Lili Almog, Betweenness

JTF (just the facts): Published by Kehrer in 2023 (here). Hardcover, 144 pages, with 102 color reproductions. Includes essays by Jean Dykstra and Vered Tohar. Designed by the artist and Kehrer Design (Hannah Feldmeier). (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The work of Lili Almog, an Israeli-born New York based artist, focuses on women and their private spaces, offering intimate views into their cultural identities and spiritual lives. Her subjects are often from remote cultures, without much exposure. She says that her “intention as an artist is to enter an extremely private space without disrupting the delicate essence of communication between subject, their experience and the viewer.”

In her earlier project Perfect Intimacy, Almog photographed nuns in three Carmelite monasteries, in Israel, Palestine, and the United States. These women have dedicated their lives to God and to the service of others, and Almog’s portraits capture their state of mind and spiritual identity. In another series The Other Half of the Sky, Almog turned to Muslim minority women in China, including the Mosuo women, a unique ethnic minority and one of the last matriarchal societies. Almog’s fourth photobook titled Betweenness continues this exploration of women and their private spaces and takes inspiration from “the veiling practices of an extremist Jewish religious sect.” 

Betweenness is a hardcover book with an elegant and straightforward design. The cover of the book is a textured floral pattern reminiscent of fabric, and the title and the artist’s name appear handwritten in a light brown rectangle, and again on the spine. The photographs are printed on light brownish paper (like kraft paper) and the notes and pages numbers are handwritten with a pencil, adding a more intimate feeling. The photographs vary in their size and layout, creating a more dynamic and unpredictable visual narrative.

The idea for this body of work came from Almog’s encounter with an anonymous woman covered in black head to toe, who she saw in the Jewish quarter in Jerusalem. Almog assumed she was Muslim, but she actually belonged to the small ultra-Orthodox Jewish cult Lev Tahor, whose members practice a strict form of Orthodox Judaism and whose black outfits resemble burqas. Lev Tahor was founded in 1988 in Israel, but faced with allegations of kidnapping and child abuse, its members had to flee first to Canada and then Guatemala. The women in the community are private and insular, and while Almog befriended some of them, the women never felt comfortable enough to be photographed alone, and Betweenness includes only a few photographs of Lev Tahor women with their children. Like with her other projects, the artist used a documentary-like approach, and for this particular series, she mostly worked with models dressed in chador-like garments.

Almog hopes that the project can help to re-examine our preconceived cultural and societal notions about modesty. Veiling plays a key in major religious and social systems, and Almog explores its impact on the identity of women. It can be interpreted as harsh social control or be embraced by women as a positive choice. In her work, Almog also indicates various reasons women might wear headscarves or hijabs.

The book opens with a relatively small photograph of a woman covered in black, posing against the same backdrop pattern used on the cover as she extends her arms up creating a circle; the image is titled “Drawing Room #60”. For the “Drawing Room” series, Almog poses her models in a studio setting, controlling the environment and props used in the construction of her images (easels, pedestals, statues, drawings, paintings, etc). In another image, a woman covered in all black is seated on a bed covered with black fabric, and the easel to her left is covered with a tarp; it is in this gloomy atmosphere of the studio space that she exposes her bare arm with a tattoo reading “nasty woman”, a quietly defiant act of self expression. Tattoos as well as other small provocations, like yellow nails or robes decorated with flowers and peacocks, appear throughout the book. 

Almog’s photographs often include art historical references, creating a more complex visual narrative. In one full spread photograph, a woman is covered in black but gently lifts her skirt to expose her leg; a small statue of Venus de Milo is right behind her, as well as a number of studio supplies. In another photo, the composition is arranged so the bare legs of the model are positioned to finish the nude figure of Edouard Manet’s Olympia. There is a clear reference to male artists who for centuries controlled the depiction of nude models in their studios, with Almog replacing their nude bodies with women in more modest covered outfits, shifting the dynamic.

In the images of the “Seasons” series, her subjects appear outdoors. In a family photograph, a woman poses outside with her children, all covered head to toe in black, and a young girl peeks from behind her mother. In another shot, a woman stands next to a bare tree extending her arms up to the gray sky and the handwritten caption that runs from the blank page and continues over the image reads “why does faith require women to cover their head, their body, their soul…”. In an image titled “Season #9”, a woman stands outside under an autumn tree with her arms open, with the backdrop of autumn foliage; her powerful figure also resembles a tree and almost feels one with nature. In these staged photos, the artist shifts the expected context of the veil to discuss the complexity of the female condition.

Covered or not, the women in Almog’s photographs engagingly draw our attention. Her images pose questions about faith, culture, societal roles, and gender, yet don’t necessarily offer set or predictable answers. In testing these limits, Almog’s portraits also speak to a broader appreciation of women, their choices, and their spirituality. 

Collector’s POV: Lili Almog does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website or Instagram page (linked in the sidebar).

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