The Exquisite Elevation and Engagement of Routine Rituals: A conversation with Ezra Benus
May 02, 2020
I first met Ezra Benus when we were both interning at the art non-profit Visual AIDS[i] in 2016. I immediately was drawn to his warm and friendly personality, his willingness to help others and most importantly, to listen and engage and soon we became friends. Through our mutual work at VA, I learned of his own personal artwork and curatorial practice, an intelligent and thoughtful practice focusing on his illness/health, his background and experience in Jewish Studies, and the embodiment of disability[ii].
He recently curated stellar group exhibition at The Laurie M. Tisch Gallery, located in the JCC Manhattan Rituals : Ezra Benus, Romily Alice Walden, Yo-Yo Lin. A contemplative exhibition that presents work by artists that “reconfigure what constitutes and marks the mundaneness of the everyday, offering insights into disability and illness as ritual [offering a way] of understanding how illness and disability have connective and ritual potential.”
In these last few months more people have been reflecting on their lives, and the lives of those living with illness. More people are being touched by the heartaches of seeing their loved ones in constant pain, resulting in feeling feeling lost, helpless, not knowing what to do or how to feel in this new version of 'normal'. With that in mind, I had the pleasure of asking Ezra some questions about his work, his practice, and life. After reading his answers, I left leaving with a deep realization that Ezra's artwork and his curatorial talent and insights are not just more relevant than ever, his work and voice are more necessary and needed.
- Ritual is something that is a part of our everyday lives, whether we realize it or not. Yet 'rituals' whether someone is consciously aware of it or not, can be a source of comfort from anxiety. The theme of "Rituals" goes into this. Can you tell me more about your understanding of 'rituals' and how you exemplified it in the show?
Rituals offer meaning in a vast world that doesn’t make sense. They can take form as really longstanding traditions that are embedded within religions, cultures, and communities; and can be something that is very personal, something specific to how one makes meaning within your chaotic life. That’s what I seek to bridge in our thinking about rituals - that they can be something prescribed onto people through tradition, and they can be something that we can also self-ascribe and create for ourselves. In the exhibition I’m really leaning into the conversation of the personal resonating outward to engage with the communal. The exhibition gives three different chronically ill and disabled artists who have created further understandings of their experiences through day-to-day rituals and show that rituals can be actions as simple as noticing/paying attention to what is happening with our body/minds at any given moment.
Rituals here are connected to care and the interconnectedness of systems, individuals, and networks of care. The art creates meaning and visualizations so then we (publics) can engage in more outward and critical conversations around understandings of illness and disability as identities and positionalities that creates and informs meanings opposed to what I think is the normalized understanding of disability as something that is passive and purely individualistic. So what does it mean for us to understand and acknowledge that unless and disability are BOTH very personal and created through societal disablement of peoples’ capacity to exist equitably in a society not built with care in mind. So that is also always compounded by negatively racialized experiences within medical industrial and political systems, largely created and informed by able-bodied white male and masculine understandings of normative bodies and capacity. If we can reveal the knowledge of our bodies, we can learn to shift priorities of care and understanding. Rituals that we can synthesis and visualize to share with others seems to be an effective way of engagement.
- The exhibition was on view at Laurie M. Tisch Gallery, part of JCC Manhattan. The theme of the show 'rituals' felt very connected and powerful to this space. Can you tell me about your experience curating this show here and about the space itself?
The space itself is in the lobby so it’s essentially a gallery that acts as the central communal space within the larger building of the juice Kennedy Center on the upper West side of Manhattan this is a bustling place of gathering and learning and doing and caring and so the people who are coming to the space or from all walks of life all relationships of Judaism all ages all different disability status is and I think that’s what makes it an ideal place to explore and expand on the personal to the communal. It was really important to me to center folks that I feel are integral to my own understanding of my disability community so having a chance to work with grandma Lee and Yo-Yo was a dream come true because I do believe that my work is of course more interesting and engaging and stronger within a discourse of work by artists you know who’s knowledge is impactful and important for me to also learn from.
- Your work has to do with your own experience living as a disabled artist and the 'rituals' that you must take part in everyday. Can you tell me more about that and how it is a part of your practice?
My practice really looks to my surroundings. Whether that be the aesthetic surroundings with the medical industrial complex and how I as an individual interact within it on an ongoing basis. Or to the objects and aspects of care that I then associate with the time of my schedule of moving through the world, from the starting of my day to the end. It’s really starting from that experience of: ‘how do I wake up? and ‘how do I answer that, how can I get through another day? And for me the objects and actions I associate are through the medications I take.
Rather than just continuing to take these medications passively, which I’ve been taking for so long, I wanted to actually see that these pills can also function as guidance through color. Through meditating on the way that these colors, that I didn’t necessarily choose or have a choice in creating (or even taking for that matter), that I can take these colors and use them for a purpose unintended. To externalize my visceral and abstract experiences of what it means to live in a non-disabled society as someone who is finally healed disabled.
The ways my paintings create attention in space, somewhat floating simultaneously creating a jagged visual experience through both the color choices and choices of using different kinds of triangles and prisms. I’m also engaging with the experiences of being a floating head being jagged. Being unsure, being bright, being sharp, and all of the different ways that illness and disability are really not a monolith and monotonous identity and experience.
- I loved looking at Yo-Yo Lin's meticulous work revolving around chronicling her life/feelings in her journals in conjunction, with Romily Alice Walden beaming light installation. At first glance the works may seem unrelated, but the intention of highlighting ideas around 'wellness' is intimately tied. Can you tell me more about the works on view of these two artists and why you were drawn to these works for "Rituals"?
I am always drawn to abstraction because I think it offers space for people to find their own meaning within it. And it is that aspect I think is important when we are understanding and listening to disability, something as abstract. An abstract extremely visceral experience to which everyone has to come to on their own terms, and to understand it’s always something fluctuating. So, when I look to artists that I admire, it is their engagement with those understandings of illness and disability.
It occurred to me that part of that work is that the number seven is being used as a metric for engaging with creating systems of art works related to time and space. Which, you know, we also construct this metric of seven as a society, seven days in a week. How we build so much around another five day work week, to today finally a rest week to having it be a complete psycho answer. These kinds of ongoing meanings of time and space through the ritual of labor productivity.
Keeping time is something that I think our society uses to contain and facilitate our ongoing society and surroundings. That is something that I found fascinating in the relationships of all of our works in the show; they look to the bodily mind experiences of the everyday and interrogating the constructs of the way time is maintained in a non-disabled influenced society. I’m also really interested in the ways that both Romily’s and Yo-Yo’s artworks engage with people outside of themselves, resulting in thinking about community as a part of the individual experience and how insulated these are. So whether it is Romily ‘s work, asking other sick and disabled people to track their work, or Yo-Yo’s creating this resilience journal that is available for others to use and track and journal their own personal resilience. As I said, community and individual are so interconnected that this is a part of the aesthetic offerings within their artworks.
- As you are the curator of the show, as well as one of the artists, what were some unexpected challenges that occurred during the process of forming this exhibition?
Luckily the process was fairly smooth some of the challenges of working with other artists is always trying to navigate the timelines that are imposed by institution versus the timelines that sick and disabled body mines live with so that I knew and was ready for and what’s interesting is being able to then work with institution to start to understand that I think that’s always a challenge but luckily the JCC arts programming run by Megan Whitman offered the assistance to put this exhibition together by supporting myself and the other artists by insisting on choice and waiting for all of us to chime in on different options and that is something that I know doesn’t always happen.
- You are one of the kindest and most talented people I have met, and it seems like you are always working on something new! Yet, you always make sure to take time to relax and re-center yourself. This is so important especially since you live in New York and are a part of the high-stress art world! If you could speak to your younger self, what advice do you wish you could have heard about the importance of balancing your health, life, and career?
Having chronic illness and being disabled doesn’t really leave much of a choice other than to take the necessary time to recharge. I don’t know if relax is the right word, but I do think recharging by taking time between events, gigs, exhibitions, etc. so as to mitigate the burnouts is the only way I can function, period. Leaning into a time-based ritual of rest of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, I understood early on that the choice vs. the right to rest are quite different.
I have class, gender presentation, and racial privileges that afford me opportunity to choose rest, and unfortunately rest is not always understood as a right. It’s hard for everyone to stay grounded and rest, especially given the unfolding of the pandemic, but embedding moments of rest as care throughout your week is integral to maintaining the capacity to live, to make work, to show up (even from bed) for my communities a perspective of understanding that art is not the most important thing in the world also helps me not lose focus on the things that are more important, like the welfare and care of one another.
Before I engaged with disability community, I had understood that the art world imposes unfair expectations of productivity; and an aloofness to the burnout culture of working for free/low wages, just for the opportunity to rise through a hierarchy. I don’t think we need to continue with that. We can disband those notions for a more generous and caring community based practice and view of the role of art and the artist as offering moments of respite and care.
Ezra Benus is an artist, educator, and curator, who addresses a range of themes in his art such as time, care, pain, and illness/health through tapping into his background and experience in Jewish Studies, art history, and embodiment of disability. Benus engages the Self as a site where social, political, and spiritual forces collide through tapping into bodily knowledge and social constructions around values of normativity. (IG:@ezrabenus www.ezrabenus.com)
Rituals : Ezra Benus, Romily Alice Walden, Yo-Yo Lin curated by Ezra Benus, and presented in partnership with ReelAbilities Film Festival on view at Laurie M. Tisch Gallery in the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, NY (February 25 - April 13, 2020)
AN ARMY OF THE SICK CAN’T BE DEFEATED: REFLECTIONS ON CARE WORK IN PERPETUAL SICK TIMES, guest essay and curatorial collaboration between Ezra and Noah Benus for Visual AIDS April 2020 Web Gallery.
Reelabilities Film Festival - Watch online "Expressions Through Art" on Sunday, April 6 – Panel Discussion with Ezra Benus, Yo-Yo Lin, and Rose Buchwald-Mcglennon, moderated by Amanda Suarez, Fountain House.
Donate to the CRIP FUND, a mutual aid fund for chronically ill, disabled, and immunocompromised people in serious financial need during this ongoing time of love, coronavirus, and apocalyptic joy & pain.
[i] Visual AIDS - “Founded in 1988, Visual AIDS is the only contemporary arts organization fully committed to raising AIDS awareness and creating dialogue around HIV issues today, by producing and presenting visual art projects, exhibitions, public forums and publications - while assisting artists living with HIV/AIDS. We are committed to preserving and honoring the work of artists with HIV/AIDS and the artistic contributions of the AIDS movement. We embrace diversity and difference in our staff, leadership, artists and audiences.” - “Statement of Values”, https://visualaids.org/about-us, February 13, 2020.
[ii] About/Contact. Ezra Benus, Accessed: April 2, 2020. https://www.ezrabenus.com/aboutcontact.html
[iii] Rituals: Ezra Benus, Romily Alice Walden, Yo-Yo Lin, curated by Ezra Benus, Press Release. The Laurie M. Tisch Gallery, New York, NY, (February 25 - April 13, 2020). https://jccmanhattan.org/arts-film/laurie-m-tisch-gallery