Canadian-Israeli artist Nicole Kornberg Jacobovici combines art and archaeology beneath Jerusalem’s ancient walls

Canadian-Israeli artist Nicole Kornberg Jacobovici puts the finishing touches on her ceramics exhibit in an ancient cistern, near the Western Wall (Credit: Eric Sultan)

What do art and archeology have in common? Deep beneath the earth, visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City during Sukkot got a taste of the powerful connection between the two, thanks to Canadian-Israeli artist Nicole Kornberg Jacobovici.

During a three-day exhibit from Oct. 12 to 14 entitled Arteology: The Power of the Ancients in Contemporary Forms, a wide range of her ceramic art was on display in an ancient cistern dating back to the First Temple period.

At a media event before the exhibition’s launch, she explained that she drew inspiration for the pieces on display, selected and curated by archaeologist and art historian Dr. Irit Ziffer, from a range of ancient Mediterranean and Aegean cultures—using organic forms like fish, for instance, which were common in the Etruscan civilization of ancient Italy.

“Placing my pieces within an active archaeological site allows me to have a dialogue with the ancients,” she said. “And in a sense, with people of the future, since this site reminds us that these pieces too will one day be archaeology.”

Kornberg Jacobovici has a BA from McGill and a BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NASCAD), where she majored in ceramics.

The 27 pieces selected—which included vases, plates, and circular seals, exhibited a wide variety of clays and techniques, like electric, raku, grill and obvara—showcasing clay’s unique ability to mimic a wide variety of textures and finishes like wood, glass, metal, or stone. The pieces were on display in an excavated cistern at the end of an underground tunnel route which leads tourists from the City of David, just outside the Old City walls, to the Temple cornerstone near the Western Wall.

“Nicole is a versatile artist,” said Ziffer. “This is what is so intriguing… you can see here so many examples of what you can do with clay: you can paint on it, you can impress it, you can carve it, you can fire it, and you never know what will come out of the kiln, because the kiln is very tricky.”

Clay also represents an ideal bridge to the world of archeology, explained Dr. Yuval Baruch, head of the Jerusalem District with the Israel Antiquities Authority, who helped coordinate the exhibition. Archeology would be impossible without clay shards, he said.

“Understanding the meaning of the shard, using shards to date the levels, date structures… If we look at archeology as a language, [shards] are the letters of the language.”

This was the first exhibition of its kind for Jerusalem, displaying contemporary art in an ancient setting, and Baruch said he hoped it would serve as a pilot for future projects.

“It’s not just one style of art, it’s multiple styles of art that connect to civilizations that impact the city,” he said. “Egyptian civilization, Babylonian civilization—both high society and daily life… Jerusalem is not just a holy city; there is also daily life here.”

The exhibition was organized in part by the Jerusalem Biennale, which takes place every two years at venues all over Israel’s capital city. While it’s not taking place in 2022, the organization also collaborates on smaller exhibitions at other times.

Biennale founder and director Rami Ozeri explained that it’s always challenging to introduce contemporary art into a city with such a long, rich, and sometimes divisive history. In this case, the combination of the content—contemporary ceramic art—with the unique venue, made the project irresistible.

“This is the cornerstone between the Western Wall and the south wall, and it has such a strong and deep meaning to us. It’s not a coincidence that thousands of people are outside now, like coming to this place at this time [during the festival of Sukkot].”

Though the exhibition in Jerusalem has closed, the artist is in discussion with museums in Japan, Italy, Greece, and elsewhere. She also hopes to bring her exhibition home, to the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art in Toronto.

Kornberg Jacobovici, who made aliyah in 2009 , is the wife of Israeli-Canadian director Simcha Jacobovici, known for his series The Naked Archaeologist, as well as his controversial research into archeological and historical connections around the life of Jesus.

Although she can’t transport the underground Jerusalem setting to museums worldwide, she has found a creative way to transcend the typical sterility of a museum or gallery environment. She’ll be displaying the pieces against a backdrop of high-resolution photos of the stone cistern walls, letting audiences experience some of the magical ambiance of the original location—no matter where the exhibition travels next.