call my fortune.” Perec replaces real valuable assets with the assets of accumulating time, with dust and insignificant traces. He yearns to reinstate them with their lost “expansion capacity,” which, at their peak, charged them with the ability to “prick consciousness” and spark memory. In the absence of the Proustian “Madeleine” cookie, Perec obtains this revival by various tactics: he enumerates these memory assets, sorts them, divides them into groups, arranges them in alphabetical order or – also – supplements them with a simultaneous narrative. Perec recounts the story of his life along two parallel lines, as if one were real and the other invented; in effect, however, it is no longer possible to distinguish between the real and the invented, between truth and fiction.
Gur Zeev’s archival assets also include old, random sights taken according to 1960s photographic aesthetics, tracing obliterated moments. This is what it looks like: a road winding along a row of tall palms, climbing toward the mountaintop. A dark car is driving on the road at the back. An old fashioned utility pole enters the frame diagonally. The upright cliff of Mount Corcovado towers in the top section, in the high distant horizon, and a silhouette of the Savior’s statue darkens against the backdrop of the sky, providing identification of the city: Rio de Janeiro, the dispossessed capital of the New Brazil.
And another moment that occurred: a printed floral pattern on a distinctly Israeli white cloth hat conceals the face of a girl looking from the corner of the photograph at a vast valley. The girl’s elbows rest on a wide stone wall, and the landscape unfurls far below her: the ocean waves gnaw at the long curves of the shoreline, and the city’s crowded houses extend therefrom, toward the mountains. The girl’s awestruck gaze can only be guessed.
And this, too, happened: a young girl, around nine years old, dressed in school uniform: an ironed pleated suspender skirt and a white shirt. Her hair is tied back in a sassy yet tight ponytail, and her thin hands are inserted deep into her school bag, which is placed on a Baroque-looking vanity (P.76); and/or also: a big, fancy, probably American, car crosses the photograph from end to end. Deep inside is the driver, his face shaded and unidentifiable: an Israel Bonds emissary to the Jewish community in Brazil, the photographer’s father.
And another moment: a dining table and five chairs in a bourgeois living room. Three are seated at the table: a young girl and her parents. The father is dressed in a suit and a white shirt, the mother is groomed and well-dressed. The girl’s hair is drawn back in a ponytail. The three eat politely, their eyes focused on their plates, as if this were a model family meal. A still-life painting in an ornate frame hangs above the table. In the next photograph in the same sequence, the father gets up, probably preparing to go to work. The girl at the table hasn’t finished her meal yet, her cup half full. A door opens on the side; the halved face of a guest, a family friend, enters the frame (P. 51). And another domestic photograph: an embroidered white table cloth, a set of shiny plates, (two sets of) cutlery aligned next to them, an ironed cloth napkin on each plate, and two bottles of wine in the center – a properly set table awaiting the diners. In the background, on a shelf, is a vase with flowers, a stylish chest of drawers with a Jerusalemite chain of camels trailing thereon in a caravan, pricking the gaze with its foreign Orientalism.
This is how it was: a diplomatic reception for representatives of the State of Israel and the Bonds. Middle-aged women in fancy dresses, seated closely together, their bags on their knees, with round puffed-up 1960s beehive-style hairdos. The man stand in identical suits, holding a drink in hand. A long shelf, overflowing with gaudy porcelain figurines, completes the bourgeois façade (P. 61); or, maybe, this is how it was: a swimming pool in Rio. The surface of the water sparkles gaily. A group of children in bathing suits, one girl seated fearlessly on the tubular railing of the stairs descending into the pool. Variously aged boys stand on the diving board, outside the pool, or in the water. Life is good and luxurious, time passes leisurely (P.44). And this gaze, too, was perpetuated: un unnamed, unpaved alley, a path leading up to tangled vegetation, and two youths: one barefooted, the other in flip-flops; one in long, dark clothes, the other in shorts and an open shirt, his chest bare. Their dark skin stands out against the light surface of the photograph, their poverty is clearly discernible – children of Rio’s favelas (P. 123): the ultimate antithesis to the culture of courtesy and proper conduct of the local Jewish community, shortly before finding itself under military dictatorship. The confidence of a universal, enlightened bourgeoisie which regards itself as part of the bigger world, from where it observes the youths leaning against the stone wall, the representatives of quintessential poverty.
The systematic archive accumulated via Gur Zeev’s acts of documentation contains additional data, some pertain to her mother’s occupations and hobbies during their Brazilian sojourn: a series of textbooks for amateur painters, sewing manuals, and a set of porcelain plates decorated and signed by the mother.
The books, in Portuguese, offer amateur artists various graphic motifs based on local popular culture, combining ethnography, ornamentation, and folklore. The acquired illustrations, repeated on the decorated porcelain plates, take a colonialist gaze at indigenous Brazilian life, as the Brazilians themselves marketed it to tourists and foreigners, while the sewing manuals in fact promote an American-Western ideal of the perfect, groomed and comely housewife, in an ornamented apron, an ideal which in the early 1960s was not yet identified as opposed to feminist values. The neatly set tables, whose documentation is kept in the family album, the meticulous apparel, and the perfectly accessorized household reinforce the perception of domesticity and the family as a stronghold of safety and protection, where each member plays a clear-cut function. All these construct Gur Zeev’s reflexive gaze, which returns to a given point in time and re-charts it, conscious of its partiality: the whole forever deviates from the circumference of the data and objects, and the innocence of childhood forever exceeds any critical awareness.
Brazilian reality in the 1960s, as manifested in the Manchete issues, re-claims the family biography: a photograph of the girl Galia standing next to her older brother against the backdrop of a giant billboard of the American gasoline company Texaco, juxtaposed with an advertisement of that company; the group of children in the swimming pool is linked to an article about Rio’s luxury seaside hotels; whereas the father, the Bonds emissary, with a drink in his hand at a diplomatic event, shines even brighter, starring in an advertisement for fine scotch whiskey; a magazine article about a journey into the depths of the Brazilian jungle embeds a photograph of the Gur Zeev family in a rowboat. These processes of pasting and joining spin a narrative of a far- fetched adventure charged with excessive elegance, containing a blend of myths and facts. Moments of tension, foreignness, and longing, assimilation difficulties, language barriers, and communication problems are implied, arising, covertly and assumed, from the photographs’ pleasure-filled façade.
The new biographical reservoir that has taken root in Gur Zeev’s private narrative is legitimized when it is revealed to be the – heretofore latent – origin of some key motifs in her mature work. Here, one may identify initial traces of what later became an inexhaustible source of images and inspiration in Gur Zeev’s photographs: the family dinner table, which even in its absence, preserves the centralist order of the diners and the aesthetic symbolism of proper order, which oscillates between cohesion and disintegration, connection and alienation.