THE SPACE WITHIN
PLAZA DEL RIO, SAN RAFAEL DE ESCAZÚ
SAN JOSÉ, COSTA RICA
December 12 2017 - August 31 2018
Almog is renowned for her photography of the feminine body and psyche. The artistic focus of Almog’s work, is to capture the state of the spiritual and cultural identity amongst and of women influences around the world. Almog demonstrates her aptitude of extreme visualization force and an intimate work that is reflecting what she sees through the lens of her own self, a woman coming from a turbulent, explosive, political and strict background, but, yet she has a crystal clear perception; not closed, permissive, with an intricate vision, and a curious stare of a child, through and through.
Almog has worked primarily through photography in environmental portraiture.
Currently the experimental direction of The Space Within presents new views of the feminine figure and how women’s identity has evolved over the worldwide circumstances. The showcase premiered at Martin Browne Contemporary, curated by Sandy Edwards in Sydney, Australia; Featured recently at Tower of David Museum, Jerusalem Art Biennial.
In Perfect Intimacy, Almog work excerpts the charism of cloistered nuns from the Carmelite Order.The photographs reveal the intimacy within the dedicated women and the artist contemplation of seeking and observing the spiritual perfection of inner peace.
Almog’s spiritual journey has taken her on extended travels far and beyond, including unfrequented villages in China, meeting and documenting independent rural women, mostly of the Muslim community - in The Other Half of the Sky.
Lili Almog moved to United States in the mid 80’s from Tel Aviv, and resides and works in New York City.
Almog has been exhibited widely, with solo shows at several international venues including: The Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel; Emmanuel Walderdorff Gallery, Germany; Photographers’ Place, UK; The Alternative Museum, New York; Griffin Museum of Photography, Boston, MA; Museet for Fotokunst, Denmark; Ffotogallery, UK; Prague House of Photography, Czech Republic; and Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, Israel.
Lili Almog’s photographs are also included in permanent collections at The Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; The Art Museum, Lexington, KY; The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, Israel; Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee ,WI; Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, FL; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK; Musee de la Photographie in Belgium and numerous private collections.
Image rights: Lili Almog
Musée de la Photographie, Charleroi, Belgium, CDW permanent prints collection at the Samuel Dorsky Museum, New Paltz, NY, w22 Galeria, Costa Rica
Walking on the street alongside the old stone wall, one could never truly imagine what was on the other side. From the sidewalk it appeared to be an old and forgotten place. I entered the huge metal gate, and climbed a winding road surrounded by a modest garden until I reached the entrance. The urban view had disappeared, and a church-like building stood in front of me. The building didn't look as old as the wall outside and appeared to be well cared for. Every window was heavily gated. It was very quiet. I pressed a buzzer on the heavy wood and metal door and waited. After a few minutes I could hear vague echoes along with the sound of the closing and opening of many doors. Finally the door in front of me swung open. For me it opened to a new world.
I was accompanied by a friend, Claude Abinader, to introduce me to the Mother Superior. An old nun with a bundle of keys greeted us in a heavy French accent. She asked us to wait as she disappeared again behind the door, making sure it was locked behind her. Many minutes passed before the nun returned and we were allowed to follow her along a darkened hallway. She brought us to a double door. We entered the reception room, and she invited us to sit down and wait again. The room was divided into two sections by a gated wall. One area was for guests, the other, for the nuns. Subsequently, two energetic nuns came in from the other side of the gated room: Mother Sister Angela, followed by a breathless Mother Superior Mary Josephine. They sat down on the other side of the divided wall to greet us. My friend made our introductions. It was my very first encounter with nuns. Their black and white uniforms stood in strong contrast against the bare wall and made their presence seem very dramatic. The faces of the women were serious and a bit suspicious, but also curious and caring. As soon as we began to talk their features seemed to relax.
I learned that there were twenty one nuns in this monastery ranging in age from thirty two to ninety five. Most of them spent their entire lives in a cloistered environment, praying seven times a day for global wellness and peace. I really don't know what or whom I was expecting to meet but I was now mesmerized by the women before me. Toward the end of our meeting they asked what the purpose of my visit was. To be honest, before I entered the monastery I wasn't quite sure.
I had become inspired to visit a monastery with cloistered nuns after reading the biography of the first western woman who become a Buddhist nun, the Venerable Ani Tenzin Palmo1. The book detailed Tenzin Palmo's road to enlightenment. Her devotion, courage, and charming story were compelling to me, and made me want to find out more about the life of cloistered women who have put everything behind them to take up a monastic existence far away from the modern world. When I met those women in black that day, I had a strong and simple desire to stay with them and to chronicle what I saw and experienced in their midst. After a long period of hesitation on their part, my wish was granted.
In the summer of 2003, I made the first of my visits to stay with the Carmelite nuns. In the end I visited three monasteries --- in Haifa Israel, Bethlehem Palestine, and Port Tobacco, Maryland --- over a period of two years. Each visit I took up residence in the monastery for about a week.
"Our lady of Mount Carmel" a Discalced Carmelite monastery was built by four French nuns in 1892, and was situated on the top of Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, over looking the endless blue of the Mediterranean sea.
During my first stay inside the monastery, I was left alone in a dark Gothic space enclosed by heavy doors and gated windows. It was an eerily empty guest quarter that was occasionally used by visiting family members or traveling priests. I felt isolated and uncomfortable. The cross was visible everywhere, both embracing and pursuing me. I located the nun who was the doorkeeper and she told me about life inside the monastery. She kindly gave me a printed schedule of the nuns’ daily routine and explained that the sisters spent most of their time between sunrise and late evening in prayer. I understood that even though they were cloistered, the nuns were very busy women. Their days were arranged in a way that would keep them active both mentally and physically. My challenge was to penetrate this world, to reside alongside theses women in order to experience and understand their calling.
This monastery had few visitors, usually it was just us. The nuns prayed in their own chapel which had a window that opened to the public side where I alone was present. This window was usually open only during the morning mass, but when I was there it was left open for to see and hear their prayers. The first time I attended morning mass I was overwhelmed with emotion. The prayers were sung in a pure and innocent chorus of beautiful voices. It was hard to believe that such intensity could be sustained so many times, day after day. The nuns’ strength of faith and purpose amazed me.
I began engaging with the nuns by joining their prayers. By brief eye contact we began to acknowledge each other and I started to become familiar with their faces. Later we whispered to each other through the bars, getting more comfortable in simple conversation. Our communication was difficult because the nuns had come from twelve different countries. Their common language was French, which I don't speak, but with an effort in a mix of broken English, a little Hebrew and body gestures, we managed to understand each other. The sisters I met were educated and intelligent women and were not escaping from misfortune, abusive situations or failed love interests, as many people often mistakenly believe. I was not sure who was more curious about the other, I, or the nuns. A recurring theme the nuns discussed was how they were called to service. Each one had received a sign that they were to become a nun. Each said that they were asked by Him to become His servant, something considered a very holy and special mission.
The idea for me to travel to the second monastery in Bethlehem actually came from the Haifa nuns. Two nuns had to travel for medical and administrative reasons and they asked me if I would like to accompany them. At first I was reluctant to do so. The monastery was in Palestine, and the political situation in the region was unstable and dangerous. For a Jewish person like myself, travel to Palestine was forbidden and possibly life threatening. When I revealed my fears to the nuns they disregarded them, and with soft smiles and their characteristic unfailing gesture of looking towards the sky, they said "come on, don't worry. He will guard us, all you need is to look like one of us."
On the way to Bethlehem we stopped for lunch. One of the nuns was fixing her habit, I noticed a fairly large cross made of brass sticking out of a little pocket in the center of her chest under her scapula. I asked her if it has a special meaning. I was told that each sister has her own personal crucifix that she receives on the day of her Profession of Vows. They refer to it as Profession Crucifix. She receives this from the Prioress and always carries it next to her heart. Somehow for me it became a symbol of their relationship with God and from that point on I asked each sister to show me her personal Cross.
On a hot summer day in August I found myself dressed in a nun's habit, sneaking across the border between Israel and Palestine on the outskirts of Jerusalem with three nuns. I guess God was with us, and even though on most of the way there were armed soldiers, barriers and pedestrians walking the streets with threatening rifles, we safely journeyed to the Carmelite monastery in Bethlehem.
Carmel of Bethlehem rested on a side of a hill with a view overlooking the whole city. The monastery was built by Mariam Baouardy, a Palestinian nun, and a few French nuns in 1875. The building was an elegant circular structure, a very rare architectural design found in Carmelite monasteries. Like its sister monastery in Haifa, situated in the middle of a Jewish neighborhood, Carmel of Bethlehem occupied its location like a bubble in the middle of an alienated Moslem neighborhood. Residing in the birthplace of Jesus is a desirable thing for any nun, but due to the unstable political situation, and the constant struggle between the Muslims and Christians in the region, only seven nuns resided in the monastery. Most of the nuns were Polish due to the origin of the Pope. Their daily routine and customs were identical to other monasteries.
For my final study, I wanted to see how Carmelite American nuns lived, and to compare their lives to the other nuns in other cultures. I visited the first Carmelite monastery to be founded in the United States, established in 1790 by four Belgium nuns at Port Tobacco, Maryland. "Carmel of Port Tobacco" was set upon 100 acres of land amidst a traditional American suburb. Because of the non-traditional style of living at this monastery, it felt more modern and seemed to allow more personal identity for the inhabitants. The monastery followed the hermitage tradition, and each nun had her own little house, situated with quite a distance in between each one. The interiors were similar: a tiny sleeping chamber, small bathroom and an open working area for the purpose of creating religious ornaments for sale to help support their monastery.
I arrived at Port Tobacco on a rainy, foggy day, which made the drive through the path of trees near the entrance to the monastery even more mysterious and special. After planning this visit for months, I finally met Mother Virginia Marie, the Mother
Superior, along with Mother Mary Joseph. They both shared a knowing smile and wore similar expressions of kindness. After I was scrutinized at an initial interview, I was permitted to continue my work in Port Tobacco. Sister Mother Virginia Marie, a wonderful and charismatic woman as well as a talented painter, embraced me with understanding and compassionate love and introduced me into her community. She took good care of me, and even made sure I ate three full meals a day.
By this time I was more acquainted with monastic habits and rituals. Perhaps because the language communication was not a barrier, I was able to connect with the sisters here much more easily and have deep conversation with them about their lives and beliefs. Yes, Jesus is my husband, many nuns would say with pride. The perfect one, the one and only. He is not abstract. I've got a little icon of him which I kiss when I wake up in the morning and before I go to sleep. I love him with all my heart, and nothing can replace him. One nun said: how could I ever find a more perfect husband? Someone that would accept me just the way I am forever? When I heard this I was astonished.
Becoming a cloistered nun is a difficult process that takes years of commitment, and usually begins at the age of twenty-one. As part of the process of becoming a nun, a vow is made to Christ in a marriage ceremony. Each sister makes vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. These women fulfill their commitment to God and the cloistered community with a sense of ease because of the love and special relationship they directly experience. Devotion by divine love is a daily ritual, and through faith, constant meditation and prayer these women were advancing toward liberation and freeing themselves from conventional and restrictive thinking. For these women, the answer to life’s meaning is unconditional, borderless, almost innocent love.
Though the nuns lived in a peaceful cloister on a large and bucolic piece of land, I experienced a constant vibrating energy in the air. Perhaps it was because of the great quantity of compassion, fervent belief, creative activity and joy they shared. After only few days of participation in this energetic surrounding, it felt to me like a safe and solid society of women, without dependence on men. I realized ironically that all this was based on the love of Jesus; all their love and passion was directed towards Him. As a woman I could understand how they preferred their own gender for company as there is better understanding between one another.
On my last visit to the Port Tobacco monastery I was invited to attend the Solemn Profession of Sister Clare Joseph. It was a beautiful spring day; the cherry trees and the daffodils were in full blossom making the garden seem unreal in its perfection. The church was crowded with family members, friends and supportive members of the community. Sister Clare Joseph was seated tensely facing the altar in front of three priests who were conducting the ceremony. She was glowing under her novice's white veil with a crown of fresh flowers on her head.
Solemn Profession is a ceremony marking a life-long commitment of love. This is the most important event in a Carmelite sister's life. After years of arduous labor, studying, and contemplation she finally becomes the bride of Christ and takes her black veil. Like marriage, the nun makes her vows to her bridegroom, Jesus Christ, and thus pronounces her irrevocable yes to whatever God asks of her. For all eternity, she shall be known as the spouse of God.
I left Port Tobacco that afternoon with the image of Sister Clare embossed in my mind. I knew the Sister had found contentment and achieved her goal, and I thought to myself: after all, who can argue with love
1Book reference: Cave in the Snow : Tenzin Palmo's Quest for Enlightenment, Author: Vicki MacKenzie, Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC Publication Date: September 1999
Stella Maris Monastery
About Lili Almog
Raised in a matriarchal home, Lili Almog has built a celebrated photography career, focusing her lens primarily on women and, more recently, on the traces of human presence in America’s post-industrial landscapes. She began her career in the mid-1980s as a photojournalist, working on fashion shoots and portraiture, and documenting New York’s edgy nightlife in candid black-and-white images. By the early 1990s, she was concentrating on her own projects, which have taken her into women’s bedrooms, Carmelite nunneries in Israel and America, and rural China, where she sensitively captured women in moments of intimacy and introspection. “My intention…is to enter an extremely private space without disrupting the delicate essence of communication between subject, their experience, and the viewer,” Almog has said. “I wish to move beyond documentation…so that people may speak their stories to me.”
Israeli, b. 1961, based in New York City, NY, USA