Immigration expressed in art

Immigration expressed in art

South Orange synagogue  prepares an exhibit based on Exodus

Anne Dushanko Dobek, “Budapest.”
Anne Dushanko Dobek, “Budapest.”

Curating an exhibit is a labor of love. The love is evident but often the labor goes unnoticed.

Coordinating an art gallery show may sound glamorous, but there is a lot of work that goes into it, according to Felix Aarts of South Orange. (Yes, that is his real name.) Coming up with a theme, finding and contacting the artists whose work fits the theme, driving to studios, working out the timing of art pieces that may be on exhibition elsewhere, installing the artwork, creating signage — all while having a very busy work and family life.

But Mr. Aarts wouldn’t have it any other way. “As the committee chair, I could not do the work I do for the gallery without the help of all the arts committee members,” he said.

Mansa K. Mussa

He has led  the arts committee at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange since the summer of  2021, taking over from Richard Koch, who first had the idea for the gallery  in 2018,.

The upcoming exhibit, “Strangers in a Strange Land,” is centered on the immigration experience and the Passover exodus story. (See below.)

Mr. Aarts has an immigration story of his own, He’s from the Netherlands and came to the United States for love, arriving on a fiancé visa; he was engaged to Claudia Schreiber, who is now is wife. As a former professional ballet dancer, Mr. Aarts followed his passion for painting, earning an MFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He is  now the operations manager of the Core Place, a Pilates studio in Maplewood that he and his wife, now Claudia Aarts-Schreiber, own together, and he is part-time project manager at Graff Guild Architecture and Interiors in West Orange. He also is a painter represented by J. Nunez Gallery in Millburn.)

At 46, Mr. Aarts is the youngest member of the committee; the oldest are in their 80s. “We all work together so well,” he said. “We really complement each other.”

Danielle Scott, “A Thousand Suns of Black Boy Joy”

Enid Friedman of Montclair, a retired English teacher, came up with a new idea for the exhibit, pairing work by contemporary poets Fida Isiah, Victoria A. Anderson, Ric Batista, and Harriet Hyams with the visual art. “I taught English in a community college for many years, hoping to instill in my reluctant students an appreciation of the power and beauty of the printed word and love of language,” Ms. Friedman said. She found that when she incorporated artwork into her literature classes, her students often saw a different perspective and a different kind of language, which was as powerful and profound as the work they were studying.

Serving on the committee is a great outlet for her love of art and  a wonderful way to connect with the synagogue, Ms. Friedman said. “I love the excitement of each new exhibit, and the fun and excitement of adding a new dimension to the synagogue experience. I also believe that art shows are an important way to open our doors to the community as a positive presence in these difficult times.”

The gallery is spread throughout the synagogue. At the entrance, large striking pieces pique a visitor’s interest. Others are hung in the entrance to the religious school, where they can be enjoyed by little eyes on the way in and out. Another hallway, which leads to the older section of the building, holds yet more art.

Anne Dushanko Dobek, “Deported”

Jodi Rotondo, TSTI’s communications manager, says that everyone in the building is enthusiastic about the gallery. There may be a month or so in between shows when no art is hanging. “That month is so deflating to the staff,” Ms. Rotondo said. “Everyone is sad when a show goes down, but the excitement when the new show goes up is palpable.”

“It’s more than just a beautification of the building,” Mr. Aarts said. “It’s about education and setting the tone for discussions.” It took him two very long days to hang “Strangers in a Strange Land,” because he loves to stop and talk with people in the synagogue — particularly with the children in the preschool — as he works. He is the father of two girls, 4 and 10, who have grown up in the synagogue. Mr. Aarts and his wife are also art collectors. “We taught our kids from the very start that art is to be enjoyed by your eyes, not by your hands,” he said. “Unless you ask first if you can touch. It is possible to have art and young kids. Respect for art can be engrained at a young age.”

The exhibits are rooted in — but not exclusive to — Judaism. None of the artists are Jewish, but the theme of not oppressing the stranger resonates across religious boundaries. The South Orange/Maplewood area is home to a diverse community, and that is reflected in the Reform synagogue’s membership.

“We have same-sex and mixed-race families and Jews from many different places,” Mr. Aarts said. “We wanted to reflect our community within the gallery. The Passover theme of immigration was suggested about a year ago, inspired not only by current events but by the diversity found right here in this area.

Pam Cooper, “Stolen”

“It is possible to simply do a beautiful show,” he continued. “In fact, sometimes we just need beauty. But as a committee, there is a drive to do more. We want to shine a light on things. Maybe even surprising things. Then we can tie that into a Jewish value or event.” The committee already has decided the theme of the next exhibit —  a focus on the environment — but how it will come to fruition is still open to interpretation.

Generally, all artists want to have their work included in a show, Mr. Aarts said. But he received a surprising response when he  reached out to artists after October 7. Many artists define themselves as activists, and many are hostile to Jewish institutions. Many declined to participate because the gallery is inside a synagogue. “Half of the artists I reached out to didn’t even answer,” Mr. Aarts said. “Half of those who did reply declined. It’s been unfortunate, but it will not stop us. The artists that are here are very excited.”

Mr. Aarts is a big believer in education and conversation. “We don’t need to agree,” he said. “It’s okay to argue! Then you pour yourselves a last glass of wine and hug. And then you do it all over again the next time.”

Agnieszka Wszolkowska, “RGB”

The only guidelines for the art that the committee mandates are no nudity — mainly because of the many children who pass through the building — nothing political, and no personification of God.

Pam Cooper, born in Ickenham, Middlesex, England, now lives in Upper Saddle River. She creates delicate installations that focus on vulnerable children as victims of violence, brutality, forced immigration, and unjust legislation. Her mission is to draw attention to social issues, past and present.

Ibou Ibrahim Ndoye, who was born in Dakar, Senegal, now lives in Hoboken. Mr. Ndoye paints on carpet to honor the visitor and emphasize traditions of hospitality, religion, eating, and sleeping. He is a third-generation artist, getting inspiration to create using textiles from his mother, a dressmaker, and his grandmother, a tie-dye artist.

Anne Dushanko Dobek, who was born in Camden and now lives in New Providence, calls her work “intentionally seductive.” Her goal is to invite dialogue and conversation on pressing global issues. Her work reflects a disconnect between a person’s dreams and their reality.

Ibou Ibraham Nboye

Mansa K. Mussa was born in Paterson and lives in West Orange. He is a visual artist, educator, and curator documenting the traumatic story of the African diaspora and Black American culture; he creates art inspired by politics, dance, fashion, power, and personality. His awards include the Living Legends of Dance Award from the Cicely Tyson School in East Orange and Two National Service to Youth Awards from the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

Danielle Scott was born in Jersey City and still lives there. “Art should be a perfect rendering of emotion and spiritual tugging of the whole self to arrest the viewer and transport them away from the pretentious and into a realm of truth,” she said. “I want my work to whisper to your soul. I want the viewer to feel the power of the ‘ancestral call.’” Ms. Scott works in mixed media and said that her art is a connection to her Cuban ancestors.

Agnieszka Wszolkowska was born in Warsaw and lives in West Orange. She immigrated from Poland in her teens, and her art is inspired by always feeling between two places. “I am not exactly Polish and not exactly American,” she said. “My work is the place I feel at home. Within my projects, I find a way to articulate my experiences in a way words don’t allow me.” Her art is filled with bold figures and a bright
palette inspired by Eastern European traditions.

The members of the art committee are art collector Enid Friedman, former TSTI president Annette Littman,  senior specialist in contemporary art at Artnet Jason Rulnick, art collector Kelly Leigh, artist and JCC MetroWest Gaelen Gallery director Lisa Suss, photographer Richard Koch, photographer Bonnie Garly, artist and TSTI board member Deborah Green Taffet, and artist and honorary committee member Judy Targan.

The exhibit, at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, opens with a reception on Sunday, April 28, from 2 to 4 p.m. There will be an artist talk on Sunday, May 19, again from 2 to 4. For more information, go to or call (973) 763-4116.

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