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Issue No. 18 - Humanity

Interview with Rona Yefman: questions over answers

(c) Andrea Blanch
 

Andrea Blanch: You say you seek people that have created a radical persona, and that you see that as authentic. Have you created your persona?  

Rona: What attracts me are individuals that I see as extraordinary, both visually and by being themselves. To be who you are, even if extreme, inspires me, I like things that stand out; things that are raw and challenge the status quo of our fixed conceptions in a positive way in order to achieve a sense of freedom!

 

I am interested in collaborations on specific projects, a combination between who subject's are and what happens in our creative work together. The process is experimental and playful and asks questions. There are real emotions and situations, but it’s not about documentation, it's about reality and fiction blending together. The protagonists in the work, like Martha, Pippi and Gil, are real but the collaborations create new things and reflects upon something ironic and absurd in the culture, which provides the thread to an individual, intimate story of a larger social and cultural context.

 

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If someone always wears a mask, can they become that mask, and what is more authentic?

 

The project with Martha Bouke (2002-2011) documents my long-term collaboration with an 80-year-old grandfather and Holocaust survivor who has assumed a younger feminine persona, in both body and mind. By wearing a non-expressive female mask (or a veil that covers most of the face), a wig and tight sexy outfits, Martha challenges the conventional perception of an elderly man and defies the Jewish trauma myth by claiming that she is much younger, carefree and has different interests. In the video, she explains that since she was born after the holocaust, her interests are in what is happening now and not what happened to “her brother” in the holocaust.

 

Martha represents a radical departure from conventional parameters. She doesn't belong to any gender or age definition, even the transexuals rejected her as not being "one of them," or "real" enough. She is not totally defined or recognized. Her persona exhibits so much contradiction that it defies the viewer’s ability to create a concrete assessment of who it is and her intentions.

 

She is a poetic soul, a live performer, a diva, an authentic creation, a figurative conceptual “Art” piece, and she has a great sense of humor. So yes, the answer is that she is authentic.

 

You do a lot of work around gender, and gender identity, what fascinates you about that?

 

Growing up in Israel in a male dominant society that repressed anything that was "different." Having experienced it on a personal level, it created a sense of rebellion and awareness about feminism and gender identity from a very early age. To me, it’s more about questions than answers. We should view gender as something that can be flexible and changes over time. It can be playful and witty. The first person who inspired me was my younger brother, Gil. I began photographing him as a way to reveal our close relationship and our mutual desire to live outside the norm. The most fragile and complex part of this work is when I was documenting Gil’s transformation from male to a female, and then her transformation back to a biological male. This work challenges traditional gender roles as well as familial ones. It is a personal archaeological journey that reveals our symbiotic existence both as siblings and collaborative artists. Gil introduced me to Martha, but her sense of identity is totally different. In terms of gender, each character is different and I follow their interests and layers. Martha is about something else: age, Jewish identity, trauma, escapism, history, representations of women and fantasies. In the video Martha said, “I want a 'hottie' next to me now.” And she asked me, “So how do I define myself?” “A Lesbian,” I said and she responded, “That’s totally correct. I just like women.”

 

You moved here from Israel, how much does that identity inform your work?

 

Moving from one culture to another and leaving your “comfort zone" creates challenges. The complexities you understand and the layers you know in one culture is very different from others. It's a challenge to be specific and at the same time universal.

 

The Martha Bouke Project is local and her story is rooted in Jewish history and cultural specifics. I created collages that added new things to the language of the work. For example, the piece, Double Jew is a double collage with a yellow Star of David. The punkish, red piece, Fucked Bonny  (she's got a dick) is like a bold, witty poster or  “inappropriate” invitation. The black & white text piece, "To wonder around in the streets in the middle of the day is what I want.." was made from her own words.

 

Where do you find your subjects for your films and portraits? Pippi Longstocking, Gil, etcetera.

 

I guess we find each other. It’s an unexpected magical thing that happens and every time it's different.

 

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What was your family life like?

 

Diane Arbus said, all families are kind of strange, no? I tend to agree.

 

What did you fantasize about when you were in Tel Aviv, and what do you fantasize about now that you're in New York City?

 

I wanted to come to New York in order to meet more artists and to enter into a larger and wider conversation. I wanted to understand more about other cultures and develop my work and who I am as a person. I think it is happening.

 

Is there something you have always wanted to document in a series, but have been unable to do so? Why?

 

I need to see and meet something in order to feel it. It's a very immediate reaction.

 

Your work seems to be narrative, how much of that is your story and how much is the subjects?

 

It's mostly the subject’s story that has a specific aspect which I identify with and get involved in. The final work expresses it's own story with fictional aspects in a subjective point of view.

 

Do you feel the series on Martha Bouke is complete? How did it begin?

 

The work has been shown in New York in a solo show at Derek Eller Gallery in 2011-12 and has been reviewed in Art in America by Anne Doran, Art Fag City and more. I am still in touch with Martha and we always speak about new ideas and planning the next adventure. I believe our collaboration is forever and I never get tired of it. In the last video piece Martha’s visit at the Museum of Art was a huge surprise since it put her in the right context and I feel this can be explored more. I am also planning on publishing a book with a full interview, back stories, photographs, video stills and archival materials.

 

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What are you working on now?

 

I am going to publish an artist book this year with Little Big Man books about the project with Gil, my brother, it’s titled Let it Bleed. I will then start editing a new project titled The Radio Lady 1948-Till. I'm always open to great new things to come.

 

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