Oreet Ashery’s performance art involves her playing a strictly Orthodox man and a fish-touting charlatan of yore.
For the past two weeks, Oreet Ashery has been living in a derelict fisherman’s hut without running water and electricity. Such is the price of success.The Jerusalem-born performance artist won the Whitstable Biennale 2008 open submission prize, giving her the chance to create a new work for this popular contemporary visual-arts festival in the old Kent harbour town.
The piece she came up with is about Shabtai Zvi, the controversial Jewish figure who gained a following across the Eastern and Western worlds in the 17th century by claiming he was the Messiah. And fish play a large part.
“What fascinates me about Zvi,” says Ashery, “is his relationship to performance art. He performed what were called foreign or strange acts that are really classic performance-art pieces. These included drumming while walking through cities with a large fish in a baby’s cot. In Whitstable, I’ll be re-enacting them on a daily basis.”
Ashery is well known for her interactive live events, and in particular for her performances as male characters.
She was born and grew up in Jerusalem but came to live in England in 1987 at the age of 19 after marrying a British volunteer who she met on a kibbutz. The marriage did not last; Ashery stayed in Britain and studied for an art degree in Sheffield before moving to London.
Among the male alter-egos she has adopted are an Arab, a black man and a Norwegian postman. But the one who came to dominate her work was an Orthodox Jew named Marcus Fisher.
She explains how she got the idea. “When I was a child, I would walk with my dad every Saturday in Orthodox neighbourhoods and I realised that only the boys could study. I wanted to be part of what I was missing out on.
“Later on, one of my closest friends in Israel became ultra-Orthodox and could not see me any more, so it [the character] started as a homage to him. I went to Stamford Hill [the strictly Orthodox London neighbourhood] and bought the clothes and did a photo shoot. I found that I could pass as a man, so I went out to places where you don’t see Orthodox Jews to see what reactions I got. Places like Soho, where I could not get served a cup of coffee. It just got bigger and bigger.
“People only wanted me to do Marcus Fisher and nothing else, and he took over my life. I tried to kill him off in one performance, and then had to resurrect him as he became more accepted and validated.”
Ashery made a film called Dancing with Men where, as Marcus, she joined thousands of Orthodox men commemorating the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron in northern Israel.
“Only the men dance while the women sit under an archway and wail,” she says. “And I copied what they did. I was terrified, because I wasn’t supposed to be there, but all in all it was exhilarating .”
Asked why she only chooses men for her characters, she says: “It’s because in terms of Jewish and religious identity, men are a lot more privileged in their access to knowledge and laws. The feminine has been eradicated systematically from religions throughout history. In contrast, Jewish men have been seen as feminine and effeminate both in antisemitic propaganda and when compared to macho Israeli men.”
A recurring theme in Ashery’s work is to explore relationships between Muslims and Jews.
“My father’s side [of the family] have been in Israel/Palestine for generations,” she explains. “They lived in the Old City [of Jerusalem] and my dad speaks Arabic and had Arab neighbours, so for him, living with Arabs is a natural thing.
“In contrast, I was born [in Israel] into a brainwashing propaganda of fear and hatred and xenophobia. I am yearning for a time where Jews and Muslims had more interaction. I am interested in the connections rather than the sense of separation.”
In her film Oh Jerusalem, Ashery portrays a Jew and an Arab in front of a drawing of Jerusalem. “The film alternates between the Jewish and Arab figure and then speeds up until they merge. I was exploring the idea that the two people are bound together in the same kind of history and geography.”
Ashery is also keen to collaborate with Palestinian artists but has been finding this increasingly difficult, and recently had to prove her British citizenship and declare her political position to avoid a Palestinian boycott of an event involving her work.
“After Marcus,” she confesses, “it was hard to come up with a new character because he was special,” but adds that impersonating the false messiah Zvi really excites her. And the people of Whitstable will get a whole new view of fish.
The Whitstable 2008 Biennale runs until July 6 (www.whitstablebiennale.com).