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Director’s Blog: Maya Attoun and the Jewish connection

Hand opening pages of a sketch book onto image of sliced hand pencil drawing

Museum Director Abigail Morris discusses the connection between the site-specific installation The Charms of Frankenstein‘ and the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah.

The idea for this exhibition was born when I was approached by Candida from Outset Contemporary Art Fund who said “There’s this fantastic artist who did this year planner to mark 200th anniversary of Frankenstein.” Through this conversation the museum was introduced to the wonderful artist, Maya Attoun. Maya introduced us to her ‘2018 Planner’, an illustrated journal based on her interpretations and inspirations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This was the start of our relationship with Maya and an exciting new chapter for the museum.

Over the summer of 2018, Maya was invited to spend some time in the museum to explore our collections and build upon her existing project in the context of the Jewish Museum London. During this time, Maya became fascinated with our collections both in the store and in the permanent galleries. These objects helped her to form new ideas about how her art would look, feel and fit into our galleries.

The process of re-examining the museum’s collections and stores with a new focus, and additional context of Mary Shelley’s novel, felt to me like a rather Jewish approach.

The opening of this exhibition fell very close to the festival of Simchat Torah. During the year Jews read through the five books of Moses and this festival celebrates the reading of the last part of Deuteronomy which is followed immediately by starting at the very beginning of Genesis. This festival is also marked by lots of dancing and drinking!

History, and the readings of the Torah, is not a linear process. It’s about reading and re-reading the same stories and finding new interpretations. Every year you read the same stories but you yourself are different and bring new ideas and thoughts to it.

I am reminded by a quote from Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag, who lived nearly 2,000 years ago: “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and grey with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”

This is what Maya has done here at the museum. She’s taken objects that are around here all the time and has brought new contexts and meaning to them, not just for visitors but for all of us here at the museum.  I think one of the best examples is her use of a chair that has sat redundant in our stores. It’s a completely normal chair that no one really knows why it had been accessioned and had mostly been forgotten about. Before, it never would have made it into the galleries because it’s just a bentwood chair. And suddenly it has a new place in a case, a completely new life with Maya’s drawing of a vagina draped over it.

That is what I love about Maya’s exhibition. She has breathed new life into all sorts of objects, and as you take the planner around I hope you will also think about breathing new life into these objects yourself. I think that’s a really lovely Jewish thing to do and I’m really pleased to invite you to be part of it.

Maya Attoun – The Charms of Frankenstein runs from 27 September to 4 November 2018.