Hedva Atlas Ben-David feels as if she went through a metamorphosis: in the middle of her life, at age 33, she transformed from the respectable figure of a schoolteacher, representing for her students an educational world of canonic values, patriotism and proper etiquette, to the provocative character of an artist, immersed in herself and her fantasies. She portrays this transformation as a personal confession, embodied by the act of stripping and nakedness. The teacher poised near a group of her students, during a lesson, a field trip or football practice, stark naked; or sitting at her desk, bear-breasted, stretching her arms sideways as if saying: this is me, the teacher. Accept me as I am.

Painting overtook her from the moment she accidentally came across it, with no prior preparation, no concept of what's at play. It was a sort of revelation, a pursuit that conquered her and overthrew the familiar world in which she was raised and educated at a teacher's seminary. But even after she studied painting at several establishments, and became a painter with her life centered firmly on art, she still couldn't break away from her most loyal observers – her crowd of students, whose presence – banal, naive, devoid of consciousness – she felt compelled to face again, to commemorate.

Fifteen years of teaching elementary school at the heart of the Israeli periphery – Tiberia, Jaffa, Ramat Gan and Netanya – have done their share. Something of the experience of the lingering stay at school, in the lower grades, continued to disturb Atlas Ben-David's peace of mind – persecuting her to the extent of an obsessive fixation with the site of teaching and education, who's every law and decree she adhered to in her many years as one of its loyal soldiers.

Atlas Bed-David's surprising oil paintings and ink sketches deal with a space lacking in glamour and devoid of exoticism, which suffers from exceedingly poor public relations. Never has art considered "high" dealt with elementary school students, with rows of desks, schoolbags and notebooks, board and chalk, nor with the characters of teacher and principal. The subject was never considered particularly exciting in public discourse. But the world of children, led by the teacher and principal, is reflected in Atlas Ben-David's painting in an alarming, thought provoking manner, to an extent which demands special attention. Like the American photographer Diane Arbus, Atlas Ben- David is gifted with an acute sensitivity to the odd and eccentric, and an ability to identify awkward body language, indicating embarrassment and lack of confidence. Occasions usually seen as jovial and graceful, such as the hoisting of the fruit baskets at Shavuot, or the candle dance at Hanukah, have been turned, under Atlas Ben-David's gaze, into clumsy, docile, cumbersome, events, bordering at times on the grotesque. Instead of students taking full part in the ceremony and identifying with what's taking place, the students in Atlas Ben-Davids' paintings – sort of a mix between the hallucinated figures of Bruno Schultz and the students in Tadeusz Kantor's "Dead Classroom" (1975) – seem disjointed and dumbfounded, compulsively moving in rows, never quite comprehending why they're doing what they're doing.

From the place she's in today, Atlas Ben-David recognizes through the group of students her own uncertainties: she sees the power of banality, the tyranny of dictated routine. She recognizes the power of obedience and the horror of ignorance, and recalls the hierarchy of the classroom, the need to control, to impose discipline. She recalls the poems she taught, the words she memorized, the long nights spent in her home making candle covered crowns, so that another group of children will get to banish the dark, as befits young Israeli citizens. Hedva Atlas Ben-David inquires not only into the private transformation which took her away from the blackboard, but also about the blind demands of the education system, which takes no notice of the feeling of strangeness, embarrassment or other pitfalls.

Curator: Tali Tamir

To the artist's website

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